PROGRESS: Why all the new produce auctions?

SALEM, Ohio – They’re growing, growing, growing – up in numbers, that is.

Produce auctions across the country are on the rise, and there are bound to be even more, predicts auctioneer Don Braham.

Leola Produce Auction in Lancaster County, Pa., was the first one about 18 years ago, and now approximately 45 are sprinkled across the United States, said Braham, who owns New Wilmington Produce Auction in Pennsylvania.

Buyers get a quality product and growers have an outlet for their produce – basically a win-win situation, Braham said.

For everyone. Produce auctions offer something irresistible for both growers and buyers.

For buyers, it’s one-stop shopping. They get all the produce they need at a single place and can pick from many growers.

For farmers, it’s one-stop selling. Buyers come to them and they don’t have to haggle over prices.

For 10-year auction veteran Fred Finney, it’s something that’s revolutionized his business.

Gone are the days when he grew only what he could sell at his two farm markets in Wooster.

Now he’s growing extra produce to take to the sale in Mount Hope, Ohio. And anything he doesn’t raise, like sweet corn, he buys at the auction and brings home to sell at his markets.

Lending a hand. If anyone knows about the escalating interest in produce auctions, it’s Ohio State horticulturist Brad Bergefurd.

Since helping Ohio’s first produce sale get going in Geauga County 12 years ago, Bergefurd has become an auction authority.

Now there are five wholesale-produce auctions in Ohio, but even before that, Bergefurd knew the demand was here.

“It fills a void in the produce industry,” he said. “It hits a different market.”

Many small- and medium-sized growers aren’t big enough to sell wholesale to Wal-Mart or Kroger. But they also don’t want to be tied to selling only at a roadside stand.

Produce auctions are the middle ground. Here, wholesale buyers are usually local groceries, restaurants, city farm markets, and even temporary roadside stands, Bergefurd said.

Amish influence. Amish communities help drive this auction upsurge.

Amish or Mennonite growers own or operate all the Ohio auctions, Bergefurd said. Some of them have been growing produce and this is a way to diversify. But for many, this is a new venture, he said.

To those Amish farmers new to produce farming, Bergefurd plays an educator’s role. He teaches them about produce, growing seasons, picking and getting the fruits and vegetables ready for auction.

“It’s the same as working with a dairy cooperative,” he said. “We all work together.”

In the early stages, Bergefurd takes it a step further and gets the auction off its feet. He spreads the word to buyers and helps with marketing.

Getting, giving quality. As for prices, it can be a little scary sitting out all your produce and having no idea how much buyers will offer.

“Once you put your produce out on the floor, it’s totally out of your control,” Bergefurd said. “If you get a penny, well, you get a penny. If you get $100, great, you get $100.

“But the price will usually be there for you if you’re good.”

Bergefurd, Braham and Finney all stress auctions aren’t a dumping ground.

The auctions aren’t a place to sell extra produce, Finney emphasized. It’s a place to sell the same produce you’d stock on your market shelves.

Catching on. The auctions have strong followings, and buyers catch on quickly to which growers they can count on for consistent quality, Bergefurd said.

At an auction, buyers see the produce, auctioneer Braham said. When they’re ordering over the phone, it’s a blind buy and they could end up pitching a third of what they purchased. So at an auction, buyers may be willing to pay more than market value.

Finney agrees and says through the years he’s noticed which growers have the best produce and is willing to pay more for their products.

Sure, there are days when the produce gets cheap, Bergefurd said, but that helps advertising. Buyers will come for the cheap melons, but stay for the more expensive tomatoes, too.

Even last year when the volume slumped because of wet weather, sales figures were the same or higher, he said.

“It’s all back to supply and demand.”

“An auction house doesn’t know if anyone will show up at all,” Bergefurd said. “Good close community ties and good farmers are what makes these auctions work.”

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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