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duajones January 11, 2009 05:58 PM

Pricing your tomatoes
I have recently been to a local farmers market and there were several locals there selling tomatoes among other things. Price was 2.00 lb and I bought some even though I had plenty at home because I wanted to compare. One guy said he had around 600 plants with most of them being Celebrity and Carnival. He was also selling a cherry and I asked him what variety it was and he replied "cherry tomato" Anyway, the Celebrity and Carnival were just decent, not as good as the two hybrids I had in my garden this fall. Valley Girl and Bush Early Girl. Honestly, they werent much better than store bought. The cherry type were real thick skinned and mealy, not one I would buy from him again even if I didnt grow my own. I talked with him the following week and asked him if he had ever thought about growing an heirloom type. He said he had thought about it but wondered how productive they would be as he averaged around 20-25 lbs or better per plant. Asked me what I thought they would sell for. I mentioned that Whole Foods in Austin sells them for 5.99 lb and that they should at least bring twice what he was currently getting if not 5.00 lb. because I feel that they taste at least twice as good. I wasnt trying to offend the guy but I dont think he liked what I said. I heard several people at the market raving about this particular persons tomatoes, yet I wasnt impressed at all. So if they are getting 2.00 lb for a really average tomato, would 4 to 5 dollars a lb be out of line?

Another gentleman that used to grow for market but cant do it anymore sells tomatoes on the side of the road here in town for 3.50 lb. He drives to the valley and buys them by the box. This summer he was selling Top Gun and while they were ok, still not as good as the hybrids I have grown in my own back yard, yet he sells out every single time and people rave about them. He puts out a sign that says "vine ripe tomatoes" and people go nuts over them.

Those of you that grow for market, what do you sell your heirloom varieties for? I am not planning on selling tomatoes, just curious

GIZZARDFARM January 11, 2009 07:54 PM

Here in my area of TN many people have gardens so I sell mine cheaper than most located around cities. I get 1.50 lb for hybrids and 2.00 lb for heirlooms..gizzard

natural January 11, 2009 10:53 PM

Around our metropolitan area, we sold heirloom tomatoes for $4 to $5 lb, depending on many factors (time of season, type of farmers market etc).


goodwin January 11, 2009 11:46 PM

And I get $5 or better a pound at the beginning of the season. That's for the open-pollinated varieties. I don't grow commercial hybrids, though every once in a while I'll trial one. They sell for maybe $3 a pound at the market.

Wi-sunflower January 12, 2009 08:18 AM

Yah, it will totally depend on your market and what the other growers are doing volume and pricewise.

If you don't have anyone else growing heirlooms AND you are able to sample them, you should be able to get a premium price over 'normal' tomatoes.

In my biggest market, I have plenty of other growers that also do heirlooms. I also have quite a few growers that are 'certified organic' and REALLY get a premium for everything.

Unfortunately I also have a couple of 'big' growers that use lots of chemicals and often bring beautiful looking produce at lower than average prices. While we can usually get a better price than those big growers, we can't go too high or we price ourselves out of the market. You have to stay in the 'ball park' with the rest of the sellers unless you have something really unique.

Every market is different tho and you really need to know your customers.

My biggest market has plenty of customers that aren't afraid to pay for quality. Hubby's market is more black and can't afford some of the higher priced stuff, but they will buy items that just don't sell well at my market at all, like greens.

Another thing about markets -- if you are the 'new kid' at an established market expect to have a dificult time for a year or 2 until you get known. The big exception to that is if you have something that not many others at your market have.

I got started at market gardening selling the in-laws Asparagus, hundreds of pounds every Saturday for 4-8 weeks. I had THAT market pretty much to myself. BUT after asparagus, I had the same stuff all the other grower had and I couldn't hardly sell enough to cover my gas. Eventually I found crops I liked and grew well that others hadn't tried. At that time my niche was mainly 'ethnic' crops, Mexican, Asian and Arabic.

Enough for now. This is too long already.

brokenbar January 12, 2009 08:40 AM

The "Specialty" tomatoes sell big. The "blacks" are currently very hot as well as some "whites". I had a chef tell me last week the "white" tomato sauce is currenlty in vogue big time. He says they are serving the white sauces with seafood. They also like the "bi-color" tomatoes as this chef says they make such a beautiful presentation when sliced (he actually told me he uses some big yellow/red bi-colors fpr a roasted, herbed sliced tomato appetizer.) It is also my experience that if you can convince customers that something is new or rare or very "in" they are wiling to pay whatever. I also wanted to add that locally (we do have a large hispanic farming community) tomatillos and hot peppers sell very well and for good money (they seem to like plain jalapenos and the long, chili relleno peppers like Serrano.) I grow two larger varieties of tomatillo, Maje & Burgess Giant. They each produce an overabundance of tennis ball-sized fruit. I sold probably a couple hundred pounds last year (I rarely even sell fresh tomatoes but someone advised several hispanic family that I had tomatillos.) Where I am, we havea free mini-paper and we can place ads in it for free. Another firned of mine offers her tomatoes and she says her phone rings off the hook.

