Sold to the Highest Bidder

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Farm workers set up displays at the Homerville Wholesale Produce Auction.

Six pint-baskets with a handwritten sign – raspberry, organic scrawled on it – have drawn attention. Here on the Homerville (Ohio) Wholesale Produce Auction’s small lots table, piles of local bounty dwarf the raspberries. Auctioneer Andrea Owen-Shearer makes eye contact with each bidder as her quick cadence links a fast patter of prices. She walks alongside the table, quickly selling brown eggs stacked in boxes, a half bushel of spinach, a peck of radishes, two strawberry pies and bags of new potatoes. When she reaches the raspberries, the bidding warms with nods here and there. A young couple with a curly-haired toddler in a stroller wins the bid. Owen-Shearer moves on, already accepting an offer on pickling cucumbers.

The auction’s site is tucked amidst family farms along a picturesque country road. F.W. Owen started the auction with his daughter, Owen-Shearer, in response to economic conditions that threatened his livelihood as a dairy farmer. Around him, the Amish community also struggled with decreasing prices and increasing costs. When the auction opened for business in 1997, 20 growers participated. Now about 500 farmers participate, selling Ohio-grown fruits, vegetables, plants and other produce. Most producers are small; many are located within a 5-mile radius. The thrice-weekly auction enables the farmers to sell produce while avoiding burdensome storage and transportation costs. And the resulting profits stay in the local community.

“There’s a lot of talk about maintaining family farms, but there’s not much done,” Owen says. “Over the years, the total amount of dollars kept local by the auction is in the millions. That means hanging on to farms for a lot of people.”

Community event

Large lots are next on the block. Sweet corn is stacked in huge bags. Brightly colored peppers contrast with broccoli, kohlrabi, beets and carrots in a tantalizing array of seasonal variety. People gather near the items they hope to purchase. Tag reader John Hostetler announces, “Now we have two half bushels small yellow squash.” He taps the box with a wooden stick. Owen-Shearer’s rhythmic chant begins.

“Ah dida dadada two, two and a half, three dollars, three and a half, four, four and half, five, five and a half. Ana dada ana, five and half, six dollars, six and half, ana ana dada six and half.”

There’s no announcement of “sold.” Owen-Shearer recites the buyer’s number from memory after the winning bid. Without a pause, her characteristic auctioneer’s chant begins on the next lot.

Although many of the buyers are from farm markets, grocery stores and restaurants, the auction is also crowded with local residents.

Linda Bowers sits on a bench talking with friends. She and her husband, Ed, run a farm market in a nearby township. When they grow too many tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers they bring the excess produce to the auction. Otherwise, they buy items to resell.

“There’s not as much cost involved here,” she says. “It gives the Amish community a local outlet for their produce and a fair price. A lot of us meet here and talk. There’s a real buyer and grower community here.”

Today, Ron Oiler, who lives nearby, has come to check out the small lots table. “I like to buy pies, green beans, melons, peaches, cherries and cinnamon rolls,” he says. Although he was raised on a farm he doesn’t recall a wholesale auction. “This is a fantastic idea.”

Feast for the senses

Beth Whitson takes turns attending the auction with others in a group of families that have formed a cooperative to split bulk items. She enjoys saving money on food and appreciates knowing that what she feeds her children has been grown close to home when the average produce item is shipped more than 1,000 miles. But what really brings her back is a sensory experience that grocery stores can’t provide.

“Heavens, the taste is often different,” she says. “Many of the things we have gotten at auction are ripe or so close to ripe, you can smell the difference. No peaches that go from rock hard to moldy overnight. Leaving bushels of peaches in the cool garage overnight to deal with canning in the morning fills the whole garage with the aroma of the orchard. For days we need gobs of paper towels as the peach juice dribbles off of chins. No comparison at all.”

For information on the produce auction, visit the Web site at www.HomerProduceAuction.com. To learn more about buying local, visit the Organic Consumers Association’s Web site at www.OrganicConsumers.org.