There are times when you learn lessons easy and there are those that you learn by fire. My first plant auction was a learning experience by fire. Last year was the first year we did a market booth and we purchased many of our plants as plugs. Thus, the auction was the main source of our plants rather than our own seeds.
I had heard about this Auction from Becky who owned the green house we used and was the daughter of the original Ivan family. Her family frequented this auction over the years to get plants for their business. Unfortunately, Becky could not join me the first time I went down and I had decided to go it alone.
I had only been to one other auction before and it was a University of Missouri surplus action where they sold old desks and computer pieces. I had purchased two $5 desks and left without anything extra. That action had been about 20 years ago.
It was mid February 2016, I was headed to the auction with every intention of just watching and maybe getting a few herbs. I knew it was early in the season and that they would be having auctions all spring long. I was driving my Minivan and needed to stop off at Morgan County Seed to pick up soil for transplanting our Ivan Tomato starts.
I drove down to the Central Missouri Produce Auction and found my way easy enough with the use of Google Maps ( http://agebb.missouri.edu/hort/auction/central.htm). It was about an hour and a half drive and I was so excited without really having a clue about what I was doing or what to expect.
When I got there, I realized I was in a territory I knew nothing about. There were as many cars as there were horse and buggies. There were more Amish folks than not. I was completely out of place in my city clothing. I stuck out like a sore thumb with my flowy dress, stylish sweater, phone, and modern gear. The connectivity had dropped off a few miles before I reached the place so it really felt like I was back in time.
When I walked into the place the first thing I saw was a central office with windows all around and line ups as people were registering for their auction numbers. I also noticed a lot of boxes, that under closer look, turned out to be cases of farm fresh eggs. On the other side of the office there were rack after rack after rack of plants. I walked around a little bit, with my mouth hanging open, gathering flies, I am sure.
I eventually got in line to get my auction number registered. The Amish woman at the counter looked at me and said, “You’re not from around here, are ya?” I stammered, “No, I am not.” She then came back with the proclamation, “That’s what we all thought.” I kind of self-consciously asked what I needed to do and followed her directions to get Victory Gardeners registered to buy plants.
I looked around and about half the folks were dressed in the modest and old fashion dress of the Amish, with the other half hearing baseball caps and jeans. I was wearing a floor length burgundy sweater with a purple skirt and a V neck t-shirt. I was looking the part of mother earth meets Lane Bryant.
I walked around, open mouthed, looking at rack after rack of the coolest looking plants I had ever seen. The lady had warned me that you buy plant in lots. If you bid on a lot of 6 trays at $10 you would be on the hook to pay $60. The prices you bid were price per tray for the entire lot. Most lots included a minimum of 6 trays of plants. I looked at these collections with respect. I also realized I had to fit it all into the back of my van.
One of the plants that caught my eye was beautiful purple wave petunias. I knew I usually paid at least $8 for a four pack of wave petunias. I always bought a few four packs to put in my back garden. I loved the purple blooms and the waves that would flow down my raised beds from all the corners. I knew I would use some of those. Depending on the price it might be cheaper to buy them here just considering how much I needed for my beds. Yet, you had to buy an entire lot and that was a lot of petunias. In fact, that was at least 244 wave petunias. I figured I would sell them. People like petunias, right? I wrote down the lot # with wave petunias.
I looked on and noticed several great lots of herbs. We could use some herbs and sell some herbs. There were at least 10 different lots of worthy herbs. I knew which herbs I used, but I did not know which one other people would want to buy. They all smelled so good. They seemed to come in trays of 36 and had about 10 trays per lot. I wrote down the lot numbers with good looking herb collections.
They also offered great looking sweet potato vines. I wanted to grow sweet potatoes. There were so many types and they were growing so strong. I had never grown them before, yet a neighbor of mine brought in a bumper crop of sweet potatoes the year before. I figured how could I go wrong on sweet potatoes? People will want to grow them. They produce food, right? I started writing down the lots that had good looking sweet potato vines.
