Farmers markets feel fuel pinch

Franca Tantillo puts rising fuel prices in the same category as the springtime hail storm that wiped out part of her strawberry crop. Both cut into the profit she can make at the farmers markets she sells at in New York City, about 135 miles south of her farm.

Like Tantillo, market farmers nationwide face exponentially rising costs for fuel, fertilizer and animal feed that could force them to hike prices that are already often higher than grocery stores.

It couldn't come at a worse time for farmers; their customers are also feeling squeezed by inflation.

Tantillo estimates about half the money she takes in on a given day at the market now goes to cover costs related to transportation. She drives a van that carries less but is more fuel efficient than her old panel truck. She even skipped an entire month of selling in the city because she didn't think the returns would be worth the expense.

“I'm a small grower,” she said recently, as she stood at her table laden with $4 quarts of strawberries and other produce from her “Berried Treasures” farm in Cooks Falls, N.Y. “And I'm trying not to raise prices.”

While farmers markets have a long history in the U.S., the Department of Agriculture says the number across the country nearly doubled in the past decade – to nearly 4,400 in 2006 – as more consumers embraced buying locally produced food.

Sometimes housed in a historic downtown building, sometimes a collection of vendors gathered in a city park or parking lot, such markets typically feature seasonal produce, meats and handcrafted cheeses sold by small farmers directly to consumers. The markets often add baked goods and other prepared foods for sale.

Farmers have always faced an array of uncontrollable factors like pests and weather, but this year fuel prices have joined the list.

Rising oil and natural gas prices have hit farmers in myriad ways: dramatic cost increases for fertilizers and animal feed; higher charges for plastic supplies for greenhouses and irrigation systems for fields; larger energy bills for heating greenhouses and soaring prices for diesel used to fuel farm equipment and the trucks that carry their products to the markets. Even the plastic bags they put their products in are more expensive this year.

“To fill up a tractor now is like $300 or $400. It used to be $60,” said Todd Griffith of TG Farms in Newcastle, Okla.

Griffith cut the number of markets he sells at this year to two from four, eliminating drives of 25 miles and 40 miles because the return at the smaller markets was too low.

He also used to drive about 200 miles to Dallas to pick up produce from other farmers to supplement his offerings. “I don't go down there anymore,” he said. “If I don't grow it, I don't sell it.”

Many farmers now have had no choice but to pass the rising costs on to their customers.