Monday, 26 September 2011
A Visit to Bruce-Huron Produce Auctions
I mentioned in my post about travelling around with Robert Foreman to collect produce for his 100 Mile Produce farmers' market stand that we attended the Bruce-Huron Produce Auction. This is a new Mennonite-run produce auction held at 733 Kairshea Avenue (R.R.#3, Holyrood, ON) which is 2 kilometres east of Bruce Road 1, north of Lucknow.
The building is a new, purpose-built warehouse in a reclaimed gravel pit. It is surprisingly elegant, with natural stained board-and-batten sides and fibreglass (I think) skylights. At any rate, it's very rare to see something utilitarian and obviously built on a budget that's also attractive, and I commend the designers and builders.
Almost all the vendors arrive in horse-drawn wagons, which have their own entrance lane that runs around to the back of the building.
Behind the building there is a "truck" bay specifically designed for the wagons. The farmers quickly unload their produce and bring it into the building.
The auction is set up on carts and skids in rows, determined by marks on the floor. We arrived fairly early, and the first vendors were just getting set up.
The vendors fill out consignor tickets that get put with each lot of produce to be sold. These tickets will trace the vendor through to the purchaser, and determine what each purchasers is to pay, and what the vendors are to be paid.
There is a section walled off from the main area, which is full of packaging materials. Vendors take what packaging they need, and write the amount taken down in a notebook. Once a month, they are billed for the packaging materials they have taken. This keeps the produce in consistently sized lots from one vendor to another, and allows purchasers to get a similar product no matter who the vendor was, in quantity at least.
These beautiful Turban squash gave me a big smile. They were really lovely, but sadly, they sold for 5 cents each. Yes, I said 5 cents! As Robert succinctly said, "Won't see those here again." There's that problem with anything that isn't absolutely standard. People, when you see something unusual at the market, even if you don't know what to do with it - buy it! Figure it out! It's the only way to get new and interesting produce to show up.
Not surprisingly, that's way below cost for the farmer - Robert said that in general, regardless of size, if the farmers can sell squash for about 25 cents each, they will break even, and at 50 cents a piece they are making a reasonable return. He likes to bid up the prices towards the reasonable-return end of the scale, even if he doesn't intend to buy them. It's a dangerous game to play though - he ended up with a couple of bins of squash he didn't really need yet! Still, it's squash and it will keep, and he will sell it eventually.
The auction itself is surprisingly low-key, but very brisk. The auctioneer and three helpers start at the beginning of the first row of produce. The fellow to the auctioneer's left describes the produce. The auctioneer then begins his patter, and in under a minute the produce is sold. The two helpers to the right of him then get the successful bidder's bidder number, make sure it is added to the consignor ticket on the produce, and that a copy goes to the office where they are sorted by the bidders' numbers.
The auction moved along quickly, from one spot to another, with purchasers milling around. From my point of view, it was hard to tell who was bidding and who was scratching their nose, but the auctioneer always seemed to know.
And finally, after all these years, I figured out what the auctioneer is actually saying in that speed-talking patter that they do, and the answer is - nothing! Most of it is just filler sounds to keep up a sense of something happening. I told this marvellous insight to Mr. Ferdzy, and he stared at me in amazement for the fool that I am. Duh. Oh well. Some of us are just slow.
The Turban squash were probably the cheapest thing sold at the auction, but these giant pumpkins were probably the most expensive, at about $10 each.
There were a lot of different squash at the market - squash season has definitely begun, along with beets, potatoes, onions and carrots. There were huge numbers of pumpkins, and I was surprised to see that they all sold, and for much better prices than any of the other squash. Who knew?
Fortunately, for those of us still clinging to the end of summer, there were still some tomatoes, corn, melons, and green beans.
Once everything is sold the successful bidders go to the office to pay for their purchases.
While the purchasers are paying, the produce gets loaded into their vehicles. There were a number of teen aged boys there, who knew who the regulars were and who were happy to get them loaded up for a small consideration. The produce left the building as rapidly as it arrived, and an hour and half after we got there, we were driving out again.
This is the Huron-Bruce Produce Auction's first year in business, and I'd say it showed in that there is not yet a really high volume of goods going through yet. However, word is getting out about it and I expect that next year will be better for both sellers and buyers. Right now, for anyone who is able to do the driving to get there, it's likely that bargains can be found. There was certainly a pretty comprehensive selection of produce there.
There is a similar produce auction in Elmira that has been going on for a few years now. The lots there tend to be a fair bit larger. At the Bruce-Huron auction lots are still small enough that a family looking to fill their cold cellar and freezer could buy things here.
I was chatting to a man (as we both hung over a bin of delicious-smelling melons taking up the scent for free) who told me that these auctions are becoming very popular with Mennonite farmers, and that there are somewhere around 100 such auctions in the United States now. They are an effective way for Mennonite farmers, who are restricted in how far they can reasonably travel by buggy or wagon, and who often don't have large quantities, to get their produce to distributors. It's more practical for the distributors too, than travelling from farm to farm, often for fairly small quantities.
As a final note, you may have realized that there were no pictures of farmers in the first post about this trip. That's because Mennonite and Amish people have a strong preference not to be photographed. I did explain to the manager of the auction what I was doing, and asked for permission to take photos here, as it would have been otherwise impossible to give any sense of what was going on.