THE AUCTIONEER: The Auctioneer of the produce auction is Gene Daniels. He has impressive credentials-former president of the Virginia Beach farm bureau, former president of the Ruritan Club, former president of the Tidewater Pork Producers, former Farm Bureau farmer of the year-the list goes on. Beyond the obvious ability to speak at supersonic speed, an auctioneer has to have eagle eyes to ensure that he sees every card raised and every nod of the head, in the correct order. He is accompanied by his two grandsons and the four women who handle the nuts and bolts of the operation. Two of the women keep running tallies of who bought what on legal sized pads of yellow paper. Two are in the office. Every so often, they run the tallies in to the office where the items are entered into a small computer by bidding number. It is a true computer – all it does is compute. When it’s time to settle up, your number goes in to the computer and an invoice spits out of the printer. The grandsons help showcase the produce and move the crates around as the winners pick the one they think is the best of the lot. Each farmer is assigned a row number at the beginning of the summer. Once the produce is lined up under the tent top, Gene has someone pick a number from a jar. That determines which row will be auctioned first. The row number, along with the bidding numbers, and the tally sheets, allow the women in the office to ensure each farmer gets paid for what is sold. The way it works is this: say the bidding is for 10 crates of corn. The winning bidder gets the choice of which crate and how many. The auctioneer then says: “who else?”. If you want a crate at that price, you raise your card as fast as possible and then the choice is yours. If no one raises a card, he starts again at a lower price. At the lower price, you might have to take two. Sometimes, it’s smart to let the bidding go and count on picking it up at the lower price. But sometimes, the winning bidder takes it all and you’re out of luck and full of “we should’ve’s”. Then it’s on to the next item. He’s a nice man – funny and self deprecating. He cements the relationship between producer and procurer. But he watches out for the farmers. Should the bidding go low, he has no qualms about throwing some shame around the room, reminding us that this is someone’s life’s work. If the bids go too low, he stops the auction with a shake of his head and throws a little more shame in our direction.
THE FARMERS: They arrive in pickup trucks, old and new. They unload the beds and move pallets of produce under the tent top to their assigned rows. The older men in overalls and weathered baseball hats with John Deere logos or freshly pressed khakis held up with suspenders. The younger in jeans and t-shirts. Some bring their wives, some have lost their wives and some are just starting to look. Some take seats and watch. Some wander around, visiting with neighbors. Some will tell you stories of their farms and their lives. Others seem too shy to approach. There is a handsomeness that comes from a lifetime of working a farm. You can read the weather, the worry and the years of good harvests in their faces and their demeanor.
The produce auction is fun. It is also a conundrum. We want a good price but we want the farmers to thrive as well. Small farms are thriving in other parts of the country and we want them to thrive here. We don’t want the few that are left to grow only feed corn and soybeans because that’s where the money is. We don’t want them to sell out to developers to accommodate the sprawl that is overtaking this part of Virginia. We want them to expand their fields and grow more of the produce we want on our table and in our canners. It must be hard to watch people haggle over what you have worked so hard to produce. It is their work, no different than an artist, a musician or a writer. And, while they would argue the point, they are, when all is said and done, artists of the soil.
THE MENU: SHRIMP BASTED IN TOMATO JAM ON THE GRILL, OVEN ROASTED RED POTATOES, GREEN SALAD, TAPIOCA PUDDING WITH ORANGE SECTIONS
We canned the tomato jam from the Preservation Kitchen cookbook. You can make this jam without canning it. It will keep for up to a month in the refrigerator and a jar or two to friends and family will be appreciated. Like every recipe in this book so far, it is amazing. It is a savory jam. Spread it on crostini and top with goat cheese. Brush it on a roast chicken or pork. Spread lightly on bite sized pieces of red or new potatoes and roast in the oven. The possibilities are limited only by the number of jars in the pantry.
- 5 lbs roma tomatoes
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt (or 1/3 ounce) kosher salts have different weights which can change the taste – we use Diamond Chrystal and used a tablespoon
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons white wine
We had small tomatoes to work with – too small to core. But we did score an edge in the bottom and blanched for 1 minute. Peel and discard the skins. Over a bowl, remove as many seeds as possible – easier with bigger tomatoes so our advice would be bigger Romas than those we used. Dice the tomatoes in to small pieces.
In a large pot, over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Stir in the onion and season with the salt and pepper. Cook until the onions begin to brown, stir in the sugar. Don’t take your eyes on the pot. The onions and sugar can burn quickly. Once the sugar has dissolved, stir in the wine. Simmer over medium heat until pot is nearly dry, 15-20 minutes. Pour in the tomatoes. Simmer until the tomatoes have softened and the temperature reaches 212 or the jam is thick enough to coat a spoon-30-45 minutes.
Scald 4 pint jars, fill allowing 1/2″ space from the rim of the jar. Wipe the tops of the jars clean. At this point, you can either process for 10 minutes in a hot water canner or just cap the jars and refrigerate once cooled.