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Rural Missouri Magazine

Not your garden variety auction
Farm fresh veggies are up for bid at the Central Missouri Produce Auction

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by Jason Jenkins

A team of horses pulls a load of cantaloupes and other fresh produce before the buyers at the Central Missouri Produce Auction. The auction is the state’s first and largest wholesale auction for horticultural products.

Milling about before the auction begins, you can’t help it. As you gaze upon the curvaceous cucumbers, magnificent melons, perfect peppers, succulent sweet corn and tasty tomatoes, the sights and smells fill your senses. You hear the rumble and grumble of hunger in your stomach. Your mouth begins to water.

The produce — displayed on wagons pulled by steel-wheeled tractors and hitches of draft horses — looks almost too perfect to be real, so fresh that you’d swear it must have been picked that morning.

You’d be right.

Now in its 17th season, the Central Missouri Produce Auction provides a wholesale market for some of the freshest locally grown produce. From the beginning of April to the end of October, buyers gather at this facility located on Highway E near the Moniteau and Morgan county line to bid on the bounty from nearby fields and greenhouses.

For the past eight seasons, Menno Shirk of Latham has served as manager of the Central Missouri Produce Auction.

The market, which is served by Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, owes its existence to a group of Mennonite growers in this west-central Missouri community who borrowed a concept first adopted in eastern Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s. Today, there are roughly 65 auctions around the country, including four others in the Show-Me State near Jamesport, Clark, Windsor and Seymour. The Central Missouri auction remains the largest.

“The first auction of this kind was built in Leola, Penn.,” says Menno Shirk, manager of the Central Missouri Produce Auction. “Leola is still the granddaddy of them all. Our auction here probably does about 20 percent of the business they do there.”

Prior to establishing the auction house, these Missouri farmers raised produce that they sold direct to buyers in Kansas City.

“But our packaging and shipping costs just ate up our profits,” says Menno. “By having the auction where the produce is, we let the buyers come here and haul it away. It’s really helped the community, and it’s provided an incentive for farmers, especially young farmers, to get started.”

By banding together, the growers’ volume is sufficient enough to attract buyers from great distances. Most are scattered around Missouri, but buyers come from as far away as Arkansas, Kansas and Iowa seeking the fresh fruits and vegetables that they can’t get closer to home.

A prospective buyer examines green bell peppers that will soon be up for bid. Most lots at the produce are relatively large and intended for wholesale customers, but some smaller lots also are available.

Everyone is welcome at the auction, but if you’re only looking to purchase a handful of tomatoes or half-dozen ears of sweet corn, the produce auction isn’t the place you want to shop. Here, the lots are sized for wholesale buyers, such as those who operate roadside stands, farmers markets, grocery stores and restaurants. Three half-bushel boxes — the type you see stock boys unloading at the grocery store — constitute the minimum lot size for most vegetables.

Consignors do have some smaller lots available at every auction, however, and someone who’s looking for produce for a canning project would be wise to check out a sale.

Anyone who raises fruits, vegetables or plants within 100 miles of the facility is welcome to consign their goods. Menno says the vast majority of the produce comes from farms within 15 miles.

“I’d say 90 percent of produce is raised locally,” he says. “We do bring in some shipped stuff to fill in and supplement what’s not available locally yet. We always sell that stuff last to give priority to our local growers.”

What you find offered up for bid at the Central Missouri Produce Auction depends on the time of year. In the spring, perennials, bedding plants and hanging baskets of flowers dominate the auction block. As the year rolls by, the focus turns to all sorts of fruits and vegetables, followed by mums, pumpkins, straw bales, corn fodder and ornamental gourds in the fall. Homemade pies, bread and other baked goods also find their way to the auction.

“The one thing you’ll find all the way through is tomatoes,” Menno adds. “We actually had tomatoes in March this year.”

A wagon of produce pulled by a steel-wheeled tractor waits to take its turn inside the sale barn.

For the most part, buyers learn of the auction by word of mouth. The quality produce keeps them coming back.

“The buyer makes the quality because the buyer bids up according to quality,” Menno explains. “So the other growers are going to try and match that quality, and that’s what brings in more buyers.”

It’s quality that has kept Bob Jones, manager of the Little Muddy Farm near Knob Noster, returning week after week for the past 15 years. In addition to selling produce at the Lee’s Summit Farmers Market, Bob also operates a community supported agriculture venture, or CSA. He purchases produce at the auction to supplement his own crops.

“It is very good quality produce, and if it isn’t, Menno will look you straight in the face and tell you, ‘These are culls,’ or ‘These have been around for a while,’” says Bob, a member of West Central Electric Cooperative. “I am very pleased with the produce I get because I know my grower. I know what he’s doing on the farm. I know the names of his kids. That’s important to my CSA customers.”

A strong sense of community is evident as soon as you arrive at the produce auction. Here, buyers and sellers share in conversation and a slice of fresh cantaloupe.

Tony Anderson, a marketing specialist with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, says that although it’s a wholesale market, the demand for quality from buyers like Bob still drives the prices.

“If the growers bring a premium product, they’re rewarded for that,” he says. “I think what keeps buyers coming back is that consistent quality and just the fact that it’s very well managed.”

With consumers placing more emphasis on knowing where their food comes from these days, Tony says there is added value for wholesale buyers in knowing who grew the produce they purchase. Asking a few questions at the auction and spending a little extra time visiting the farmers can allow buyers to capture that value on the retail market.

“It used to be saying ‘Missouri produce’ was enough, now people want to know more,” he says. “If you can say, ‘This was grown on the Zimmerman farm and here are photos of the farm and fields,’ that farmer becomes the consumer’s personal farmer. That has value.”

Cherry tomatoes were just one of the many varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables recently up for bid at the Central Missouri Produce Auction.

For Joyce Wanamaker of Laurie, fresh local food is only part of the experience during a day at the Central Missouri Produce Auction.

“It’s the most fun thing we do,” she says. “It’s just such a nice, wholesome enterprise.”

On this particular day, peaches, sweet corn and blackberries were on Joyce’s shopping list. She says she typically buys perennials and bedding plants in the spring, followed by all types of produce in the summer.

“We’ll eat some now and share some with friends and family,” she adds. “The rest goes in the freezer.

“But please, don’t tell anybody where this place is. We want to keep it to ourselves!”

The Central Missouri Produce Auction is located on Highway E, 12 miles south of U.S. 50 or 10 miles north of Versailles. Auctions begin at noon on Mondays and 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays. For more details, call 660-337-6227 on auction days.

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