How Low has the Farm Share of Retail Food Prices Really Fallen?
by Hayden Stewart
Economic Research Report No. (ERR-24) 23 pp, August 2006
The Economic Research Service estimates the share of retail food
prices that farmers earn for producing various commodities.
Estimates are based on baskets of foods representative of what a
typical American household buys at a retail foodstore for at-home
consumption during 1 year, compared with the revenues earned by
farmers for a corresponding basket of agricultural commodities. In
recent decades, the farm share of consumer food expenditures has
What Is the Issue?
To facilitate the calculation of an annual market basket data
series, ERS works with the same consumer baskets that have been
used since 1982-84. Researchers working with these baskets need
only to follow changes in farm and retail prices over time. The
value of the consumer baskets is updated using measures of retail
price inflation supplied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS),
and the value of the farm baskets is updated using prices received
by farmers for their commodities. Although working with fixed
baskets makes calculating the data series easier, it does not allow
researchers to account for changes in shopping patterns, such as
increased purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables over the past
What would the farm share for these commodity groups look like
if the consumer baskets were updated to reflect what American
households bought at retail in more recent years? To answer the
question, this study identified the contents of more recent fresh
fruit and fresh vegetable consumer baskets (1999-2003) and used the
information to estimate farm share for both commodity groups for
the years 1997 through 2004.
What Did the Study Find?
Using the updated market basket data for fresh fruits and fresh
vegetables, ERS confirmed a general trend: that the farm share of
consumer food expenditures has been shrinking. But the study also
found that the farm share for these two commodity groups has
decreased less than previously believed.
The updated estimates show a larger farm share than the current,
unadjusted data series. The unadjusted data series estimates the
2004 farm share at 19 percent for fresh vegetables and 20 percent
for fresh fruit; the updated consumer baskets yield farm shares of
23.5 percent for fresh vegetables and 26.6 percent for fresh fruit.
While the updated estimates are lower than the farm share estimates
for 1982 (34 percent for fresh vegetables and 33 percent for fresh
fruit), they do suggest that the existing (unadjusted) series has
overstated the decrease in farm share.
The unadjusted and updated consumer baskets differ in important
ways. The updated basket includes greater quantities of high-value
fresh vegetables, such as asparagus (with a relatively high farm
value in 2004 of $1.22/lb), bell peppers ($0.34/lb), broccoli
($0.33/lb), agaricus mushrooms ($1.14/lb), and romaine lettuce
($0.19/lb). By contrast, celery ($0.15/lb), corn on the cob
($0.21/lb), iceberg lettuce ($0.17/lb), and onions ($0.11/lb) are
included in the updated basket in smaller quantities than in the
1982-84 consumer basket.
These results apply only to fresh fruits and fresh vegetables.
Separate analyses are needed for other commodity groups included in
the market basket data series. In addition to fresh fruits and
fresh vegetables, the market basket data series provides estimates
of consumer expenditures for meats, poultry, eggs, dairy products,
fats and oils, processed fruits and vegetables, and bakery and
How Was the Study Conducted?
The study constructed consumer baskets representative of what
households bought at retail in 1999-2003 and used them to estimate
The updated market baskets were constructed using data from BLS
on food spending by American households in conjunction with data
from ACNeilsen on the shopping habits of American households. In
1999, on average, households spent $148.51 for fresh vegetables,
including $18.92 for lettuce, $26.91 for tomatoes, $28.35 for
potatoes, and $74.33 for other fresh vegetables. Quantities were
inferred from these expenditures using the ACNeilsen data. For
example, head lettuce (primarily iceberg) accounts for about 62
percent of the value of all lettuce purchased by the ACNeilsen
sample, and iceberg lettuce can be used to represent all purchases
of head lettuce. Romaine can likewise be used to represent all
purchases of romaine and leafy lettuce, implying that a
representative household split its lettuce expenditures of $18.92
into $11.73 for iceberg and $7.19 for romaine. Using ACNeilsen
national average prices and these values yielded estimates of
physical quantities. For example, with iceberg lettuce averaging
$0.78 per pound in 1999, a representative household bought about 15
pounds with its $11.73.
This same procedure was repeated using data for 2003. The final
market basket was constructed by averaging the contents of the 1999
and 2003 baskets.
The values of the two consumer baskets (fresh fruits and fresh
vegetables) were then updated using BLS measures of retail price
inflation, and the values of the corresponding farm baskets were
updated using prices received by farmers for their commodities.
At the time the study was conducted, 1999 and 2003 were the
earliest and most recent years, respectively, for which both BLS
and ACNeilsen data were available.