We’ve been wringing our hands over the cold, slow, strawberry-less season for about four weeks, and I (Matt) finally decided to take matters into my own hands. Last Tuesday, I drove up to the Growers’ Produce Auction in Cashton, Wisconsin, to bid on berries. That’s right, a real auction.
I’ve pretty much only seen auctions in movies and had no idea what I was doing, so I was hoping the organizers were willing to take me under their wing and explain how things worked. I had to learn how the auction floor was organized, where the auctioneer would be, how the lot system works and how the bid price translated to the final price. Oh, and also where to buy fresh baked cinnamon rolls if I got hungry.
I went to take a look at the strawberries, finding them on the far end of the warehouse with a big group of people gathered around them. These were my auction competitors, and I quickly realized that I was very much the only outsider. My heart rate picked up a bit. An Amish farmer showed me his strawberries, explaining how he works his fields with a horse-drawn plow and pointing out his delivery buggy. I was officially out of my element.
I did a quick calculation on the back of my auction card and realized that I needed to win at least half of all the berries available in order to make my trip worth it and if I could take all of them, that would be better. My heart rate accelerated a little more.
The auctioneer started at 11 on the dot with a box of rhubarb. I was totally taken aback. I had no idea what he was saying, who was bidding, what the price was and then all of a sudden he yelled, “SOLD!” Check out the video, it’s like a totally different language. I had to film it sneakily because cameras were not technically allowed at the auction – but I had to get this on tape. How was I going to win these strawberries?
I could see that they were going to do the berries soon, so I leaned forward in my seat and strained with every ear and brain muscle I had to pick out what he was saying. After a few lots, I began to get the gist, but just barely. And then the strawberries were up.
I was determined to buy the whole first lot, so as soon as he started talking I raised my card in the air and trained every ounce of my attention on what he was saying. I had a price ceiling and I didn’t want to him to blow by it without me noticing – “SOLD! to the city boy for $75 a quart!” I heard him say $2.50 and then $3.00 and then $3.25 and then $3.50. I threw my card up at $3.50, sensing a slow down in the bidding and a chance to take the lot. He nodded my way, repeated $3.50 again, going once, going twice, SOLD! To me!
I was just so excited at having won my first auction that I didn’t even hear him ask how many of the quarts I wanted. He asked me again, and as it dawned on me that he was asking me a question in front of everyone, I blurted out, “Oh! All of them, I’ll take all of them. Wait, how many is it?”
And that’s how I blew my cover. It was already glaringly obvious that I was a first-timer and not from around there, but now they all knew that I had designs on a lot of strawberries. That pushed the price way up on the rest of the rounds of bidding. Even so, I won three more – taking home 80% of all the berries available that day. People tried to buy them from me after the auction, but I skedaddled home with precious cargo in tow.
Two days of test batches later, we’ve got our first strawberry jars ready to ship out! To me, I’d say these are my best-tasting jars yet – if only because I know what went in to making them happen.