NEW YORK Franca Tantillo puts rising fuel prices in the same category as the springtime hail storm that wiped out part of her strawberry crop. Both cut into the profit she can make at the farmers markets she sells at in New York City, about 135 miles south of her farm. Like Tantillo, market farmers nationwide face exponentially rising costs for fuel, fertilizer and animal feed that could force them to hike prices that are already often higher than grocery stores.
It couldn't come at a worse time for farmers. Their customers are also feeling squeezed by inflation.
Tantillo estimates about half the money she takes in on a given day at the market now goes to cover costs related to transportation. She drives a van that carries less but is more fuel-efficient than her old panel truck. She even skipped an entire month of selling in the city because she didn't think the returns would be worth the expense.
"I'm a small grower," she said recently, as she stood at her table laden with $4 quarts of strawberries and other produce from her Berried Treasures farm in Cooks Falls, N.Y. "And I'm trying not to raise prices."
While farmers markets have a long history in the U.S., the Department of Agriculture says the number across the country nearly doubled in the last decade to nearly 4,400 in 2006 as more consumers embraced buying locally produced food.
"It's definitely something that has always existed in urban areas, but it's really just in the last 20 years that now every little town has a farmers market," said Lynn Byczynski, who publishes a newsletter and Web site called Growing for Market.
Sometimes housed in a historic downtown building, sometimes a collection of vendors gathered in a city park or parking lot, such markets typically feature seasonal produce, meats and handcrafted cheeses sold by small farmers directly to consumers. The markets often add baked goods and other prepared foods for sale.
The size varies from the half-dozen who sell at the St. George Greenmarket on Staten Island, New York City's smallest borough, to the nearly 200 that line the streets surrounding the Capitol Square in Madison, Wis., each Saturday at the Dane County Farmers' Market, which bills itself as the country's largest. Salt Lake City's farmers' market on Saturdays in Pioneer Park also has become popular in recent years.
Farmers have always faced an array of uncontrollable factors like pests and weather that can affect their income, but this year fuel prices have joined the list.
Rising oil and natural-gas prices have hit farmers in myriad ways: dramatic cost increases for fertilizers and animal feed; higher charges for plastic supplies for greenhouses and irrigation systems for fields; larger energy bills for heating greenhouses and soaring prices for diesel used to fuel farm equipment and the trucks that carry their products to the markets. Even the plastic bags they put their products in are more expensive this year.
"To fill up a tractor now is like $300 or $400, it used to be $60," said Todd Griffith, owner of TG Farms in Newcastle, Okla.
Griffith cut the number of markets he sells at this year to two from four, eliminating drives of 25 miles and 40 miles because the return at the smaller markets was too low. He also used to drive about 200 miles to Dallas to pick up produce from other farmers to supplement his offerings. "I don't go down there anymore," he said. "If I don't grow it, I don't sell it."
Many farmers now have had no choice but to pass the rising costs on to their customers.
"They're business people, so they're going to be figuring out the dollars and cents of all of it," said Erin Barnett, director of Local Harvest, which operates a Web site with a national directory of local food programs.
But some are concerned they won't be able to compete with the large grocery chains, said Dave Stockdale, executive director of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which runs the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco.
"The way one explained it was, for large stores and supermarkets, they can cover some of these costs with very incremental raises," he said. "You can take something from $2.89 a pound to $2.99 a pound, the consumer doesn't even really notice."
But at farmers markets, where produce and other items are sold in smaller quantities and often to the same customers each week, "it doesn't really work that way," Stockdale said.