Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Day at the Sale Barn

The past summer I have had a booth at three farmer's markets. I have had varying success selling pottery. One market has been great, the others have just been so-so.

But the very best part of being at the Farmer's markets all summer has been getting to know the vendors. I was fortunate enough to get booth space right in the middle of a bunch of organic produce vendors and not in the row with the other 'stuff sellers' as they call us.

They have all been selling together for years, and at first they just ignored me. But a few traded pots, some questions about gardens, and their natural friendliness all worked in my favor and we made friends. I have been going most Saturday evenings to one vendor's farm for outdoor showings of movies and popcorn. One vender gives me gardening advice and chats about his first garden. He found out I like to cook, and has been getting recipes for his produce from me to tell his customers. Another vendor lets me glean her rows after picking if I dispose of the plant matter in the compost for her.

This last vendor, Linda, has been amazingly kind. She has been giving me extra cases (!) of produce to can in exchange for just a few of the results. A couple weeks ago she casually asked why I didn't buy my produce at the Sale Barn if I was canning it.

"Sale Barn?"

I remember my aunts and uncles going to a Sale Barn near my hometown to buy and sell cows and sheep. But I had only gone once or twice, and I didn't remember there being a produce component to it.

She invited me to meet her the following week.

I followed her directions about 20 miles south of my rather big city, and ended up at a farm. I knew I was there by the sign, and by the rows of trucks parked everywhere along the gravel road. As I got out and made my way to the back of the farm where I was to meet Linda, I passed rows and rows of animals in cages- rabbits, chickens, ducks, and also pets like ferrets, kittens and even a couple of lizards. These would be auctioned off, and there were a wide range of people waiting. There were two very Chicago-looking couples (one woman had a purse dog) and some folks with pet store logo shirts. A few Mennonite and Amish, and a bunch of folks in feed logo caps.

Next were tables and rows of stuff. These were possessions people had brought to be sold. Then a concession area, and an area with more expensive looking items- antiques and equipment. Finally, behind one of the barns in a lean-to along one side was the produce. Linda was waiting.
She had already purchased a bidding number, and the auction was just about to start. I was boggled by the amount of food there: bushels and bushels of apples and pears, bags of walnuts, boxes of freshly dug potatoes, huge heads of sunflowers with the seeds intact, squash and pumpkins of all colors, sizes and shapes, some late grapes, tomatoes of all colors, cauliflower in purple white and orange, and a few pails of plums.

Linda saw my face and warned me not to bid too much this time. She said that the first time at an auction can be overwhelming, and you can get carried away and spend way too much without thinking. I saw all that lovely produce and knew she was right. We agreed that five dollars should be my limit.

I'll admit I was disappointed. I had hoped to walk away with some veggies or something to put up, but I also knew that I needed to take Linda's advice. She told me a story or two of her first auctions, and how she had purchased silly things, and I didn't want to get caught out that way.

The auction began, and since I had been at the farmer's market all season long, I had a feeling for veggie and fruit prices. But Linda told me this was wholesale. Some things were being sold by the piece, like big pumpkins, and some squash, but then they were also sold by the lot. The prices were wonderfully low from a buyer's standpoint, but I wondered how the growers could stand to part with their produce so cheaply.

Apples sold for 15.00 a bushel that week, 20.00 a bushel for Honeycrisp. I had eagerly paid 1.00 for 3 Honeycrisp apples the week before at the farmer's market. It was terribly hard to keep to my only-spend-5-dollars budget but I didn't give in and buy the apples. The plums- lovely golden plums- sold for a song, but the song was more than 5 dollars. I really thought I would only get to buy a squash or two. Then came the pears.

The auctioneer did his usual brief description of the item and people asked questions.
They were windfalls and low hanging fruit from a local unsprayed tree. Keep the orchard baskets. Variety? Probably Comice, too juicy to cook with, and these were ripe and ready to eat in a day or two. There were 10 bushels, the bidding was for a whole bushel. If you won the bid you could take as many bushels as you wanted for that price for each bushel. You could see the crowd losing interest. The auctioneer started the bidding at 10 dollars. No takers. 5 dollars, nothing. I looked at Linda hopefully. A bushel of pears would be lovely to can. Most were good and they had rosy cheeks. I wanted a basket! Linda shook her head.

4 dollars. Nothing. 3.50? Nothing. I was trembling. I wanted those pears, but Linda's mouth was a grim line and I knew better than to bid.
3 dollars. Nothing. The auctioneer was getting frustrated. He held at 3 for an eternity. 2.50? Do I hear 2.50? Linda shoved me, smiling. I yelped and the auctioneer said, "Is that 2.50?" I nodded.
SOLD for 2.50!

I got TWO BUSHELS! :) They are sweet, juicy and the best pears I have tasted for ages.
I am canning today!

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