Oberlin Blogs

What Would You Pay for Twelve Tons of Cabbage?

October 26, 2023

Sean Norton ’25

I'm taking the train home through the Ohio and New York countryside this morning, and the Lake Shore Limited train is, as it always is, filled with a motley crew of Pennsylvania Dutch speakers, all bundled up in black with nary a moustache in sight. I haven't spent much time around the Amish, although merely a 10 minute drive south from Oberlin will get you firmly into horse and buggy territory. In any case, hearing the Pennsylvania Dutch is reminding me of tagging along with my now-housemate then-friend Elijah and his co-worker Eli to an Amish produce auction 45 minutes or so south of Oberlin last fall.

Eli and Elijah both worked as the food justice interns at Oberlin Community Services, a local organization that describes itself as: "A responsive community-based organization that serves low-income and vulnerable community members by providing food, financial assistance, referrals, educational outreach, and other basic needs."

A core part of their job was to source food for the OCS food hub. That took a number of forms, from building relationships with farmers willing to donate food, to gleaning unharvested produce from fields, to rescuing ingredients and prepared food from restaurants, commercial kitchens, and the Oberlin student co-ops that would otherwise be thrown out and providing it to people through the food hub. On this particular occasion, their source was this Amish auction.

Elijah had been to a few of these earlier in the season and regaled me with tales of ludicrous abundance, men with matching straw hats, and a fast-talking auctioneer. Naturally I had to go see that for myself! And fortunately he invited me to tag along on their next auction run a week or so before it happened. I excitedly agreed to come, then promptly forgot about it, until he called me 10 minutes before they were scheduled to leave and asked if I still wanted to come.

Of course I said yes! But unfortunately I really had not prepared for this event. For starters, it was a frigid, frosty day in November, the date of the last auction of the season, and I was wearing at best a sweater and a light jacket, thinking I was going to spend most of the day in overheated indoor spaces "studying" or "working" or whatever it was I thought I'd be doing instead of buying huge quantities of fresh produce for next to nothing.

Second problem, not only was I not dressed for the cold, I looked gay as hell! And I was taking a trip into truly rural Ohio. This thought didn't occur to me in earnest until I found myself immersed in a sea of camo and Carhartt coveralls, and realized I looked almost comically out of place, but at least Eli had green hair to match my pink, so it coulda been worse!

But no matter. Elijah called me and said we're leaving in 10 minutes, so I dashed over to OCS on foot, for my incredible tiny golden bicycle--gift of my delightful former roommate--had sadly been nicked by some 14-year-old punk the previous spring. When I arrived, Eli and Eli were loading into the big OCS cargo van, only a two-seater unfortunately. So, off they went down to West Salem OH, armed with a lumbering van, a company card, and me, perched on a milkcrate behind the two front seats.

As we drew closer and closer to our destination, the County Line Produce Auction, the frequency of horse-drawn buggies steadily rose, until we finally came upon a sprawling three-sided warehouse-like building, designed so that you pull the trucks up to the front and the horses and buggies up to the back, complete with high wall loading docks and matching hitching posts.

Inside was an astounding expanse of vegetable containment devices--giant cardboard boxes--stuffed with dozens of heads of cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, squash, pumpkins, onions, you name it, all arrayed in neat rows with the aforementioned sea of Carhartt-clad bidders milling around it. Complementing the Englishmen were gaggles of identically-dressed Amish men, and only men, in their black coveralls and charming little hats, warily eyeing the rest of us.

After resigning myself to being bitterly cold, I went with the Elis to get bidder numbers, but sadly not fancy raisable paddles, and went to watch the auction start.

At the center of the action were two people: the neatly groomed auctioneer, with dark hair and a close-cropped beard, sharply dressed in a shiny black puffer vest, tight jeans, a long-sleeved camo shirt, and rather dainty-looking black gloves. And the King of the Amish. The physically largest guy with the biggest, longest, bushiest beard, not even a hint of mustache, and round silver-rimmed glasses.

Central to their ritualistic roles were the talismans they both carried. For the auctioneer, a wheelable loudspeaker and a sleek, black, not altogether un-phallic microphone, and for the King of the Amish, a big ol stick.

Their dance was thus: the King would read the label of the lot, in a somewhat arcane syntax that I, a newcomer to the world of produce auctions, eventually deciphered to mean how many pallets of vegetables we were bidding on, which ranged from one to thirty, how many veggies total were in each set of pallets, and what the price per individual veggie would start at. You bid on the individual price, but you have to buy the whole lot.

There were two sections to this auction, the first was industrial bulk quantities of food, hundreds and hundreds of heads of lettuce and broccoli and what not, and the second was still bulk, but sold in lots that a large single family could reasonably consume. As such, there were two very distinct groups of bidders. According to the Elis, most of the other players in the truly bulk game were either buyers for some kind of commercial food operation, or resellers, who buy produce on the cheap and resell it at farmers markets.   

The second was a lot of large families, as well as people probably also doing farmers market resale, albeit at a smaller scale, and a surprising number of people dressed in long skirts and black shawls speaking a Slavic language I couldn't identify.  

Elijah and Eli took turns bidding on lots for OCS, although they had a notably different motive than the more profit-driven buyers. We discussed at some length what role they could or should play when bidding with institutional money for food to give away, against people who in many cases would be eligible for that same food through OCS and who support themselves reselling produce. It was eventually decided, as had been their previous practice in these sorts of settings, to try to avoid getting into bidding wars and driving prices up for other people, and to buy lots other people weren't especially interested in.

So there we were, shiny-vested auctioneer spewing barely decipherable, ever increasing price-babble as the King of the Amish leered and smacked the sides of the vegetable bins. Now, the only image of agricultural auctions I had in my head was great big cattle auctions--with their particular speech patterns and strictly required cowboy hat--and with that I assumed that bidding would be the raise of a hand or of your bidding number, but the focus turned out to be on being as subtle as possible. All it seemed to take to bid was to make eye contact with the auctioneer and make any gesture that wasn't a No head shake, usually a teensy tiny nod or raising one finger from a crossed arms stance. Needless to say, I was pretty worried about accidentally bidding on 200 pounds of potatoes!

That's exactly what the Elis were there to do, however, and they bought several pallets of produce and crates of hardneck garlic at incredible rates--54 heads of cabbage for $16!

I had grand dreams of acquiring 100 or so pounds of apples to use in the jankily constructed cider press I had made a few weeks earlier--more on Elijah's and my amateur cidering adventures in another post--but unfortunately we were well past apple season, and much to our amusement and chagrin, there was only one lot of apples at the auction, weighing in at a mere....1800 pounds!

Those 40 bushels went for $50, a painfully low price considering we had just paid over a hundred for 5 bushels of dry ass late season field seconds! We seriously considered buying the whole lot, but the thought of all the labor required to process and squish em, considering our highly advanced apple grinder was a Rubbermaid tub and a two by four, was enough to make us balk. Not to mention having to move 1800 pounds of apples!

There's not much of a resolution to this story, I realize, as I've arrived at both the end of my Amish auction experience, and the end of my train ride. But I'll say this, if you're ever in need of hundreds of pounds of produce at a shockingly reasonable rate, stop by the County Line Produce Auction! And check out OCS!

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