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Farmers' Market asks South Kitsap Helpline to raise its prices to be more in line with other vendors

Vendors at the Port Orchard Farmer’s Market have requested that South Kitsap Helpline raise its prices when it participates in the market. - File photo
Vendors at the Port Orchard Farmer’s Market have requested that South Kitsap Helpline raise its prices when it participates in the market.
— image credit: File photo

Port Orchard Farmers’ Market vendors have requested that South Kitsap Helpline raise the prices it charges when it participates in the market so as to level the playing field with its commercial competitors.

Acting Manager Barbara Fangen said in a May 27 e-mail to Helpline Executive Director Jennifer Hardison, “I have observed, and we have discussed, that some of your prices are considerably lower than the rest of the vendors’ prices at the market. This is a concern because it is hurting our other vendors’ sales substantially. Most of our core vendors, those who have been at our market over 10 years, are suffering a 17 to 20 percent loss in sales.

“In addition,” she said, “I have heard complaints from our customers who think that, when compared to the Helpline, our other vendors are price gouging. Our farmers cannot afford to sell for less than their current prices because of the costs and labor involved in raising their plants.

“In an effort to cut their losses, these long time vendors could stop selling at our market and go to other markets where they are not undercut on pricing. Many of the vendors have voiced their concerns about your prices.”

This is Helpline’s first year participating in the Farmer’s Market, and the change came about because the agency this spring moved into the former Port Orchard Nursery, enabling it to grow its own produce, which it sells to support its mission to assist low-income South Kitsap families.

“Would you please raise your prices,” Fangen requests, “to be more in accord with the rest of the vendors and closer to retail pricing (taking into account normal materials, labor, overhead, income tax costs a business must pay) starting this Saturday?”

According to Fangen, a survey of local retail stores — Ace Hardware, Fred Meyer, Lowes, Walmart and Home Depot — shows (before sales tax) a cost of $2.50 for 4-inch tomato plants, $3.30 for 2.6-quart tomatoes (currently on sale at Ace) and up to $5.99 for gallon tomatoes.

“(Helpline’s) plants are bigger than all of these,” she said, “so I am fairly certain you should be able to charge accordingly.”

Fangen concludes, “In the long run, raising your prices will only bring in more dollars for the Helpline, which is the ultimate goal, and since you may not use this fundraising approach in following years, help the market hold its long-time vendors.”

The Farmer’s Market board was scheduled to discuss the topic at its bi-monthly meeting on Thursday.

In a written response to Fangen’s request following the discussions at the board meeting, Helpline supporter Michael Von Ditter warned, “I hope you are ready for the storm this will cause and the damage to your other vendors that are not selling plants. Last time I checked, price-fixing is illegal. 

“Also,” he said, “I don’t see Socialistic ideas going over very well in Port Orchard. Has it dawned on anyone that they probably sell more product just because they are the food bank?

“Any way one might look at this,” von Ditter said, “it is a bad idea. More so for the market than the food bank.”

Von Ditter said he, too, had taken the time to compare the costs of some of Helpline’s plants with Ace and Lowe’s, and they were literally just a little lower than the advertised price. 

“I think the concern here,” he said, “is that the e-mail I saw (written by Fangen) basically implied they have to raise their prices or they would no longer be able to pay the same fees as the other vendors and still have a market space. 

“Yes,” he said, “it was noticed that they did raise some of their prices, but it was also noticed that they were moved to a less-than-desirable location considering the size of their booth.”

Von Ditter further noted that Helpline’s pricing structure wasn’t based on a one-time fundraising model.

“SKHL has paid employees working the market each Saturday,” he said, “as well as paid employees running the organization and working on the garden project. The cost of feeding the 8,000-plus people they feed on a regular basis is unfortunately not subsidized. They have a large mortgage that must be met along with all of the usual utilities and employee labor costs that any other enterprise has.

“Forcing the Helpline Food Bank out of the Farmer’s Market,” he said, “is not a win for anyone.” 

Farmer’s Market President Laura Pittman-Hewitt countered that, “You are correct it is not legal (or right) to fix prices. Yes, our manager did ask them to consider increasing some of their prices, as they are basically charging well below retail and even wholesale on some items. It sometimes happens that new vendors will lowball their pricing because they haven’t figured out expenses and profits. 

Pittman-Hewitt said she especially resented the reference to Socialism.

“Is it capitalism to you,” she asked, “for a nonprofit corporation with capital grants, donated supplies, volunteer labor, and no income taxes to pay (in short, subsidized) to sell at below-wholesale cost and compete in our ‘free-market’ environment with for-profit business that do not have these advantages? There is no level playing field, nor could there ever be. 

“No one on our board or staff ever suggested they charge the same prices,” Pittman-Hewitt said, “only that they were priced below even the lowest retail pricing in our area and could charge more, making more money for the food bank. Apparently they agreed, as I was told some of their prices increased somewhat this past weekend.”

Pittman-Hewitt described the Farmers Market as a nonprofit institution whose purpose has been to “bring farmers and consumers together in our county for over 30 years. 

“No doubt,” she said, “rumors and gossip and speculation are out there, and I’m pretty sure a lot of it is inaccurate.”

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