Things to know about produce auctions
by Courtney Llewellyn
Growers of vegetables, fruits, flowers or any other plant product that grows in bulk know there are several ways to sell their goods. According to Penn State Extension, direct-to-consumer outlets such as farmers markets and CSAs typically garner the best price points, but they’re also the most labor intensive and require a significant amount of time and money spent on marketing. Another option you may not have considered yet is the produce auction.
Becky Clawson, Penn State educator, food systems and local foods, and Jeffrey Stoltzfus, Penn State educator, food safety and quality, recently presented “Produce Auctions for Wholesale Buyers” as a webinar, but it provided some useful tips for those looking to sell to those buyers as well.
First, Clawson addressed some of the common misconceptions surrounding produce auctions: Some may think the goods aren’t local – that there are traceability issues; sellers will only receive rock bottom prices; and the produce may be of poor quality. “While these may be more common at retail auctions, they’re less so at wholesale,” she clarified.
Stoltzfus noted that produce auctions have been around for about 100 years. They help those who are “transportationally challenged” – that means a lot of the Plain community today, but it was also true of the presence of fewer trucks in the past. Today, there are between 90 and 100 such auctions throughout the Northeast, the Midwest and into southern Canada.
“They’re good for farmers because of sales efficiency. There’s less time marketing, less time traveling/delivering, less time managing orders – you pick it, pack it, sell it and get back to farming,” Clawson said. “It’s a low technology outlet with reliable payment.” (Unlike contracts which may have delayed payments, anything sold at auction is paid for that day.)
On the opposite side, the auctions are good for buyers because they better help with seasonality, they offer one-stop shopping and produce is fresh and local (often picked the day of). Buyers can meet the growers and build relationships – auctions don’t have to be anonymous affairs. And there are no delivery delays.
As a grower, you’ll need to register with the auction and receive a permanent seller number. That number, along with what you have on each cart or bin, will go on tags attached to the goods. Auctions tend to encourage large sales, often starting with the largest lots and working their way down. They’re open to any grower that wants to sell, from an FFA project to a large farmer making a living growing just cantaloupes, Stoltzfus said. “There’s a place at the auction for all size growers and all size buyers,” he added.
Another benefit of selling at produce auctions is that each grower chooses how they want to market their product and how many items they want in their lot. You can sell whole skids at a time or just a couple of boxes. The auctions want to give growers the ability to sell all the quality they can.