I have theories about the re-emergence of growing a "truck" garden and a re-awakened interest in canning...
I am sure that the economy plays a large part but I also think people are starting to get very concerned about what they are eating and where it comes from. With rising fuel, water and labor costs (no more undocumented workers) Big growers in California are calling it quits. More and more of what we eat is coming from South America and other countries.I saw melons all last winter at our local grocery marked "product of Chile" Who know's how those commercial growers are regulated and heaven only knows what's in or on the produce we are being sold? Were I to sell fresh, I would hammer that home as a selling point for fresh, locally grown produce that is chemical free (there are many ways to say "organic" without saying it.)

Wi-sunflower January 12, 2009 08:54 AM

Yes, i really saw that concern about WHERE the produce is coming from last summer at my markets.

With the late winter 'tomato' scare that the USDA couldn't get a handle on for so long, lots of the commercial growers in Florida said that really killed their season and they lost money big time.

But the farmers markets seemed to do well with a lot of those same things BECAUSE customers can 'make a connection' with the grower and know who and what their produce is all about.

BTW, when that tomato scare first came out, I told Hubby that they would eventually find that the contaminated stuff came from Mexico or elsewhere out of the country where often the water used for irrigation is little more than 'open sewer' water. As usual the govt people over think things and don't use common sense to figure out the obvious. Tho it took more than 3 months, I was proved right about the source of the problem.

Jimche May 7, 2009 07:58 AM

This is a great thread! I have a few questions about selling heirloom tomatoes and peppers, and would appreciate any help some of you very experienced folks might provide.

One thing I'm wondering is: What percentage of the full retail price can I expect to be paid for my crop, selling to supermarkets and restaurants? One local store indicated they would buy all of our heirlooms, and I know that they will sell the tomatoes for $6.00 per pound. We have not discussed what our price to them would be.

Also, I have heard that restaurants pay the full retail price for heirlooms, presumably around $5.00 or $6.00 a pound in my area. Is this likely to be true?

I've been thinking of advertising in a local paper to get some other sources of sales. Anyone have any thoughts or experience with doing that? This is a pretty good area for selling heirloom veggies, locally grown without chemicals, so I am cautiously optimistic.

Thanks for any help!


Wi-sunflower May 7, 2009 08:47 AM

If you can sell DIRECT to the restaurants, they will pay pretty much whatever you want as long as it's high quality.

Selling to stores is another thing. Generally you are very lucky if you get 1/2 of what they turn around and re-sell it for. In my area, none of the stores are even allowed to buy locally. They HAVE to go thru their regional warehouses. I did have a contact with 1 of them years ago and did sell to them for a few years, but it was more trouble than it was worth.

In my area there are a few independent "co-op" type stores that will buy local, but I haven't worked with them on anything much.

At my farmers markets the price for tomatoes varies a lot. Right now with only greenhouse and hydroponic tomatoes at the market, prices are $5-6 / lb. As the season goes on it will drop to about 2 -2.50 just before field tomatoes come on the market. When the field tomatoes come on, the price will drop to $1/lb or even less in bulk.

BUT if you have really nice perfect looking tomatoes you can put a variety name on, people will still pay a bit more than what they will for the average nameless red tomato.

Sorry I can't be more specific.

Oh if you have some kind of extension service or possibly a local "service club" they may have some kind of program to match chefs and growers. At the worst you could send those clubs and chamber of commerce groups a flyer with your info that they could give to restaurant/chef members.


feldon30 May 7, 2009 09:34 AM

Good heirlooms I would say $3.99. Main thing is going to be sampling and really showcasing the fact that your tomatoes are different. Gotta talk em up and give out lots of samples.

huntoften May 7, 2009 11:19 AM

I think this will be the first year I try and sell tomatoes. I've sold plants to chefs of high end restaurants before though. The only advertising I do besides word of mouth is through craigslist might try this in your area and see how it works. Besides restaurants, you may have a few gourmands wanting to pay a premium price for a premium fruit.:yes:

Jimche May 7, 2009 08:49 PM

Thanks again for all the great feedback. The issue of DIRECT selling to chefs is big with me. Middleman might actually provide value for another grower, but I don't see one being useful to us. There was an article in the paper recently about one of these locally grown veggie distributors. Good for him, starting a business and all, but the idea of someone getting between me and my customer irks me. How much of my price would the middle-man expect to take? I run two businesses because I like having some control over my destiny (or at least the illusion of it). If I make the distributor guy my customer instead of going direct, I leave myself with basically one customer, instead of a larger base of several restaurants. What's to stop him from low-balling me on price? Probably nothing, and my guess is that's figured into his business plan. No thanks.

