Meet the market // Local food and lipstick

What do farmers markets like Kingfield’s and makeup have in common?

No, really. It’s not the first line of a joke. In what we all now know as the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, both sectors are growing and thriving.

Farmers markets are “up” by all measures. The USDA reports steady growth in market sales and direct farm-to-consumer purchases. So far, the Kingfield Farmers Market is experiencing a record sales year.

The USDA Agricultural Census shows that direct farmer-to-household-consumer sales rose 49 percent from 2002 to 2007.  Meanwhile, farmers markets are up 6.8 percent nationwide since mid-2006.

That farmers market sales should increase during hard economic times is in some ways intuitive. Peak-of-the-season produce at local farmers markets often beats out even the lowest supermarket prices when you compare the price per pound. And that’s before controlling for premium freshness and the fact that many local growers use little or no chemical inputs.

In short, at the market you can often find produce of unparalleled quality for among the lowest prices in town.

Still, shopping at the farmers market can hardly be summed up as “cheap.”

Despite the economic advantages of “cutting out the middle man” by buying directly from the producer, consumers at farmers markets do not benefit from the price supports, subsidies and large-scale buying privileges enjoyed when buying corporate food products at big supermarkets. At the market, we are paying the “real cost” of food — and for a lot of products, that’s significantly more than we are used to paying.

Many of the best-selling items at local markets — pasture-raised meats, cave-aged cheeses, raw honey, artisan bread — command a much higher market value than highly processed versions of the same products at the grocery store.

So why are farmers markets still thriving in this recession? Maybe fresh berries, local cheeses, and heirloom vegetables have more in common with makeup than you think.

Retail sales have been down in every category except one: cosmetics. Apparently Mary Kay had one of its best years ever in 2008. The Lacrosse Tribune quotes a Mary Kay contractor explaining why her sales continue to increase: “People still need to feel good and do things for themselves, but it’s easier on the pocketbook if it is makeup instead of a new outfit or a new car.”

Dhaval Joshi, an analyst with RAB Capital, refers to this as the “lipstick effect”: “The evidence shows that when budgets are squeezed, people simply substitute large extravagances for small luxuries.”

(Can’t afford that vacation this summer? Maybe the spiced mini-donuts at the Chef Shack will cheer you up on Sunday…)

Maybe the weekend ritual of coming down to market represents for many folks just that: affordable luxury. But I have to believe there is a little more to it than that.

Other needs and desires arise in consumers — also known as human beings — during an economic downturn. Maybe there is a yearning for community, connectedness, and face-to-face interactions. Perhaps we have a more nagging urge to incorporate our values into our daily lives. It could well be that many of us have so tired of seeing the failures of our financial system that we are taking this opportunity to support an economic model that is more sound, more honest, and more likely to take us safely into
the future.

To have the choice to make purchases driven by our values, rather than bare economic necessity, is surely a luxury. Maybe, though, at this moment in history, it is one of the last small luxuries that we are willing to forgo. You know, along with lipstick.


Betsy Ranum has worked as a vendor at the Kingfield Farmers Market, the Mill City Farmers Market, and the Minneapolis Farmers Market. She has a degree in economics and is a regular shopper and volunteer for the Kingfield Farmers Market. Betsy lives in Kingfield.

Kingfield Farmers Market

The market runs every Sunday through October, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 43rd & Nicollet. It features locally grown food, music and more. For more information, visit


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