Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Amish Flower Auction

I live in an area of southeast Iowa where many Amish people reside. Many evenings, I hear the clip-clop of horses' hooves as Amish men and women drive their horse-drawn buggies past my house, and I often see them in local stores.

The Amish traditionally made their living from small crop farming, but land shortages as the Amish population has increased have led many Amish families to earn money through less land-intensive greenhouse growing, and as proprietors of retail stores that cater to both Amish and non-Amish locals, as well as in other trades such as carpentry.

The nursery/greenhouse with the best prices in this area is the Maple Avenue Greenhouse on the north edge of Kalona, run by an Amish family (I think I went there four times last week...).

But another good way to get a good deal on plants -- large quantities of them -- is at local flower and produce auctions, which sell wholesale lots of flowers and whatever produce is in season locally. I attended last Tuesday's auction, as well as today's.

Our local flower and produce auctions are held every Tuesday and Friday morning from late April through the end of harvest season. Until this year, they were held at a local non-Amish auction house, but apparently (according to a young Amish person I spoke with) some long-standing disagreement between the Amish growers and the non-Amish auction house owners caused the Amish to open their own auction house this year and eschew the non-Amish one. I think the auctions will eventually be held at the upgraded Stringtown Grocery (Amish bulk groceries), but until their new building is completed, the auctions are temporarily taking place next door at the Central Discount Grocery, a local "scratch & dent" discount store run by Amish owners.

Central Discount Grocery, an Amish "scratch & dent" discount store only a few miles from my house, where the flower auctions are being held temporarily.

Last Tuesday's auction was huge, since the weather was finally conducive to planting tender annuals. People were definitely ready to buy flowers! There were hardly any parking spots left in the large parking lot, and crowds of people were bidding on numerous lots of hanging flower pots, flats of annuals and assorted pots of perennials. It was very exciting, although I didn't see anything I wanted to bid on myself.

(Last April, however, I did bid for and win four flats of snapdragons. I had been longing for more snapdragons since I saw how well the ones I purchased at the Maple Avenue Greenhouse (MAG) had done a couple years previously, but I couldn't find any there the following year. I asked the MAG staff if they had more last spring, but they weren't sure they would get any, and they suggested that I look for them at the Flower Auction, where they purchased theirs for resale. I ended up with 48 four-packs of mixed medium-height snaps -- that's 192 plants, for $22! I did find a spot for all of them, and this year their seeds have started coming back up in spots. Also, I did buy one flat of snaps this year -- for $15 -- at the MAG.)

The trunk full of snapdragons I bought at the Flower Auction last year.

Although today's flower auction was smaller than last Tuesday's, it was still attended by quite a few people and had a good selection of flowers and some produce for sale too (and I was able to surreptitiously take a few photos).

For those who haven't been to such an auction, this is how it works: You try to get there a few minutes before the auction starts, so you can look at the flowers they have for sale, which are displayed in lots outside on rolling two-sided, tiered carts.

Perennial plants for sale.

Some good-looking annuals.


Beautiful hanging baskets. If you wanted six hanging baskets to hang across the length of your front porch, you'd probably pay much less for the lot of six here at the auction than at a supermarket or nursery.

Look at all those impatiens!
After perusing what's available, if you find something you want, take a look at the card attached to the cart that it sits on. In the left of the photo above, you can see the card.

A closeup of the card accompanying the impatiens. The top shelf contains 40 4" pots of Twisted Juncas or Corkscrew Rush. The second and third shelves each contain 8 flats of impatiens, probably 12 4-packs per flat.
The bottom shelf (Lot #1601) contains 4 flats of impatiens.

You might be asking yourself: "What would I do with 4 flats of impatiens?" That is rather a lot of impatiens (192 impatiens plants, to be precise). But if you owned a retail nursery, this would be a good way to augment your stock, possibly for a good price. Or if you took great pride in the large impatiens display in your front yard that your neighbors regard with great awe each year, this might be an affordable way to buy enough plants to fill the display.

At any rate, if you decided to bid on these impatiens, you would go inside the building and register for a bidding number. A photo ID with current address on it is required, to make sure you pay for anything you win. They give you a card with your bidding number on it and then you wait until the cart with the impatiens on it is rolled into the building and bidding begins on the lot you want (#1601).

