Small producers and buyers enjoy auctions beside the big guys
By Patty Rice Groth
With canning season upon us, growers and consumers alike should be taking a look at the opportunities and produce availability of wholesale produce auctions all over Ohio. Don’t let the word “wholesale” throw you off — many markets include small lots which are perfect for the person canning for the family.
For example, Owl Creek Produce Auction on Morrow County Road 22, Waterford Road, near Fredericktown accepts produce consignments from large producers with quantity counts in the hundreds, even thousands, as well as the small producer bringing half-peck and peck sized lots.
Some of the bidders attending the three weekly auctions at Owl Creek are buying for small and large grocery stores and restaurants; these are true wholesale buyers. Others are folks, good ol’-fashioned consumers, hoping to get enough green beans or tomatoes to can for home use.
At Owl Creek, separate areas are set up to accommodate both kinds of buyers and sellers, with an auctioneer working each area. The produce available for consumers includes all kinds of peppers in many shapes and sizes, pecks of green beans, tomatoes and blackberries. Cucumbers, pickling and table varieties, zucchini, melons, apples and yellow squash were also available in small lots.
Perhaps the term “small lots” should be defined here. Understanding what is being sold at the moment is the most important thing a produce auction buyer needs to know, especially those buying in small quantities.
The auctioneer is holding up a small round seedless watermelon, for example. It is one of six in a box provided by the seller. The seller has filled out a tag which tells the auctioneer who he or she is and how the seller intends the lot (the box, in this case) to be sold. In this true example, the tag said “seedless watermelons x6.”
It is the “x6” notation that buyers either did not hear or did not understand. That box of small seedless watermelons sold for $36 plus!
Owl Creek manager Kelly Brown has been known to ask groups of buyers around the auctioneer to not engage in chit-chat hoping to prevent such an incident. New visitors to a produce auction may wonder why people move around so much. Most likely, they are trying to position themselves to hear exactly what the auctioneer is announcing. Imagine the watermelon buyer’s reaction at checkout when told the total due is, say, $50, not the $20 the buyer had calculated.
If there are mitigating circumstances, the buyer may be allowed off the hook. However, the buyer’s lack of attention or information has now cost the seller too. If the group of buyers bidding the cost up to $6 each had understood what was for sale, the selling price likely would have been nearer $2 each, $12 for the box.
That cost would be better than one sees in a grocery story and the buyer’s family would have enjoyed fresh watermelon that evening. Instead, the buyer may have left the auction without any watermelons, and/or very upset, and the seller was left with six unsold watermelons.
Each wholesale produce auction location has its own policies about such circumstances, however, and it may be “buyer beware.”
It is not known what the final outcome was in this watermelon example. The good news would be that if the seller were left holding the melons, another auction was scheduled on Wednesday and the melons would still be fresh. Although, they would not be as fresh as they were on Monday.
A big beautiful watermelon — the type that sell for $8–10 or more at the grocer’s — went for $3.50.
Large quantity lots of watermelons sold on Friday, Aug. 10, two days before the auction being discussed, sold for $.50 to $2.25 each.
At the Monday, Aug. 13, auction, a peck of beefsteak tomatoes went for $3.50, a great price. Beefsteak tomatoes are great slicing tomatoes for burgers and salads. A peck of an unnamed variety of heirloom tomatoes when for $8 and another peck of the same for $7, both great prices. Pecks of “canning tomatoes” went for very reasonable prices. Often, buyers could choose how many pecks from the lot to buy if the seller marked the tag accordingly. In most cases, canning tomato buyers were happy to take all of the small lot purchased. When a buyer does not take all of a lot, other bidders may buy the remainder of the lot at the same price.
Blackberries are just coming in, and buyers were able to get pints at $4 and $3.75 each. In the case of the blueberries, the buyer took all of the lot, that is, all of the pints available for sale.
That buyer, Chuck Carey, of AVI Food Systems, is the food service director for Knox County Hospital in Mount Vernon, not far from Owl Creek’s location in Morrow County. Owl Creek sits very close to the county’s boundaries with Richland and Knox counties. He indicated most of what he purchased was for use at the hospital. He did buy some tomatoes he planned to can for use at his home, too.
New wholesale produce auction buyers would do well to take a page from his book. Carey carefully reviewed everything available at that day’s auction, both in large and consumer lots. He examined the items and read the tags. An experienced buyer, Carey was able to move between the two sides of the auction putting himself in the right place at the right time to make his purchases.
A number of buyers commented they were buying for home canning; in fact, all but one of the people this writer spoke with that day were providing for their families. Commercial buyers are not always willing to reveal whom they represent, including the one wholesale buyer approached.
Most of the sellers at Owl Creek come from the large Amish community surrounding the site. For the consumer, it means one is buying the exact same produce being sold at the grocery store or being prepared in a restaurant.
Sometimes sellers bring very small lots to the auction. For example, at this Monday auction, only seven dozen eggs were available, for sale as one lot. They brought $1.70 per dozen. Since the seller was also there to buy for personal use and canning, the cost was OK. Eggs often go very inexpensively at mid-week and pre-weekend sales. The more eggs available, the lower the selling prices— same is true whatever is for sale.
Looking at some of the wholesale large lot prices may help consumers understand grocery store prices. At the Aug. 10 auction, seven pecks of apples sold between $3 and $6.50 each. Bags of five dozen ears of sweet corn sold between $9 and $16 per bag. There were 32 such bags available that day. There were 52 bags/boxes each containing one dozen ears went for $2.50 to $4.50 per dozen.
As crops are available, prices will vary. Home canners should be buying tomatoes now. Early blackberries went from $1 to $2.50 per pint on Aug. 8 to the Aug. 13 price as mentioned above. There were 42 pints of blackberries for sale on the eighth; less than 15 just five days later.
Monday quantities might be lower than what is available on sale days later in the week. All sellers are welcome at these auctions, though the majority are from the surrounding Amish community. Amish farmers are not in the fields on Sundays. What is available for sale from them is what was picked that morning. So, freshness increases the value of the lots.
At Owl Creek at this time of year, auctions are held on Mondays starting at 11 a.m., Wednesdays starting at 10 a.m., and Fridays starting at 9 a.m. Later in the year the schedule will change.
Wholesale produce auctions exist all over Ohio and can be easily found using the Internet and one’s personal network. Searching “food auctions Ohio” brought up more than 24 million results. Finding a produce auction nearby should not be hard.
Patty Rice Groth is a coorespondent for The Galion Inquirer.