Some consumers choosing farmers markets, delivery to supplement store purchases

Food prices surged in the final quarter of 2011, resulting in a 4.8 percent increase in prices throughout the course of the year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That increase was not as steep as the costliest year in the past decade, 2008, when prices shot up 6.4 percent compared with 2007, but the increase means a higher starting point for consumers in 2012.

According to the USDA's Economic Research Service, grocery-store prices will increase by 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent by the end of 2012.

In real dollars, that increase means that last year's gallon of whole milk, which ended the year at an average cost of $3.57 per gallon, could reach $3.69 per gallon, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Food prices went up quite a bit in 2011, and it looks like they're going to go up more," said Ricky Volpe, research economist with the ERS. "I wouldn't go so far as to say this is bad news, that food prices are not going down. It just means that, basically, it looks like in 2012, we're going to return to normalcy."

Beyond grocery stores

Chad Williams runs Eulogia Farms in Kyle and sells vegetables, chickens and eggs directly to customers at area farmers markets, including the year-round San Marcos market.

He said that one of his biggest expenses—directly tied to commodity and fuel costs—is feed for his chickens.

"Feed prices go up, that's for sure. That's the one thing that will always go up," he said. "Any time that the price of gas goes up, any time that we want to take corn and use it for fuel, that means corn's going to get more expensive. Mine's organic, non-GMO [genetically modified] corn, but it's going to go up in price because it's more commodified now."

In the past year and a half, Williams said, he has seen the cost of feed go from about 29.5 cents per pound to 41.5 cents per pound. And when all those costs increase, Williams said, he has to raise prices for his customers.

"It comes to a point where you really don't want to ask the consumer for more money for the product. I feel ashamed to ask them for that much money, I really do," he said.

When he began farming his 4 acres nearly five years ago, Williams sold his eggs for $3 per dozen. He now charges $5 per dozen.

"I feel that the most impoverished people should be able to eat our food, but farmers don't have to be paupers, either," he said. "We have to be able to make a living for ourselves."

Consumer-supported agriculture

Tim Miller has been making a living as a farmer since 1989, when he began selling his farm's radishes and green onions to Whole Foods Market.

"That worked really well, but I wanted to do a little bit more than just radishes and green onions," said Miller, who runs Millberg Farm in Kyle.

Miller's customers are now all members of what is known as a CSA—Consumer Supported Agriculture—a subscription service for fresh food.

Millberg Farm was the first CSA in Texas, Miller said, and has been certified organic since he began it. His farm also relies solely on rainwater for irrigation.

He serves 25 customers with his produce. Each customer pays $7 per bag of groceries that Miller delivers once a week.

Miller said his reasons for keeping prices low are simple

"I like families with kids [and] I don't want to rule out anybody that's low-income," he said. "I realize I'm underpriced. "

Miller said he tends to grow crops that would be expensive if they were purchased at a grocery store.

Niederwald resident Eva White has been a member of Miller's CSA for a couple of months.

"I buy it because it's fresh, it's organic and it's what's in season. And, of course, it's less than purchasing it at Central Market or making extra trips to farmers markets," White said.

She said the benefits extend beyond the cost, too.

"The best news is, I've lost five pounds in two weeks because we're actually eating the vegetables," she said with a laugh. "I've discovered fresh beets are actually good."

Another CSA member, Kyle resident Janet Conte, said Miller's deliveries have changed the way she and her family eat.

"The way it changed us personally is that we eat at home a lot more now," Conte said. "We have a certain amount of time that we have to eat this and take advantage of this food. It's been a really great benefit for us."

Both women said they use Miller's deliveries to supplement what they buy at H-E-B, a process Williams said is the goal of an organic farmer.

"We'd like people to come here [to a farmers market] before they go to the grocery stores. Whatever we don't have, supplement with the grocery store," he said. "We want people to realize that we are as much of a force to be reckoned with as the grocery stores."