The registration table is next to the door, behind the table where the Amish woman is selling snacks.
(The coffee might be free).


The auctioneer is at top left. He does the running auctioneer spiel to encourage bidders to bid higher, and is assisted by the Amish men surrounding him. The man on the far left is a bid spotter and helps the auctioneer identify audience bids by grunting and pointing. The guy to the right of the auctioneer records the winning bids. The man standing
at ground level with the microphone announces the lot number and the details of what  is being auctioned in each lot, while the other man holds up an example of the goods being auctioned, so everyone can see it. The younger men and boys help wheel in and out the carts.
But in order to bid, you need to understand how the pricing works. Otherwise you can end up spending a lot more than you think you're spending. In the case of the impatiens: Lot #1601 has 4 flats of 12 4-packs each (48 4-packs) of impatiens. The "x4" on the card tells you that they will be priced by the flat. So whatever amount is being bid will cost the bidder 4 times that for the total price.

I didn't stay for the bidding today, but my guess is that the auctioneer might start the bidding for Lot #1601 at perhaps $5. That would mean $5 per flat of impatiens for a total of $20 for all 4 flats. If no one wanted them at that price, the auctioneer would quickly drop down to a lower price to entice bidders, perhaps $4 for a total of $16. At that price, you would raise your card and he would acknowledge your bid, and ask if anyone would bid $4.50 for them ($18 total). Someone else likely would offer $4.50 and the auctioneer would then ask for $5, which if you wanted those impatiens, you would indicate you would pay ($20 total). Perhaps you would get them for that price or perhaps a nursery owner would want them (a nursery could fetch at least $20 for one flat of 12 4-packs, so $5 would give them a good profit). It would all depend on who was in the audience, and how much they (and you) wanted those impatiens.

If you won the bid for the impatiens, you would feel happy and exhilarated, and then go back to the registration table and pay for them, by check or cash. Then you could pull your car around to the front of the building and the helpful Amish children would help you load them in your vehicle. And away you'd drive with impatiens galore!

I was trying to take photographs as surreptitiously as I could while standing at the far back of the auction space, because the Amish do not like to have their pictures taken. There were some cute Amish kids at right,
with their bare little feet and straw hats, but I only caught a bit of them, because I was holding the camera at waist level and pretending to look elsewhere. They were very cute little kids.

Anyway, I think this is a fascinating way of buying plants. The excitement of last week's auction, when so many people attended and bid for so many beautiful lots of flowers, was exhilarating. If your area has such auctions, I highly recommend attending a few times. You can get a great deal if you want a large number of plants, and even just watching the bidding going on around you is quite interesting.

Thanks for reading!  -Beth

4 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your post, Beth. I've been to auctions but not flower auctions (I didn't know they existed)! I have been to a greenhouse in your area; perhaps it was the Maple Avenue Greenhouse - I don't remember the name. Thanks for an interesting post!

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    1. Thanks so much for reading, Beth! I don't know if the flower auctions are just an Amish thing? If there aren't any in the DM area and you're passing through SE IA again in early summer, let me know, and perhaps you can attend a flower auction here. Best Regards, Beth.

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  2. This was a fascinating insight into your area and the plant auction as well as about the Amish folk and their business ventures there. I've never been to a live auction, but it sounds like an interesting experience. I don't think we have local flower/veg/fruit auctions here in the UK although I should think a big London market would be interesting to visit to see how the producers sell off their produce at wholesale prices. Individuals can also get a bargain as my husband used to do when buying boxes of grapes to make wine when we lived in the south of England.

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    1. Hi Linda, Thanks for reading -- I'm sure London must have some very large wholesale markets, which would be far more exciting than my tiny local one. Maybe some other regional large towns, such as Birmingham, Manchester, etc. might have such markets too, and especially port cities might be likely to have smaller versions of London's? I'd someday like to see the Dutch flower market in action. They're the largest flower markets in the world, selling $20 million of flowers each day, and of which my local one is a miniature version. Good to hear from you. -Beth

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