Thursday, August 14, 2014

at the produce auction

at the produce auction
an Amish girl listens raptly
to the bid calling

August is one of the busiest months for the Southern Iowa Produce Auction, with sales scheduled three times a week. Early one Friday morning I tag along for the one hour trip from Fairfield to Drakesville, not far from the Iowa-Missouri border. John is driving a bus for Jan, who's purchasing fresh produce for our university dining hall, and Dr. Tim from the Sustainable Living Department, who wants to connect with Amish growers about organic farming. We leave at 8 because Jan wants to get there by 9 to check out the produce before the auction starts at 10.

A large Amish community has grown up around Bloomfield since 1971. Mostly farmers, they saw the need for a facility where growers could bring their fresh bulk produce for wholesale buyers, so they formed a partnership and built a new facility in the tiny town of Drakesville, northwest of Bloomfield.

The auction house is a big open building with a drive-through for horse-drawn Amish buggies and flatbed trailers to deliver and pick up produce.

Growers pick perishable produce just hours before the sale. 

By the time we arrive, the parking lot on the east side is full of horses and carriages. 

Amish driving horses wear blinkers or blinders on their eyes to help them stay focused on the road and not be spooked by vehicles zooming by on the highway.

The lot on the west side where we park the bus is full of trucks and cars.

An Amish woman, carrying baked goods, arrives on foot with her three young sons, a dog, and a pony cart pulling a child's wagon. The mother wears a black bonnet, a plain blue-green dress and black shoes. The boys, all barefoot, wear straw hats, different sold-colored shirts and black pants with suspenders.

The auctioneer is not Amish, but his assistants are: the man in the yellow straw hat with the ear mike who keeps track of who's bidding, the woman in the starched white cap and lavender dress who marks the number of the winning bidder, and the man in the black straw hat who marks that number on a yellow tag and affixes it to the produce. 

Some of the produce is in small lots, some in large lots, like these watermelons. Jan is bidding on one of three big box of watermelons, while Dr. Tim listens to the auction chant: "One dollar bid, now two, now two, will ya' give me two?"

Four Amish men in blue shirts and summer straw hats watch the proceedings. The two young men on the left are clean shaven, a sign that they're not yet married, while the two men on the right, with crossed arms, have beards but no mustaches. In eighteenth-century Europe, the mustache was popular among the military and the Amish, being pacifists, did not want to be associated with those who waged war, so the men shaved their upper lips but grew long beards like the men in the Bible. And then they immigrated in the 1730s to escape military conscription.

Dress for Amish women in this area is a long solid-colored dress closed with straight pins. Head coverings include a black bonnet for married women, a pleated white cap for unmarried girls, or a head scarf, fashionable among younger women, whether married or unmarried. This young lady is wearing a traditional bonnet over a head scarf. 

Sometimes an apron is worn over the long skirt.

Older women wear a matching cape over the bodice. Shoes and stockings are always black.

This young girl goes barefoot and wears a head scarf that matches her long-sleeved plum-colored dress. Amish clothes may be simple in style and unadorned with patterns, but the colors can be quite rich.

This family is very traditional. The baby is wearing a navy blue cap and the little boy's shirt has a band collar. The older man wears a black suit, black felt hat and brown boots. The men's pants have no pleats or cuffs, and are held up with suspenders attached by buttons. No belts. Their jackets and vests are closed with hooks and eyes or snaps, not buttons, maybe another anti-military custom.

Youngsters everywhere like to have fun. An Amish boy rides a produce cart like a skateboard.

These "English" girls, as they are called by the German-speaking Amish, also discover how much fun a cart can be.

An Amish boy plays at driving a fork lift loaded with corn.

While his counterpart in cowgirl boots turns one into a scooter.

Many Amish youngsters are already working, like this boy pulling new boxes out of a stack, to be sold to growers bringing their produce in for consignment.

An Amish grower shucks an ear of sweet corn for a prospective buyer to taste.

Both of these men, although they're from different cultural traditions, would certainly agree on the value of preserving the past and educating the future.

Two farmers, two different traditional costumes.

It's a social event as well. Two Amish men in an animated conversation.

A group of farmers sit and chat in lawn chairs between the parked trucks and the piles of produce.

No electricity in the facility, so the auctioneer's speaker runs on a small gasoline motor.

Lack of electricity isn't an obstacle for these "English" children with a battery-operated tablet.

Like sweet corn, melons invite sampling.

But not the baked goods, carefully wrapped in foil and plastic.

While a young mother scans the list of regular consignors, two of her sons eye the pies.

The auction finishes after two hours and people line up to check out and pay the cashier.

An Amish man attaches a cover to his purchased produce.

While three girls keep his horse company.

Someone has to clean up the horse manure!

Others load up their trucks.

In our case, we're loading produce onto the seats and floor of the bus. We form a line. Dr. Tim unloads the 25 large watermelons from a gigantic box, John carries them from the loading platform to the door of the bus, I transfer each melon to Jan inside the bus. As is the Amish way, many hands make light work, and soon the Tag Man in the black hat with the little utility apron around his waist steps into back of the bus where Jan hands him the heavy melons and he lowers thrm onto the floor.

Rule 6  of the Auction Rules states, in red, that "S.I.P.A accepts no liability for safekeeping of produce . . . left at the auction." But 20 minutes after we're on the highway headed home, Jan gets a call on her cell phone. It's the Tag Man telling her that she left two boxes of yellow tomatoes. So John turns the bus around and back we go.

The Tag Man is waiting for us on the loading dock to hand us the boxes of tomatoes.

Heading back out again, we pass a house right next to the auction house, with a clothesline full of plain Amish clothing in plain sight.

Although their clothes are somber, there's no rule against growing bright red geraniums.


  1. This is a great article, I hope writer had permission to take pics of the Amish.

  2. This is a great article, I hope writer had permission to take pics of the Amish.