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Produce auctions across Missouri connect rural farmers to urban sellers and local restaurants

Cartons of fresh produce are stacked on the floor of an open-air building. In the background, a crows is gathered for an auction.
Cami Koons
The Central Missouri Produce Auction has drawn buyers from all around the state for the past 30 years.

Produce auctions, which have been around for hundreds of years, allow farmers who need to travel via horsepower to sell into a larger, more profitable market.

In an open pole barn on a Monday morning, a crowd of casually dressed people gathered and listened intently.

On either side of the group, auctioneers with microphones voiced singsong calls for buyers, who raised fingers discreetly to score the right price on flats full of picture-perfect produce.

The Central Missouri Produce Auction in Fortuna, Missouri, draws market owners and distributors from more than 100 miles away, all enticed by the fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables.

About 90% of the produce at the auction comes from farms in a 10-mile radius, in gardens that are “measured in 1,000 square feet, not acres,” according to the auction manager John Shirk.

It started about 30 years ago when a group of Old Order Mennonite families wanted a new way to sell their fruits and vegetables.

Many of those same families still load up their horse and buggies three days a week and clip-clop over to the auction.

Only now, decades into the practice, the auction barn generates millions of dollars in sales as a successful link in a local food distribution chain.

Two men wearing hats and microphones stand with their back to the camera. In front of them, people mill about in an open air garage-type building.
Cami Koons
Auctioneers rattle off bids on both sides of the produce auction aisles. This keeps the competition high and the auctions short

‘A sharp buyer’

Sellers start to unload two hours before the auction begins. They stack boxes of their fresh harvest on green “flats” (wheeled carts) and attach a seller’s number to the handle.

Numbers are drawn on a lottery system, so it’s randomized who is first and last to sell their produce in the auction.

The buyers arrive in a variety of vehicles from far and wide. Some stop at the concession stand for a homemade donut or lunch as they wait for the auctioneers to switch on their microphones.

Then, the crowd gathers.

Two auctioneers sell off lots of produce from either side.

“It takes a sharp buyer to be able to buy on both sides,” Shirk said.

This method, he has found, keeps the auctions short and sweet, so folks can get on with their day. Usually, the auction house is cleared out in an hour.

“The more efficient we can keep it, the better it works,” Shirk said.

The fast-paced auction takes place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday during the growing season (April to October).

This is not for the everyday produce shopper.

These auctions are geared specifically towards wholesale buyers who are expecting to buy 100-pound lots of tomatoes at a time.

Once they’ve settled up, buyers wheel the carts over to their vehicles and load them up.

Norman Borgmeyer travels over two hours to buy at the Central Missouri Produce auction for his market in Salem, Missouri.

“They’ve got good quality stuff,” Borgmeyer said.

He has visited some of the other auctions closer to his business. But he insists this auction, just north of Versailles, Missouri, is the biggest and best.

A man in a cap and sleeveless blue shirt loads produce from a platform cart into the back of a van.
Cami Koons
Pacer Hatridge loads boxes of produce into the back of a van. He travels the two hours from Salem, Missouri, with Norman Borgmeyer to buy from the auction.

Borgmeyer travels with Pacer Hatridge, who helped him load trays of tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, asparagus and zucchini into the back of a van.

After the two-hour drive home, Borgmeyer will sell the Missouri-grown produce at his Highway 72 Produce Market.

Matt Burks came away with more than 200 pounds of tomatoes.

Early in the season, the greenhouse-and-high-tunnel-grown produce is expensive.

At the recent auction, Burks paid $26 per 15-pound tray. He said later in the season, or at the right sale, the juicy tomatoes are cheap.

“I have walked away with hundreds of tomatoes, for pennies, in my mind,” said Burks, who typically comes from Sedalia, Missouri, to the produce auction every other week.

He takes them to Healthy Habits, the health store his wife manages, where tomatoes are a big seller.

A man wearing a blue t-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap bends to pick up a crate of Missouri-grown tomatoes.
Cami Koons
Luke Buechter has been coming to the auction outside of Versailles, Missouri, for 20 years.

Many of the buyers grow produce of their own. But they use goods from the auction to supplement their retail businesses.

“We had to start getting produce (because) our garden isn’t ready yet,” Luke Buechter said as he pushed a flat full of tomatoes to his van.