Of course, these are just the ramblings of someone brand new to this business. If I'm way off base, please let me know!

The 3.99 price is good (better than 4.00) and the Craigslist idea is great. Saw people selling heirloom seedlings on there for $3.00 each, so some might want to buy the tomatoes via that route, also.



Wi-sunflower May 8, 2009 08:50 AM

You are right about the "middleman" issues.

I used to sell some things thru what is called the "commission market". Basically you take stuff you have a lot of and pack it in a commercial waxed box and take it to a "broker" that sells it for you and takes a "commission" off the top.

Sometimes they have to "work" to sell your stuff, sometimes it pretty much sells itself and they have next to no work to do.

I got mad when I found out that my box of produce was being sold to other farmers that just didn't grow that item but wanted to stock it at their farm stand. The broker wasn't doing any work at all as those farmers were also bringing other things in and were "there" anyway. What got me mad was the fact that He charged them $12 but I only got $5 of that, and the box cost me $1. He was making more than I was, for doing nothing.

So be careful about any "broker" or "agent" type of deal that might sound good at first. Yes it takes a lot of time to sell your stuff. Time you could be spending tending to the crop. It's a real balancing act.

After I got mad and quit wholesaling altogether, the next year our total sales dropped by about 25-30%. But we paid more attention to our farmers markets and sales there increased. The big plus tho with dropping the wholesale stuff was the fact that I didn't have to get up in the middle of the nite to deliver it at 4 AM. I also was able to cut my labor costs by nearly 1/2 that next year. So while the total sales were down, my net was up.

So many things to think about.


Jimche May 8, 2009 07:40 PM

"So many things to think about."

That is a true statement. Thank you for the experienced advice, Carol. I will try to follow it.

Since I want to avoid the commoditization that would go with being just another supplier to a broker or agent, I'm considering how I might position myself so that the customers (restaurants and perhaps supermarkets) would prefer to purchase directly from me, rather than through the broker. If the broker isn't lazy, he should be able to bring diverse offerings, probably more than even an ambitious individual grower can do. He's running a business, so he probably has the basics of customer service figured out and likely handles things professionally. The customer might prefer to deal with a single supplier, rather than going direct with lots of growers. To stand out under those circumstances, we probably have to offer 1) sought after varieties that the broker does not have access to 2) conveniences the broker does not offer. These are just general ideas...the devil is in the details. Sorry, this has turned into something other than a "Quick Reply".

Wi-sunflower October 15, 2009 10:17 AM

I thought I would add a few experiences I had this summer.

At my main Madison market we aren't allowed to sample anything we have to cut to make the sample. So sampling the large tomatoes is out. But we CAN give out samples of the small cherry types. Giving the samples and having names on them really sold a lot of tomatoes this summer even tho I had plenty of competition. I never had to go under $2 / pint this year either.

When we had our Tomato Tasting day we had people taste what we could find that was ripe and then they would go out and find those varieties they liked and pick them themeselves for $2 / lb. We sold about 150 lbs that day.

We used our experiences that day the following week at our Labor Day market. There we COULD give samples of anything. This market is notorously CHEAP tho, especially about tomatoes. They usually want a Bu for something like $12 - 15. Even $2 / lb is HIGH for that market.

But we gave samples of at least a dozen great heirlooms like Cuostralee, Vjera's, NAR, Orange Russian 117, Lithuanian and others plus all the cherries. We sold several $5 tomatoes (2.5 lbs) that day and no one complained at all as they had just tasted them and knew how great they were even tho they weren't perfect looking tomatoes.


Something I forgot to mention before that MAY have a large bering on how you try to sell in your area. The Mafia. While Milwaukee isn't known as a Mafia stronghold, they DO pretty much control the wholesale produce market here. Many restaurants won't buy "local in season" because they are afraid they wouldn't be able to get the produce they need "out of season".

It's not as bad as it used to be 20 years ago, but that is still a factor. Just be careful you don't step on any toes. The Broker may have the connections needed to do a business like that. Basically the bigger the city the more chance you might have a problem. Small towns I wouldn't worry about.


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