There were so many things that looked so lovely. They had a product called licorices that looked like nice edging plants. A nice selection of flowers from annuals to perennials were also available. There were hanging baskets, trays of bedding plants, wooden planters, succulents and more. The amount of selections was a bit overwhelming.
Another area had eggs. They had boxes and boxes of eggs. Each box had 24 dozen in it. Some of the boxes were marked organic, while others were marked with family farm names. I was very impressed by this side of the room.
The auction was about to start. I got a seat and watched in wonder as the bantering began. At times, there were two auctioneers going at the same time. The fast, nasal drone of the prices going up and deals being made could be heard coming from both sides of the front area. This required me to jump up and down checking out what was coming up on both sides.
At first I watched and saw what people were interested in paying for the plants I was interested in buying. If someone won an auction and there were several identical lots available the buyer could choose to get as many lots as they like. I saw people buy huge quantities of plants for large scale nursery sales.
I started to bid on plant lots tentatively. Just testing the water. Then suddenly I won a lot. It was the ornamentals. They were just so pretty and only $3 a tray. I couldn’t resist. Oh my, what had I just done. Oh well, I was sure they would sell. People like ornamentals. I swore I was going to be more careful.
Then came the petunias. I tried bidding on a few of these. I figured it was cheaper than getting them at the stores in my town. I did not get the first few lots. People really wanted the petunias. I figured there must be a reason for this. They must know how much people love petunias. I kept bidding and finally won a lot of 6 trays of petunias. I was very excited.
There was nothing I was interested in coming up so I decided I would walk over and check out what was happening with the eggs. There was an entire area just dedicated to eggs. I did not know what to do. I watched and saw that these wonderful eggs were going for about $1.10 per dozen. We are talking farm fresh, brown, organic eggs. I started to bid. I did not want to pay more than the $1.10 so it took me a while to win. However, when I won I found out that the bid was not for just one box, which would have contained 24 dozen, it was for two boxes. Lord have mercy, I just bought 48 dozen eggs. What on earth was I going to do with all those eggs? Eggs must go bad at some point. I hastily decided it might be safer to go sit down back in the plant area.
As the auction wore on I ended up bidding on the Sweet Potato Vines and won 6 trays of different varieties of those. I also won an herb lot with 11 trays of 36 plants each. At this point I remembered that I had only so much room in the van and still had to go by Morgan County Seed to get soil and trays. I started to wonder if I had bought too much to carry home.
I had bid for and won the following:
Miraculously this only summed up to about $250 dollars, I paid my bill to the shaking heads of the Amish women. They seemed to know something that I did not. I had to use every inch of space to get it all in my mini-van. I laid trays everywhere, I even stacked some that looked like they could take it. I ended up getting everything in there. I thought I did so well.
I started driving and very shortly found I had connectivity back. I stopped and looked up the sweet potato vines. Oh No! They were not edible. WHAT?! ? They were ornamentals. Apparently, there are many types of these vines and only a few are edible. OH CRAP! Well, at least I had those petunias. They would sell… Right?
I drove back to Columbia in a mix of excitement and dread. I got to Becky’s farm and started unloading the trays into her greenhouse. She looked at me with her patient and kind knowing eyes. She asked me what I intended to do with the petunias. I told her I wanted to sell them. She told me they would all need to be transplanted into hanging baskets as they would grow like crazy over the next two months. The first fingers of dread slipped around my neck.
Then she saw the sweet potatoes. I told her how I thought they were edible. She laughed but told me that people like them, however they would also need to be transplanted. Then she saw the herbs and the ornaments. She showed me that the herbs I bought were plugs and in substandard soil. The herbs would need immediate transplanting if I hoped to make something of them.
This moment was transformational for me. I realized a couple of things. First, I realized that I should not have gone to the auction without Becky and that I had a lot to learn. I also realized I had started my first real season as a farmer and I was so proud. This city girl from Toronto was now the mother of a few thousand plants and was taking the Ivan Project to a new level.