In its third season of operation in 2004, the Oxford, N.C., Produce Auction hopes to overcome Mother Nature. A drought reduced volume at the production auction during its first year of operation in 2002. Heavy and constant rains damaged crops in the second year, decreasing volume. Carl Cantaluppi, horticultural agent in Granville and Person counties of North Carolina, hopes a third time is the charm.

“We hope this will be a more typical year,” he says.

After seeing similar produce auctions in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Cantaluppi began developing plans for the Oxford Produce Auction. He wanted to give tobacco growers a way to diversify into specialty crops and sell their farm-grown produce of fruits and vegetables in lots. Cantaluppi figured tobacco growers would welcome and appreciate a system where produce is auctioned, which emphasizes wholesale marketing rather than retail selling.

Two years later, growers decided to adopt the idea.

Sellers haul their produce to the auction, and buyers meet their needs by purchasing fresh, high-quality produce for their roadside stands. Besides roadside operators, buyers include specialty restaurant chefs, wholesale produce houses and those who buy and resell at farmers markets. In its first year of operation, Cantaluppi says, $50,000 worth of produce was marketed through the auction. In its second year, $25,000 worth was marketed. Sellers also can market Christmas trees, firewood, flowers, grain, hay and straw. Ten percent of a grower's sale proceeds go to pay warehouse owner, Billy Yeargin. He, in turn, pays the auctioneer and any bookkeeping expenses.

The 2004 Oxford Produce Auction started on June 17 at Yeargin Farm Supply at 111 Goshen Street in Oxford. In the beginning of the year, the produce auction opens only on Thursdays, but as produce becomes more available, it will open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Cantaluppi says the produce auction now has 91 growers and 220 buyers participating.

To establish a small price guarantee, operators of the produce auction are allowing growers this year to declare a price floor on the products they sell. For instance, “The grower says, ‘I can't take less than $8 (per box,’” Cantaluppi says. “The grower has the option of not selling. So the grower doesn't have to let his produce go for next to nothing. That works well for the grower, but if he sets it too high, there's a good chance that it will not sell.”

If a grower's produce does not sell on Tuesday, for instance, he can now store it inside a large produce cooler rather than hauling the produce back home. Then, he can sell the produce on Thursday. Operators of the produce auction purchased the cooler from grant funds from the Golden Leaf Foundation, based in Rocky Mount, N.C.

The secret to a seller's success at the produce auction is staying the course, Cantaluppi says. “Some days he will receive a high price, and some days it will be low. His average should be as good or better if he sold to a wholesaler because the highest bidder will usually take the whole lot.”

For example, a Virginia farmer recently sold his sweet cherries at $10 for a 5-pound basket. He hauled in nine baskets to the produce auction, and the wholesaler purchased the whole lot.

Oftentimes, sellers are also buyers who purchase products for their roadside stands. The greatest percentage come from outside of Granville County, Cantaluppi says, “but every year we see more and more local growers, selling for the most part.”

Local produce growers Tommy and Elizabeth Winston of Granville County began selling tomatoes the first year the auction opened. In the first year, his produce averaged $7 per 25-pound box. Winston, a produce grower for more than 18 years, says he sells his tomatoes at the auction as an additional market to his 10 regular produce stand customers in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. These regular customers purchase 90 percent of his produce.

Winston, a former flue-cured tobacco grower, welcomes the auction. “I think it will be some advantage to the county,” he says. “It's a big help. It's better than throwing away produce.”

A board member of the North Carolina Vegetable Growers' Association, Winston typically raises the tomato variety Mountain Spring because of it successful field growth and record sales. Last year, he added the variety German Johnson to his mix, because, he says, it is a good seller. This season, he has planted the tomato variety Amelia, which is more disease resistant than Mountain Spring. Amelia has resistance to tomato spotted wilt and nematodes. In all, Winston grows 4 acres of tomatoes.

Also this year, Winston planted 1 acre each of the sweet corn varieties Obsession and Fantasia. He plans to market his sweet corn at the produce auction.

While Winston appreciates the Oxford Produce Auction, he believes it is a buyer's market. He would like to see more buyers who purchase larger lots of produce instead of smaller quantities. Despite that, he knows what to expect when he markets his produce. “It's an auction,” Winston says, “and you expect some ups and downs. I think the market has potential, and I'm going to support it all I can.”