Jenny Osner changes price tags every Monday at Hired Man’s Grocery, which she runs with her husband in Conway Springs, Kansas. Lately it has taken twice as long to change the price signs.
Inflation driving up food prices by 12% according to an estimate, Osner said there were more price increases than price decreases.
Some items on the shelves have remained more stable – local products that Osner buys from neighboring small farmers.
Local products are generally more expensive than a product trucked in by a major brand. Producers do not benefit from huge economies of scale and often charge premiums for the higher quality of their products.
But local farmers are better protected against rising input costs for things like gasoline and fertilizer and have been able to keep prices more stable than the big brands.
“I think it’s a gift for this food that local producers can capitalize on,” said Sean Park of Western Illinois University’s Institute of Rural Affairs. “The food is of much higher quality and now it’s also competitively priced.”
Park said while national brands rack up costs by traveling long distances or going through middlemen, the small scale of local food insulates it from intense inflationary shocks and price volatility.
Rial Carver talks to local grocers and producers across the country. She is part of the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University and the Kansas Healthy Food Initiative.
“We’re seeing local products become more competitive and able to withstand national brand prices,” Carver said. “While prices for national brands rise, local producers may not be as affected by inflation and may be able to keep their prices the same.”
Osner watched this unfold in his egg aisle. Egg prices are almost double what they were a year ago, but local farmer Emily Beck still charged the same price.
“People of course wanted to buy his farm-fresh eggs, because it was the cheapest product in the store in that category,” Osner said. “We were browsing her eggs and the shelf was emptying pretty quickly before anyone considered the other brands.”
Beck raises chickens and vegetables in Conway Springs. She said she was also feeling the effects of inflation – her chicken feed is more expensive and she pays more for egg cartons – but she hasn’t hiked her prices the way big companies do. Cal Maine Foods had.
When Osner saw customers opting for Beck’s Eggs over the more expensive store brand, she saw an opportunity. Osner and Beck agreed to raise the price of local eggs. Even with the uptick, Beck said demand was still high and his product was still competitive with big brands.
Beck and Osner see the pains of inflation and supply shortages as a potential silver lining for local farmers and their customers.
“Warehouses are struggling to find things, so I think this is a good opportunity for more people to come in and grow produce or provide fresh eggs,” Beck said. “The public would rather have a farm-fresh egg than something that’s shipped.”
Carver said rural grocers and local farmers can work together when big businesses are stuck with inflation or supply chains.
“It’s a chance to show shoppers that they don’t have to drive 30 miles to get to the biggest store, they can find real food from the community, right at home,” she said. . “Small town grocers and local producers should discuss how to showcase the special offer they bring to the table.”
After all, often all it takes is a bite of fresh tomato to win over a customer, Carver said.
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @Ekrembert
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM