By Amy Eddings
When I first heard of a produce auction, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I couldn’t picture a group of people standing around and bidding on a bushel of peaches or two heads of cauliflower. It challenged my perception of what it meant to go grocery shopping.
And yet that’s exactly what happens at the Scioto Valley Produce Auction on County Road 200 near Mount Victory, about a quarter mile east of state Route 31, in Hardin County’s Old Order Amish community. Look for the big, white barn with the horses and buggies tied up in front, near the road.
“I came here last fall and had an absolute ball,” said Kathy Chapman, 58, of Marysville. She came for the pumpkin auction that takes place in September.
“I am embarrassed to tell you what I got,” she said, laughing. “I bought, like, a 4×8 foot bin of 50 pumpkins.” Her winning bid was $150, or $3 a piece. “I gave some to my grandchildren!”
A few feet away, the auction of that week’s haul of produce was underway. Most of the produce is from local Amish farmers, and, at this time of year in mid-June, featured snap peas, broccoli, beans, candy onions, radishes and flowers.
“Thirty-five, we got two quarts of snap peas!” said the Amish auction assistant, reading off the seller’s number and a written description of the item from a yellow tag dangling from the snap peas’ container. He picked up the quarts of snap peas from a pallet on the floor and held them aloft for the buyers to see.
“Two quarts of snap peas,” echoed the non-Amish auctioneer. His voice came over a small amplifier from above the crowd, where he was sitting at a desk on a rolling platform that was about eight feet high. From this vantage point he could see all the buyers, see them nod or hold up a finger signaling their assent to his asking price.
He launched into his sales patter, a quick rat-a-tat-tat of numbers. “Fifty, now 50, who has 75?”
Within seconds he pronounced the snap peas sold, for $1, to No. 709.
Two small bags of kohlrabi sold for $1.25. Two head of cauliflower go for 75 cents. Buyer No. 1104 snapped up two bunches of candy green onions for $1.75.
“The first half hour of produce, it’s all small lots,” explained Harley Hochstetler, the general manager of the auction. “Two pecks, two quarters, two hand baskets, all two.”
Bigger lots of fruits and vegetables are also sold at the auction, drawing not only those interested in canning and preserving but buyers from local supermarkets in Kenton and Lima.
“It’ll be a lot more interesting when you see it in another month,” said Hochstetler, nodding past the window of the auction barn’s office, where we’re talking, and toward the broad, open cement floor where the bidding is taking place. “We’ll be stacked full with three tons of sweet corn and zucchini. They come in the half bushel or on a pallet. Then we like the bigger buyers.”
He looked at me, scribbling rapidly in my reporter’s notebook.
“Get a bigger buyer out of Lima, send them down here!” he said. He was only half kidding.
Hochstetler said he and four others launched the produce auction in 2012 at the request of other members of the local Amish farming community as a way of providing job opportunities for Amish youth.
“We used to be able to buy farmland for $3,000 an acre. Now it’s $7,000 an acre. That’s tough for a young guy to afford,” he said. “We couldn’t afford the bigger farms anymore, so we had to buy the smaller farms and raise produce for the kids to have work.”
By raising produce like tomatoes, sweet corn, peas, zucchini and black raspberries, Amish families are able to get more value out of their small farms. He said about 70 farms participate in the auction on any given Tuesday or Friday. About 40 of them, he said, are raising produce specifically to sell here, as their means of making a living.
“We got one guy over here” — he gestures in the general direction of County Road 200, which is lined with Amish farms — “he’s only got five acres. But he’s got that jammed full of produce. He’s one of our biggest growers.”
Interview over, I asked Hochstetler for a bidding number. He wrote down my name, address and telephone number, and handed me a white ticket with “427” written in black marker on the top.
Telephone number? The Old Order Amish don’t use telephones. Too fancy. But Hochstetler said if I were to leave the auction house and forget to pick up the products I successfully bid upon, a non-Amish assistant would give me a ring to let me know.
“If I need to talk to YOU about something, how would I do that?” I asked Hochstetler. “Just come over to your farm?”
He looked at me for a long moment, watching me wrap my thoughts around a life structured solely around face-to-face interactions. No cell phones, Skype, text messages or e-mails.
“Yes,” he said, with a little smile.
I head over to where other bidders are clustered around the Amish man who’s working down a line of bedding and potted flowers. The auctioneer watches from above, sitting atop his mobile platform. I’ve got my eye on two hanging baskets of white begonias, their creamy, double blooms spilling over the edge of the planter. When the little group reaches them, the auctioneer starts the bidding at $10 each. No one raises an eyebrow or a finger or a ticket, and he quickly drops the price. I raise my ticket when I hear $7, and no one responds when the auctioneer asks for more.
“SOLD, No. 427, for $7 each,” he said. I grinned, knowing my local garden center would have a price tag of at least $15 on these beauties.
The Amish man who’s acting as the produce emcee scribbled down my number on the ticket attached to the begonias and moved on to the next item, two flats of white bedding petunias. I followed along, bidding on flowers and veggies, winning some bids, dropping out of others when the price goes higher than I was willing to spend.
At the end of the auction, I headed to the office window and handed my ticket to a white-bonneted young Amish girl dressed in a dark blue cotton dress. She took several tickets out of a little box labeled “427.” They were “receipts” from my purchases. She totaled them up and handed me a bill, just like how any auction works. Cash or check only. No credit cards, as they require electronic machinery and more technology than the Old Order Amish’s religious principles of simplicity and humility allow.
I loaded up the car, wishing I had brought our pickup truck instead.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Scioto Valley Produce Auction
WHERE: 18715 County Road 200, Mt. Victory
WHEN: Tuesdays and Fridays through Oct. 7, starting at 1 p.m. After Oct. 7, produce auctions are held on the remaining Fridays in October. Auction is usually over by 3 p.m.
NOTEWORTHY: Pumpkin Auction, Friday, Sept. 23, 1 p.m.
1. Inspect the merchandise. Take a few minutes to walk the auction house’s floor and inspect the items for sale. Get a sense of what’s available and what condition it’s in.
2. Set a limit. Decide on how much you’re willing to spend for each item. Once the auction starts, it’s easy to get carried away.
3. Hold ‘em high. Make the auctioneer aware of your bid by holding up your hand or your bid card. Call out, if you’re in the back of a crowd, or move closer to the auctioneer so he or she sees you.
4. Settle up. The Scioto Valley Produce Auction only accepts cash or checks. Always confirm the preferred method of payment before going to any auction.
5. Bring bags. The auction house doesn’t provide them. Larger lots of produce will come in baskets or boxes, but smaller items come in quart containers and even plastic storage bags. You will need a shopping bag to collect them.