This summer has been a difficult one for market gardeners in my area of central Virginia. First there was the extremely cold spring, followed by the extremely wet early summer, followed by periods of intense heat. Now some people in this local area are still dealing with too much rain, while others are getting droughty. (Naturally, Apriori is droughty. I’ve got the radar screen shots to prove it.)
Tomatoes came late and they are just not right, somehow. The window between ripe and rotten is so narrow. Cucumbers and summer squash had a very short season before giving up the ghost. Succession planting made no difference. (Right now, all the squash bugs have finished off what few plants I had and are actually laying eggs on my lettuces.) The blackberry patch normally has a six week picking season. This year, I got one. Beans just never took off. It’s not just me, but my garden has been an abysmal failure. I still get lettuce every now and then, but with the heat, it’s always iffy. Some farmers are reporting their peppers are already done as well. My field peppers never made it and my hoop house peppers came in late and are actually quite happy – the only thing that is happy at the moment.
Hard to make a living with just peppers though. So I’ve branched out a bit. I make and sell quite a bit of bread and bagels. I have eggs and jam and jellies. Still not enough. So I started going to the produce auction – as a buyer. Although I hate to do it, I’m purchasing locally-produced fruit and veg and using it to augment my offerings at the Farmer’s Market.
Soon after moving to the country, we learned estate and equipment auctions are often an all day social event. You can end up spending more than retail price on new equipment or you can sometimes get a really great deal, but you have to be quick. Things happen really fast at an auction. Having cell service and internet access in the show preview is really helpful. But once the bidding starts, you had better know what’s fair and have the wisdom to avoid a bidding war. Equipment auctions are still intimidating for me. I’ve been to two. Kept my wallet closed both times.
The produce auction is very similar. Let me give you an example. Green beans are sold in a half-bushel box weighing about 15 pounds. Retail price for green beans is $3 per pound. Depending on the supply and demand at the auction, beans typically sell between $10-14. This year, as you’ll recall, nearly everyone’s beans failed. Two weeks ago, a half bushel of beans went for over $30. When you factor in time and expense of getting to the auction and back, that sort of price doesn’t yield much of a margin. As a retailer, are you willing to sell at no margin (or even a loss) on one product to keep your customers happy?
And then there’s corn. It’s sold by the dozen, but comes in large sacks that contain 5 dozen. Often you are required to buy two or more. Sacks. So if you are the high bidder at $3 on a two or more corn purchase, you just bought 10 dozen ears of corn (unless you want more). You get to pay $30. Not $3.
Those large bins of watermelon that you see at the grocery store can be bought at auction. You bid per melon, but you take the whole bin. A winning bid of $2 could mean you just bought a bin of 40 large melons or maybe 90 smaller ones. That would be $80 or $180. Beginning to see the pattern?
Not so fast. Apple bins are starting to show up at the auction. These are sold by the bin. Apple bins weigh between 850-950 pounds. Going price is between $85 to 125. You brought your box truck to get the apple and melon bins home, didn’t you? And you have a pallet fork to unload them right?
Which brings me to my final point about auction: Whatever you buy must be taken home and stored until you’re ready to sell it. Do you have room in your transportation for that? How about cold storage? It’s all about knowing your limits . . . and pushing them constantly.