Monday, October 10, 2005

Dealing In Orange Colored Gold

It all started rather innocently when my brother and I planted a few hills of pumpkins for our Halloween carving pleasure and had a bumper crop. So we loaded up a half pickup load of "extra" pumpkins and drove to the nearest grocery store some thirty miles away. Without hesitating, they paid us in cash (what at the time I thought was an obscene amount of money) for the pumpkins and asked us if we would raise more for them next year. We agreed. The following year we planted about twenty hills of pumpkins and the year after that three times the number. By then, we had several people from the neighboring counties who ran roadside stands who were buying our pumpkins. We also expanded into sweet corn and ornamentals like Indian corn and gourds but they never brought in the cash revenue like the pumpkins did.

Growing and selling pumpkins was a lot of work. Spring began with the planting of the seeds into leftover pieces of ground that didn't fit into our father's farm program plan. At first it was done by hand but within four years we had expanded to planting five acres and we did it with the farm planter after all the other rows crops had been planted. The first month or so were spent in the futile job of weeding. Back then before Walkmans were an everyday item, I would strap a battery operated ghetto blaster to my back and my brother and I would head out for the day with a pair of long handled hoes. It was hard work but we never minded too much because we knew that it would be worth it in the fall. Weeding season ended when the vines covered the ground and we could no longer easily walk between the rows. Later on when we had expanded to just around ten acres of pumpkins, we took to spraying and using more conventional tillage equipment but even these didn't eliminate the weeds. Pumpkins are broadleaf plants along with most common weeds and so the chemicals couldn't rid the patch of them. Fortunately, Mother Nature always unleashed her most effective weed control method, frost, in the fall and the weeds would all shrivel up and die before harvest season got under full swing.

In the early days, harvest time meant picking the pumpkins, cleaning them off with a garden hose and burlap sacks and taking them into town. But as we got bigger and known for our quality pumpkins, buyers were driving to us. We would usually head out the afternoon before a vendor arrived and would windrow pumpkins. I would take a twenty-foot swath on one side and my brother the same amount on the other and we would pick all good pumpkins and pile them in a heaped row in the middle. We would continue down through the patch until we had enough to fill whatever trailer the buyer would bring. So when the buyer arrived the next day, all they would have to do is drive down along the windrow of pumpkins as they were loaded. Unlike the early days, we changed our pricing structure so that are pumpkins were priced by the pound and not each. We charged one price for cleaned pumpkins and another for as they were straight out of the field. Most people took them straight out of the field and as with all customers, my brother and I offered our services for loading up the pumpkins included in the price. Towards the end of our ten year business, we were selling pumpkins by the semi load which was way more than two kids could get ready for after getting home from school and doing all our homework. We made deals with local clubs at school looking to raise money for trips or uniforms, etc. We would give them a couple hundred dollars if a certain number of kids would show up after school and help windrow pumpkins for several hours or another amount of money if they helped load a semi. It was cheaper than hiring grownup individuals and the school clubs were always thankful for the money.

The only reason that we were able to expand from a half pickup load a pumpkins a years to selling them by the semi load was because we kept our quality high. My brother and I quickly learned that big thick stems or jack-o-lantern handles were very desirable. From our first years, we quickly learned which varieties had this desired characteristic and which didn't and only planted those that had them. That variety also had thick shells and was deep orange in color, which made them a classic pumpkin for carving. The one drawback was that the seeds were more expensive but in the long run the payout more than compensated. Because the pumpkins had to survive a long bumpy ride to the store with their handles intact so that they could be sold, we developed a technique of stacking them so that they didn't shift so much and shear them off. Several suppliers requested that either my brother or I be the ones to actually stack them in the trailer or semi because they could expect more undamaged product reaching their final destination. Who wants to buy a pumpkin without a nice handle? We also through careful monitoring and a little bit of luck, were able to control the squash beetles which like to eat the skins of pumpkins and squash leaving behind a rough looking ugly scar across the face. Because our pumpkins were blemish free, we were able to attract a large client base.

All vehicles had to make a mandatory stop at the local scales in town before coming out to the farm and get their vehicle weighed empty. After they were loaded, my brother and I would follow them into town and after they were weighed full, write up a bill and settle it, mostly in cash. We would drive back home with obscene wads of cash in our pockets and promptly deposit it in a bag that our mother kept for that purpose. The first wads always went to my parents to pay for the loan that we would take every spring for seeds and chemicals. We traded our labor for ground and equipment rental so that never had to come out of the till. When all our debts were paid and we were in the black, our mother would take the money with her when she went into town and divide it between our two savings accounts. Every six months, that money would be rolled into maturing Certificates of Deposit drawing interest to be used to pay for our eventual college education. It never really hit me how important that money way until the day I graduated from college with not a dime owed and around $140 and change left over in the CD. My brother did the same. With the majority of my peers (who also had to pay their way through college) graduating with huge debt loads, I felt very fortunate indeed.

