Have you ever gone to a produce auction? If not, you are in for a treat (or a shock, depending on your personality).
These auctions can be lively and exciting places full of farmers trying to get the best price for their produce and buyers looking to get the best deal.
Whether you’re a farmer or just enjoy fresh produce, here are some tips to help you survive (and maybe even thrive) at a produce auction.
What is a Produce Auction?
A produce auction provides a wonderful opportunity both for growers (farmers) and buyers to win big.
At an auction, you’ll be able to see all kinds of beautiful, healthy local food and flowers – while sellers will be able to offload massive quantities of their produce all at once.
At a produce auction, farmers have a more efficient way to sell their goods – no more marketing or managing their goods, just selling in bulk.
You can score great prices on buying these items in bulk as a buyer. They’re often perfect for mass storage and preservation, like canning or fermenting.
Produce auctions aren’t held everywhere, but you should definitely take advantage of them if you’re lucky enough to have them where you live.
Navigating a produce auction can seem daunting, but by following the tips below, you’ll be able to get the best possible prices.
Tips for Surviving a Produce Auction
The basic gist is this: the farmer grows the produce, picks it, then brings it to the auction to sell. You bid on the product, and the winner is the highest bidder.
Easy enough, right? Well, there ARE some tips and tricks to getting the most out of it.
1. Know How to Check In
Upon arriving, you will check in at the office.
You will need a picture ID (usually a driver’s license) to register, and you will fill out a form with your name and address. You are then issued an auction number, which is the number you give when you win a bid.
In some cases, you may have to register ahead of time. Depending on the auction, you can do this at the auction office or even online.
You can do this for one day or set up a permanent account, but you’ll need to provide your basic identification information.
2. Navigating the “People”
Let’s talk about the people.
There are four people who are the “ringleaders”; the auctioneer, two spotters, and a person who writes the winner’s number, amount paid, and what was bought.
These are the people to get to know. You’ll spot them right away, as the auctioneer will have the microphone and the spotters will be right beside him.
The recorder will be the one holding the pen, paper, and clipboard and writing like crazy.
3. The Ins and Outs of the Auction
Then, there are the auctions. Each row of the auction will have a flatbed, and many will be rolling carts.
On that bed, is the produce for sale. Let’s say there are 5 boxes of tomatoes, and each box weighs 25#. That is one auction. You will often find rows and rows of these carts, and this is where it can be tricky.
The auctioneer will start, and he’ll do what’s called “fishing for the bid” to get the auction started.
Let’s say he is auctioning this flatbed of 5 boxes of tomatoes, and the bid starts at $10. If you want to bid, you simply raise your hand, or show your auction number.
The spotter will let the auctioneer know there is a bid, and then the auction is ON! He will be speaking his “auctioneeze” quite fast, and it’ll take a bit of practice to keep up.
If you have a problem, the spotters WILL help you know what the bid is at. That’s part of their job.
4. Understanding Pricing
Here’s the tricky part.The auction is for ONE box of tomatoes, but you pay that for all 5 boxes.
What that means is, if you win the auction for $10, you will get all 5 boxes, but the total amount due is $50. So, you will need to keep that in mind as you are bidding. If there are 10 items, the total would be $100. It can add up quickly.
Most items are sold in boxes, like tomatoes, however, there are some exceptions.
Corn is sold by the dozen, rhubarb is sold by the pound, beets, radishes, carrots, and lettuces are sold by the bunch.
Strawberries are sold by the flat, and flowers are sold by the pot, flat, or individual.
The spotter will announce what the auction is for, the quantity, and if it deviates from the above rules, what the unit per item is.
5. Stay Organized
The auction goes rather quickly from cart to cart, with each one lasting less than 60 seconds normally.
Payment is taken care of when you are finished for the day, and all your items have been loaded. That is up to you to load them, but usually there are farmer’s kids waiting around to help.
A dollar or two tip will ensure you get remembered and helped first next time.
The whole thing can be a rush, and if you are not careful, you could easily spend over $200 without realizing it.
It is quite helpful to keep a pad of paper and a pen with you at all times and write down what you won, how much you paid per item, and the total amount due.
Arrive early, and check out the carts before the auction begins. You’ll get to see what’s on there, and you are allowed to touch, and taste a sample before you bid.
Ask to see the listings for the previous auctions. This will tell you what sold last time, and the range of prices it went for. For example, you can find that strawberries sold for $30 a flat last week.
6. Ask Questions
If you have questions, ASK, and do it BEFORE the auction begins. You’ll get the best answers when they aren’t busy reconciling numbers, or in full swing of the auction.
The office personnel have heard every question under the sun, and they are there to help you understand what you are doing.
