Fresh Bid

In the world of farmers’ markets, it’s the high-rollers room.

Buyers go shoulder to shoulder around a pallet of pears. The price is called, then a nod, a raised hand, a shake of the head and it’s over.

Know your bushels from your pecks and you can make out pretty well at Farmers’ Produce Auction in Mt. Hope.

“If it’s the middle of the season, anything that can be grown in Ohio, we’ll have,” said Jim Mullet, manager of the Holmes County auction.

It will come from hand-picked fields in the heart of Amish country on wagons with wooden spokes. The delay from soil to sale is extended only by a horse’s pace.

“Quality wise, if you want better products you better go out in the field and pick it yourselves,” Mullet said.

Buoyed by a hunger for all foods local, the auction is drawing bids from big name grocers down to individual “farm fresh” enthusiasts.

Without a nearby market, Mullet says of the farmers, “they’d have 20 different trucks coming in their driveway.” The auction helps on the other side, too. “The buyer doesn’t have to make 20 different stops,” he said.

This is all good news for those who need a semi truck to stock their shelves. Buehler’s Fresh Foods, a northeast Ohio grocer, gets a quarter of its in-season produce from the auction and other local suppliers.

“Customers like to know that it was in the field one day and on their table the next,” said Mary McMillen, Buehler’s director of consumer affairs. “Plus there is a sense of social responsibility when purchasing locally grown items.”

The company is searching for quality, she said, with an emphasis on freshness, flavor and growing practices.  You don’t need to know how to handle a skid loader to buy at an auction, though. Anyone with space in the trunk of the car can bid it up with the big guys.

“We have all kinds of buyers that buy at all kinds of levels,” said Kelly Brown, who manages the Owl Creek Produce Auction on the Knox/Morrow county line.

If you don’t need a bushel of peppers or 50 pounds of tomatoes, a couple of large families or neighbors often divvy up their purchase, Brown said. The auction’s wholesale prices are typically the lowest around. And for next winter, there’s only one way to get the taste of home-canned green beans.

Then there is that “sense of social responsibility” that guides Buehler’s purchases. When you spend your dollar at the auction, it goes to a nearby farmer. The farmer turns that dollar into next year’s seed or a greenhouse or a newly tilled piece of land.

Supporting the local economy is good, but the auction offers its own experience.

“When we’re in full swing, it’s just beautiful,” Brown said of the Owl Creek auction. “Color and texture and smell, it’s just a fun place to come…By mid-day we’re just a big bunch of color and smell.”

If you decide to bid, try not to be like the man who thought he had gotten a good price on a cantaloupe until he realized it was 1 of 150 he accidentally agreed to buy. No, you likely won’t be forced to haul them home, at least not this time, and you won’t be tossed out on the curb. But it’s a faux pas best avoided.

“Watch for a while, before you get your hand in the air,” Brown advised.

Or just buddy up to a bearded fellow, someone whose boots look like they’ve crossed the barnyard a few times. You’re likely to get some good pointers. If your trunk space is limited, have some patience. The lots are large at the beginning but dwindle down to family size portions once the big trucks are filled.

If nothing else, keep your hands in your pockets and simply watch.  “We’re in the tourist trade, also,” Brown said.

From flowers in the spring to pumpkins in the fall, the Mt. Hope auction sells produce throughout the season, starting in April and running through the second week in November. The Owl Creek auction is open year-round on Fridays, with additional sales during the growing season. Other produce auctions are located throughout the state. Search’s Buying Local Directory for one near you. Enter “auction” into the search field.

A note from the editor:
Thoughts on local foods and strawberries in March

Reading about the abundant supply of fruits and vegetables available for sale at produce auctions during Ohio’s glorious summer growing months may seem a bit odd during these waning days of winter. But at least it’s a sunny postcard from days that lie ahead. The pages of Our Ohio magazine are filled with stories of local foods proudly grown by Ohio Farm Bureau members. You like to read such stories and we love to tell them. A more complicated story to tell, yet an equally important one, is that of the importance of agricultural trade between states and countries — buyers and sellers providing products that consumers want, when they want them. The local foods movement at times begs the question, “Is there something wrong with importing and exporting food between states and nations?”

Ohio agriculture is part of a global economy. We have Ohio farmers selling soybeans to Japan and livestock to China. Ohio exported $2.2 billion of agricultural goods last year, which makes it 11th in the nation, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Ohio farmers and food processors export everything from Amish country cheese to Totino’s Pizza Rolls made in Wellston. Can Totino’s Pizza Rolls be considered “local foods”? I bet if you are one of the 1,100 employees whose job it is to make pizza rolls, you sure do.

Free trade, whether it’s between townships or nations, is the lifeblood of agriculture and every other sector of our economy. Are local foods good and imported foods bad? Of course not — keeping all facets of agriculture and our food industry strong is what’s good. Whether it’s your neighborhood farm market or the Campbell Soup Company in Napoleon that uses 2,500 tons of carrots a year, we should appreciate both as “local foods.”

Here’s the other benefit of imported food: ripe red California strawberries in my fridge while the snow flies outside. Granted they’re not as flavorful as their homegrown cousins will be in June, but they’re not bad either.

What’s your opinion?

Pat Petzel is editor of Our Ohio magazine.

Stay connected with and support great food and farm stories like this by becoming an Our Ohio Supporter. For just $25 you can stay connected with Ohio food and farm stories while supporting local foods and community outreach.