Buechter and his wife have been coming to the auction for about 20 years to supplement the produce at T & L Gardening, their shop in Belle, Missouri.

He makes the 90-minute drive every other week, sometimes more often.

“We can get the best produce right here,” Buechter said.

Plus, he knows on the right day he can snag a great deal — like a $2-a-box-of-tomatoes deal.

“If you really pay attention, there’s times you can really get a good bargain,” he said.

Making it work in the Midwest

Shirk and his sons brought onions, asparagus, garlic, beets and cabbage to the recent auction.

His asparagus and garlic sold for a little less than he expected, but other than that it was an OK sale.

“Sometimes you just have to close your eyes,” Shirk said with a chuckle about the fluctuating prices that are inherent with an auction.

According to research in the “Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies,” produce and fruit auctions in the United States go back more than 200 years.

The auctions lost popularity between the 1940s and 1970s. But they were revived by Amish and Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania in the late 1980s.

Around that time, Shirk said some Old Order Mennonite families in central Missouri were having a hard time selling produce off their farms.

“It was a less than satisfactory arrangement,” Shirk said.

They heard of the success of East Coast auctions and decided to give it a go in their community.

“It was a little questionable whether or not that would work in the Midwest,” Shirk said.

The early doubt has been replaced by decades of success and growth.

Many of the same founding members are still shareholders and sit on the board of directors, but the auction is open to any local growers, not just Mennonite farmers.

A father and son look straight to the camera. The older man wears a short sleeved, plaid button-down shirt and the younger man is in a grey t-shirt.
Cami Koons
John Shirk and his son Peter make sure the Central Missouri Produce Auction runs smoothly.

The auction works, and is popular in the community, in part because it allows folks who need to travel via horsepower to sell into a larger, more profitable market.

Without the auction, growers would have to spend more time marketing their produce or pay someone to haul it to a bigger market.

“What makes it work so well is because a number of buyers can come in here and instead of run from farm to farm, they can come here and they’ve got a whole range of quality and price,” Shirk said.

The Central Missouri Produce Auction is one of 10 in the state.

Patrick Byers is a field specialist in horticulture with the University of Missouri Extension. Byers supports the produce auction growers in his southern Missouri region.

The communities he works with have skilled farmers, with several generations of practical knowledge. He leads workshops on things like food safety and insect and disease management.

“In other words, how to grow crops that are needed for the quality at the sale of auctions,” Byers said.

Most of the growers farm in greenhouses and high tunnels, which provide a controlled environment and drastically extend the growing season.

“Their goal is to grow tomatoes when there are no other local tomatoes on the market,” Byers explained. “It also gives you an option to produce crops of higher quality than you would grow in the field.”

A close-up image of crates of brightly colored tomatoes.
Cami Koons
Produce auctions are meant for wholesale buyers who can purchase hundreds of pounds of produce at a time.

He believes auctions are a great option for buyers who value quality. Bulk pricing also encourages restaurants to buy locally.

“The reason it works so well is because of the connections,” Byers said. “The people that are buying the food recognize the quality of what they’re buying.”

The same method, he believes, could work all over — not just in Amish or Mennonite communities. Byers said he sees a similar strategy in the growing popularity of local food hubs.

Food hubs, like the one in Kansas City, work with a variety of growers throughout the region and aggregate their products to create a more reliable distribution.

Just like at the produce auction, a food hub pulls from multiple growers to ensure a wholesale buyer can get enough of what they need, even if one farm has a late blooming tomato crop or was damaged in a storm.

In the past couple of years, more produce auctions have cropped up in Missouri.

“We’ve seen an explosion in interest in produce auctions,” Byers said. “The fact that these have persisted and that we’re seeing more and more pop up, points out their viability.”

Several Amish families from the Seymour, Missouri, area migrated to southeast Kansas and started a produce auction outside of Thayer.

Joe Curran lives in the Thayer area and runs the auction house for his Amish neighbors.

“We’re just their connection to the outside world,” Curran said.

As an outside connector, Curran makes calls to potential buyers and advertises the auction, which is over a decade old.

Like the Central Missouri Produce auction, the growers come from just down the road, and buyers travel dozens of miles, twice a week.

“The fun thing to me … (is that) we’ve developed kind of a family atmosphere around it,” Curran said. “We miss each other during the winter.”

This story was originally published by Flatland, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.
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