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Share
You will have lots of people who want to split an auction. If someone wins the auction you were bidding on, don’t be afraid to ask them to sell you some of the items.
They might say NO, but in many cases will be more than willing to share.
8. Pay in Cash
Bring cash, especially if you think you might be splitting an auction. The office has no way of doing that for you, and it just makes it easier on everyone.
Know in advance what payment forms are accepted. There’s nothing worse than having the strawberries you wanted, with only a debit card on you and finding they only take cash.
If you are unsure of what the bid amount is, and are afraid to go over your budget, WALK AWAY. Once the auction is over, the winner is liable for payment, regardless of whether or not they can afford it.
9. Be Aggressive
You’ll need to be aggressive, but know your limits. There will actually be people who bid just to make the auction amounts higher, get you to spend your money, and have the final auctions to themselves. Generally, the earlier the auction, the higher the price.
10. But Don’t Be Afraid to Quit
DON’T BE AFRAID TO WALK AWAY, IF YOU NEED TO. THERE WILL BE OTHER ITEMS! It’s always better to not get a box of tomatoes than to overpay, or not be sure of what you just did.
11. Think About Your Needs
Have a clear idea of what you plan to do with any produce you walk away with after the produce auction. How much volume do you need? What price range works for you?
There’s no point in buying two bushels of cabbage if your family hates cabbage. Think about ways to use the product ahead of time.
Also, consider partnering up with other homesteads or even local businesses to see if you can split some of the bout you buy. This is a great way to score deals on produce without finding yourself totally inundated.
Before you go to the auction, take the time to clear out your refrigerator. Chances are, the produce that you’ll be buying was picked that morning – but it will have sat outside in the heat all day.
Even if you plan on preserving it, it’s a good idea to get it in the fridge as soon as you can.
12. Know the Farmer
You should be able to get a list of participating farmers ahead of the auction event. If you can, take some time to research each one. After you buy the produce, it will have a tag indicating the farmer’s seller numbers.
This is a great way to find out more about how the produce you are eating was grown. It can also help you form relationships with farms in your area.
If you find a farm that you’re absolutely in love with, you can buy more produce from them later on (even if you don’t go to an auction to do so).
13. Shop in Season
If you can, go to produce auctions when the crops you need and want the most are in season.
Understand crop seasonality, or the time of year in which specific groups are usually harvested. It’s not like shopping in the grocery store, where you can get any kind of produce year-round.
If a crop you want to buy is not in season, you’re not going to find it at the produce auction – something that’s important to be aware of.
14. Keep an Open Mind
Stay as flexible as possible. While it helps to go into the auction experience with a basic idea of what you want to get out of it, know that prices fluctuate by month or season.
You might want to consider submissions you can make if one type of produce you want isn’t available, but another is.
To get an idea of what you might be able to buy ahead of time, see if you can get a copy of the market report from the last auction day that was held in your area.
15. Don’t Forget About How You’ll Get it Home
You’ll be expected to take your produce with you the day of the auction. Bring along a vehicle that has the capacity to carry what you buy!
16. Consider Traveling
If you don’t have produce auctions where you live, be willing to travel!
Produce auctions are often hosted in Amish communities and you can often do auctions by looking at the state department of agriculture website. Even local farm stands might know where produce auctions can be found.
If you don’t mind traveling a bit, consider planning a mini-vacation around it! And make sure you come up with a plan for what you’ll do with all that produce when you get back.
If you buy eight bushels of corn, you don’t want it all sitting in your kitchen for a week when you’re at work.
17. Don’t Ignore Flower Auctions
Just as produce auctions are held in many places, you should also consider flower auctions!
These are seasonal – in the spring, you’re most likely to find bulbs, in the fall, mums. Check tags so you know whether items are being sold by the pot or by the flat.
18. Be Respectful
Most importantly, respectful. Don’t sell the produce you’ve bought on auction grounds outside. It’s rude and also not permitted to resell items you’ve purchased. Don’t do it. Just don’t.
One More Produce Auction Tip!
One more tip? Be very mindful of your body movements!
Don’t look directly at the auctioneer and smile and move your hair. Even if you are just being nice (like I was), he’ll think you are bidding and you’ll be taking home 30 watermelons you hadn’t planned on. Luckily I got them for only $.25 each!
The next time you attend a produce auction, remember these tips to help make the most of your experience.
These strategies will give you an advantage over other buyers and help you secure the best product for your business.
Have you ever been to a produce auction? Are you going to try one soon? Be sure to pin this for later!
Heather’s homesteading journey started in 2006, with baby steps: first, she got a few raised beds, some chickens, and rabbits. Over the years, she amassed a wealth of homesteading knowledge, knowledge that you can find in the articles of this blog.
Learn more about Heather and the rest of the writers on this page.