Flexibility and Adaptability: The Produce Auction and the County Fair
In addition to establishing a consistent and reliable infrastructure for obtaining food locally, food service providers must also be creative and flexible in their local food purchases. There is no definitive paradigm for local acquisition in a farm-to-college system. The purchasing of local foods requires patience and persistence, and we must adapt to the unique conditions of the area. At Kenyon, we have adapted to the distinctiveness of our region, and to the opportunities that our area has to offer by working closely with both our local produce auctions and our county fair as a means of attaining food locally. These means of local food acquisition provide examples of how institutions can creatively respond to one’s surroundings.
We supplement our purchases from individual suppliers through buying from a nearby produce auctions. Typically found near Amish and Mennonite communities, produce auctions serve as distribution centers for facilitating easier sales of produce for a large number of the growers, and easier acquisition for the buyers. Furthermore, auctions allow us the opportunity to fill a portion of our demand on a non-committed basis. The two auctions most frequented by the college are the Farmer’s Produce auction in Mount Hope, and Owl Creek Produce Auction in Waterford. While Farmer’s Produce Auction provides us with a wider variety of produce that comes in greater quantities, Owl Creek Produce Auction is much closer and thus more frequented by the college. Owl Creek is an Amish-owned produce auction that was started in the spring of 2006 to enhance the agricultural sustainability of the surrounding community.
On nearly any given Monday, Wednesday, or Friday from April until December, Amish and English of all ages gather under a modest white open-air pavilion to exchange produce and to socialize with one another at Owl Creek. Kelly Brown, the manager of Owl Creek, describes the nature of the auction:
All we provide is a place for the seller to meet the buyer, basically. Growers just line up their product in rows. It’s an absolute auction kind of system where we walk the rows with an auctioneer and clerk, and all the bidders walk along, and everything is in lots of product, and each lot is auctioned separately. The highest bidder wins the product, and that’s the way the auction works. The system’s pretty simple and that’s the way we try to keep it, so that the buyers, it’s their responsibility once that product is sold to make sure they get it on their truck and get it where it needs to go.
Owl Creek sells the full range of produce that can be grown in Ohio—from asparagus to zucchini—and they typically sell it in large quantities. This serves institutional buyers well, in part, because it gives us buying power.
The produce auction can be a confusing and overwhelming cultural experience, especially for those unfamiliar with auctions. Everything is incredibly fast-paced—there are rows and rows of produce to be sold, and the auctioneer has to get through all of them quickly. At any given time, there are probably several different lots being auctioned off at once; if Marsh loses focus for even a moment, he might lose the lot that he was hoping to bid on. Thus, an auction requires a great deal of attention. Once the bidding begins, buyers raise their bids through a slight twitch of the eyebrow, or a barely visible nod of the head. From the singing words of the auctioneer to the hustling of buyers pallet-jacking produce into their trucks and onto their buggies, auctions can be quite chaotic and exhausting; the only way to truly master the art of the produce auction is by attending the auction, and by attending it often.
Marsh or another representative from Kenyon College can be found at one of our local produce auctions an average of two to three times a week, depending on whether classes are in session and on what produce is in season. Marsh has frequented the auctions long enough to know which suppliers are reliable and which to avoid, and to know the market prices for the produce and when he should stop bidding. At any given moment during the auction, John Marsh is hyper-focused and hustling around frantically from place to place. He must place his bids and load the truck, while simultaneously conversing with suppliers, paying attention to the prices that the produce is going for, and listening for the other lots being auctioned off around him. Bidding in such large quantities from an auction is often difficult for one person to do alone. When it comes to keeping track of the lots ultimately purchased by the college and to loading these heavy lots of produce into the truck, having more than one representative from the college helps immensely.
Produce auctions are also great places for networking. As a venue for meeting dozens of suppliers of top-quality produce, we find many of our individual suppliers here. Brown illustrates the significance of institutional networking at our produce auctions:
John [Marsh] can say, well, you know you have six hundred pounds of potatoes here, but we need a thousand pounds of potatoes this week. Where am I going to get the other four hundred? And you know by talking to three or four guys around the auction…they network and figure things out, and John gets his product.
Furthermore, Marsh can call up Brown to find out what the produce supply looks like. If he is running other errands and cannot make it on time to the auction, Brown will even place a bid for the college. As a regular to the auction and one of its largest buyers, everyone who attends Owl Creek knows Marsh and the work that he’s doing to bring local foods to Kenyon students. Growers pay attention to the items that Marsh most frequently buys, and some base their production for the growing season partially upon what they know Kenyon College will buy from them at the auctions.
Supporting our local produce auctions has been quite beneficial for Kenyon logistically, because it gathers many suppliers in a central and offers a great opportunity for networking. Our consistent institutional support of nearby produce auctions directly contributes to the overall viability of the surrounding community. Economically, we are helping out more small-scale farmers and their families than we would be by relying solely on individual producers to supply our local foods. Our presence at these auctions is also beneficial for the public relations of the college, as it enables us to spread awareness of the role that Kenyon plays in the community and in the broader local foods movement.
Kenyon’s involvement in the Knox County Fair offers another example of our ability to adapt to the nature of our surrounding agricultural community. During the summer, we purchased two hundred broiler chickens and thirty-six turkeys from the 4-H organizations at our county fair. During the same summer, Kenyon also received six beef pool steers from the local 4-H chapters at our county fair. The Knox County beef pool is an educational project that encourages 4-H youth to raise beef steers for quality of the meat, rather than the animal’s appearance. The steers were processed at a slaughterhouse about an hour north of Kenyon, and the youngsters that raised them had a chance to see what the meat of their steers looked like after being slaughtered. The year before, the beef pool was only able to hold a live judging at the fair because they then had to sell the steers to industrial beef company feedlots, which will not accept beef that has already been slaughtered. By providing an outlet for the processed meat, Kenyon made it possible for the participants to learn more about cattle farming.
At 4-H auctions, people often bid on the animals as a donation to the youth who raised them, though they don’t actually want the meat for themselves. At the Knox County Fair, the unwanted poultry typically go as a donation to Interchurch. In the past, however, Interchurch struggled to process the birds, and they would have preferred a charitable donation. By buying back the birds with a donation to Interchurch, Kenyon was able to help both Interchurch and those who raised the poultry. Our purchases from the 4-H auctions at our county fair demonstrate exactly what a local food system is all about: being creative and flexible in one’s means of attaining local foods, while providing economic and civic support to the community as directly as possible.
 Interview with Kelly Brown, Gambier, Ohio, September 13, 2011.