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Dirt Cheap?

Many households consider fresh organic produce out-of-reach, but in recent years, the gap between the supermarket and the market garden cost has closed. BELLA CLEARY takes a closer look at what Wairarapa has to offer.

A recent national survey by Farmers’ Market New Zealand suggests buying local, organic produce directly from the grower could be cheaper than buying the same produce in supermarkets.

At a local level, a $35 box of organic produce from Wairarapa grower Little Farms was found to be cheaper than the same products priced at three leading supermarkets – with the combined total coming to an eyewatering total of $56.62 at one of them. Little Farm’s Owner Alex Morrissey said these comparative prices will probably come as something of a surprise to many, due to preconceptions that ‘organic’ equals ‘expensive’.

“The stigma is so intense, at points we’ve questioned whether we even tell people our stuff is organic because we’re struggling to sell it when it’s labelled as such, Morrissey said.

“People think they can’t afford it without looking at the prices or looking into it.”

Morrissey said a cost comparison she conducted herself a month ago with one of Little Farm’s $45 boxes showed the same collection of products to be nearly $15 more expensive at a supermarket.

“There have been some weeks where we have been considerably cheaper than supermarkets, which is insane because we’re organic as well,” she said.

Despite data showing buying locally and organic is cheaper, Morrissey said support for their business fluctuates depending on external factors like covid and Cyclone Gabrielle.

“It kind of feels like when people are concerned with local food supply or if shelves in the supermarkets are empty, they come to us.”

Morrissey said this unpredictable demand makes business difficult for local growers, as they are constantly “at the mercy of public feeling at a certain time”.

Community Shared Agriculture [CSA] is a system that some growers are beginning to adopt to address the variable nature of the market and help alleviate any external pressures growers face.

One of those growers, Vagabond Vege based out of Greytown, offers a seasonal CSA system in which subscribers commit to an entire season of produce.

Saskia Wanklyn – who is part of Vagabond Vege’s operations team – said the CSA system is a challenge to conventional ways of selling vegetables, which is often high risk for the grower.

“Farmers are constantly bearing the risk of farming when there’s crop failure and weather events. It’s the farmer who takes that risk and it’s the farmer who will lose that money,” she said.

“With CSA, we’re saying we’re going to share responsibility, risks, and abundance together.”

Wanklyn said events like covid and Cyclone Gabrielle show how fragile the wider food system is.

“When the cyclone hit and there was a loss of produce up north, suddenly people were like ‘ah, local food’.

“They forget it’s imperative we shift towards local food for so many reasons.”

Wanklyn said she agreed with Morrissey that there is still a misconception about the term ‘organic.’

“It makes you think ‘bougie’, ‘middle class’, ‘millennials’, ‘expensive’. But then you look at the price comparisons and it’s basically the same price as the supermarkets.”

Sales manager of Jina’s World of Fresh Produce Phil Simms said the term organic is still one that people associate with paying more.

“As soon as you stick the word organic in there, you automatically think ‘yeah, I’m going to be paying through the nose’.”

But Simms noted it is not as simple as saying all local organic produce is now cheaper than supermarket groceries, and that the ‘muddy waters’ of food production means that every situation differs from the next.

“Each grower, each set of circumstances is different from the next,” Simms said.

“Saying organic is less expensive is a generalisation, but you will always find instances where you’re getting extra value depending on the season and what’s available.”

Government moving towards unit pricing transparency

The government has proposed new unit pricing measures that would help shoppers make educated decisions at the checkout and improve competition at the supermarket.

Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Duncan Webb announced the proposal yesterday.

He said the government aimed to introduce rules that would require supermarkets to clearly display unit pricing – such as the price of a product per kilogram or litre.

“New Zealanders need this type of information to make informed choices when they shop. It’s particularly helpful where products are sold in different sized packaging and by different brands,” Dr Webb said.

He said the cost of living is the number one issue for the government, and the rising cost of groceries is an issue it’s trying to address.

“We’re putting new rules in place to give better information to consumers about the best deal for their needs,” Webb.

“Once in force, unit pricing will be mandatory in supermarkets. It will also be required in online grocery stores and in some forms of advertising,” Webb said.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment has now opened consultation on the draft regulations that would enforce the new unit pricing standard.

The consultation will run for four weeks and closes on May 12.

Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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