You’ve never saved money on vegetables like this before.
Oh sure, a couple of weeks ago I did a post on 8 ways to cut produce costs, and I’ve used those tips to trim my grocery budget.
Then I went to a produce auction: The only place I know where you can take a trip to the country, enjoy an evening of live entertainment, and snag 16 eggplants for $3.30.
Welcome to the Auction
Frankly, I’d never heard of a produce auction until I started doing some internet research into ways to save money on vegetables. Even then, it was only by chance that I stumbled across a comment that mentioned produce auctions on one of the many blog posts I consulted.
Since I love auctions—the excitement, the competition, the deals!—I was immediately intrigued. A quick Google search revealed a produce auction less than an hour away: the Southern Maryland Regional Farmers Market (SMRFM).
However, I was a little concerned. From what I’d read online, some auctions sell by the truckload, a bit too ambitious for even my veggie aspirations. Just in case, I gave the nice folks at SMRFM a call to verify that they sell smaller lots to individuals (they do).
So this past Thursday evening Jeff and I drove the 45 minutes to SMRFM. We were greeted by a sprawling, dusty warehouse that smelled of earth and sweet hay and housed four long rows of carts holding gourds, pumpkins, tomatoes, corn, apples, peppers, eggplants, squash and more.
Being a country girl at heart, I was in heaven.
How It Works
1. Get a buyer number. Initially we weren’t planning on buying anything. We just wanted to get a feel for the process, the lot sizes, the prices, and so on. But in the interest of science (anything for the greater good!), I decided we should register to buy with the market office. So I signed up for a number, which didn’t cost anything up front, and agreed to pay a 10% fee to the auction on whatever I bought. (I could have paid a $25 up-front fee for a lower rate, but since we “weren’t going to buy anything,” that hardly seemed prudent.)
2. Preview the goods. I love shopping, so this was a blast for me. Just three steps down the first aisle, and my head was spinning with the flats of red ripe tomatoes to can, the pumpkins to puree and freeze, the quarts of applesauce to put up, the warty gourds to perch on the mantel!
Jeff was already eyeing me suspiciously. He knows my soul.
That said, he too was intrigued, and we agreed on some items we might be interested in bidding on—if we were to bid, that is—and a few that we knew we wouldn’t be able to handle. For instance, our weekend schedule didn’t allow for canning applesauce and tomatoes. So we decided that, hypothetically of course, we’d bid on the apples instead of tomatoes, so as to only take on one canning project.
3. Make a bid, save big. After a short introduction by one of the organizers, the auction began. Just a few items down the first row was a cart of half-bushel boxes of eggplants, and the bidding went all the way down to $3.00. No one was biting.
We’re just watching, I told myself. Besides, we hadn’t discussed eggplant in our preview round.
But they were so utterly, ridiculously cheap. Jeff and I looked at each other—what on earth would we do with half a bushel of eggplants?
“We’ll freeze ’em,” I whispered, nudging him with my elbow. “Let’s do it.” Up went his hand, and the eggplants were ours! (So much for not buying.) We couldn’t believe our good fortune, and after the auctioneer had moved on, we grew a bit worried that somehow we’d misheard, and they were charging $3.00 per eggplant instead of per half-bushel of eggplants, in which case we were up a creek. Luckily, it was $3.00 for the box, and we were off and running.
From there, it took us a little while to figure out exactly how the system worked. The lot size varied from one cart to the next, so paying close attention to the auctioneer when he introduced each item was key. For instance, on some carts you could bid on individual pumpkins, while on other carts you had to buy a box of a hundred or so. Also, for most items, winning the bid didn’t mean you had to buy everything on the cart, but rather gave you first dibs. For example, one cart held some eight half-bushel boxes of acorn squash. We won the bid, so we got to pick our box first. Of course, if we’d wanted to, we could have taken all eight boxes. (We didn’t, needless to say.) At that point, other buyers could buy the remaining boxes, typically at the same price.
4. Buy only what you can handle. You only save money if you eat or preserve what you buy before it rots. I had to constantly remind myself of this. For example, it just about killed me not to bid on the 36 ears of bicolor sweet corn that sold for $2.50 ($0.07/ear)! I have a very finite amount of willpower, and I think I used up about a week’s worth on that one. But I knew Jeff and I only had so much time to devote to the kitchen over the weekend, so I held off.
5. Have a good time. As we discovered, a produce auction isn’t only about scoring crazy deals on veggies (although you probably will). You’ll also find a festive atmosphere, enjoy some stand-up comedy courtesy of the auctioneer, and, of course, try your hand at bidding. Better yet, at SMRFM, lots of the buyers were families. So if you have kids, at least at this auction, they’re welcome to join in.
6. Reap the rewards.Not only did we enjoy ourselves, but we saved a bundle on vegetables. Here are the veggies we got (along with a bushel of Jonagold apples and an enormous purple mum):
Here’s the price breakdown on the veggies (including the 10% auction fee) and the money we saved over buying the same produce at Giant:
We saved nearly $50 on veggies, paying less than a third of what we would have spent at Giant. (If anyone wants to see a spreadsheet of my calculations, just shoot me an email.) Not to pick on Giant; I think it’s a fine supermarket, and it certainly offers the flexibility to buy only what you need. But if you don’t mind buying in bulk, you can score one heck of a deal. And comparing to prices at Whole Foods or our regular farmers market? Fuhgettaboutit! We blew them both out of the water. Even factoring in the $10 in gas, it was still a bargain, and we had a memorable date to boot.
Finding an Auction Near You
If you live in the DC metro area, you have two auctions to choose from:
Southern Maryland Regional Farmers’ Market: Fall 2012: Produce and flower auctions are held Mondays and Thursdays at 7:00 pm through October 25, 2012.
11701 Crain Hwy (Rte. 301), Cheltenham, MD 20623. 800-533-FARM.
Loveville Produce Auction: I haven’t been to this one yet, but fall 2012 auctions are held Mondays at 11:00 am, and Wednesdays and Fridays at 9:00 am through October 29, with a few auctions happening later. (See their brochure for details.) They’re also holding a “Home and Harvest” auction at 9:00 am on Saturday, October 6, 2012.
40454 Bishop Rd, Mechanicsville, MD 20659.
If you’re outside the DC area, a quick Google search should pull up an auction near you. However, whichever auction you choose, be sure to check that they sell to individuals and that small lots are available.
Would you ever try a produce auction? Have you been to one and have tips to share? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.
Shared on Flashback Fridays.