The tenth and final year was the only year we lost money. It had been a dry summer causing the pumpkins to ripen prematurely and by early August, they were all ready to be picked. Unfortunately by the first of October when everyone wanted to buy them, most had turned into circles of orange mush. We were able to salvage enough for the Forest Craft Festival that year and the proceeds from that paid for the lion’s share of our debt. We didn't quite raising pumpkins because of that crop failure but because I was almost eighteen at the time and would be heading off to college in the fall a couple months before harvest season would begin. I wanted to put my hard earned dollars to use by studying hard at college and I knew that I wouldn't be able to focus and run a business at the same time. My brother also opted out knowing that running it was a lot of work for two people and for one it would be almost impossible. As our customers came to scavenge what they could from our ruined crop, we thanked them for the business and told them that it would be our last year. In a way, the crop failure and the beginning of college was a blessing in disguise. The owner of the scales, who always witnessed the cash transactions of our business, decided that he was going to get in the pumpkin business along with others in the nearby community. Where we were the only grower in a large several county area, the following years would have a surplus of growers that flooded the market.

This story wouldn't be complete without one additional splurb that I kept secret from my parents and even my brother (and business partner) all these years. My parents always worried that the location of our pumpkin patch would fall into the wrong hands and that the hoodlums of our school would loot it. We did see evidence a couple times of people who had been into the patch and dropped one or two while climbing over the fence, but never any mass thefts of merchandise. The reason for this was because early on, I made a deal. I passed the word on that if they respected our patch, a few days before Halloween when most of our sales had stopped, I would give them the patch location, how to get there and what times to best avoid my parents attention. On one occasion, I even snuck out of the house and help them load up several stock trailers full of pumpkins. Most of the pumpkins ended up in the lawns of the high school teachers or smashed to bits on Main Street of Milton where we went to high school. Once, the sheriffs deputy at the time asked me if I was missing any pumpkins to which I honestly told him that I hadn't seen or heard a thing in our patch but did see some tire tracks that weren't ours. (Fortunately it wasn't the same year that I helped!) I told him that I wouldn't be pressing charges should he catch the culprits since our selling season was pretty much over anyway. The one year I did help load them up (aiding and abetting criminals), I also hitched a ride into town and helped.... er.... unload them onto some lawns of the teaching type, the lawn of the parents of a girl whom at the time I had a crush on, (I know, what a weird way to display affection) and also applied a very liberal coating (about five trailer loads) to main street of Milton. After about an hour of running over them and doing multi-circle donuts in the greasy slime left behind, the same sheriff's deputy who had questioned me the year before chased us off (fortunately he didn't identify me) and then proceeded, much to our hidden-from-view amusement, to do multi-circle donuts with the patrol car. It took a front-end loader, a dump truck and lots of passes with the street cleaner to clean up the mess and to this day, it has never been repeated. Coincidently, mass quantities of pumpkins stopped appearing in town the same time we quit raising pumpkins.

Friday, October 7, 2005

The Education of a Pumpkin Saleman

I paid for five and a half years of college tuition by growing and selling pumpkins. I started off slowly by just raising several pickup loads but by the time I retired from the business ten years later (to attend college) I was selling them by the semi load to places as far away as Chicago and St. Louis. But one constant from the humble beginnings to the ten acres of pumpkins grown annually in the end was the Forest Craft Festival in Keosauqua, Iowa.

The Forest Craft Festival (FCF) is a county wide celebration of fall and most of the towns host some kind of event with the largest and most widely attended one being the craft flea market held along the river in Keosauqua. If you read my blog a week ago called Time Travel At the Hotel Manning, the pictures show a bridge and a large bed and breakfast that bracket a small city park along the river where the heart of the craft flea market is located. Under a large tree with golden leaves, my pumpkin stand was located for about ten years.

The FCF weekend for me began on Friday night after school when my brother and I would load up my parent's pickup bed with the nicest pumpkins we could find until it was overflowing. Long before the crack of dawn the next morning, we would be on our was usually shivering in the early morning chill as we made our way along the 30 miles of rural blacktop road to the county seat of Keosauqua. Most stands were not allowed to drive their vehicles into the park but since we sold pumpkins, we were given an exception. Our location was always that big tree with the golden leaves.
As dawn broke, we would unload our pumpkins and line them up in rows according to size (and thus price) creating an awesome palette of color with the oranges of the pumpkins, yellows of the leaves and the greens of the grass. My mom would sell honey at her stand right alongside ours providing some colors of gold as well. The early hours are always a battle trying to stay warm while waiting for the first customers to show up but soon they would arrive. My brother and I also provided the service of carrying the pumpkins to customers vehicles since they often would be parked four or five blocks away and didn't want to carry them that far themselves. Heaving a large pumpkin onto my shoulder and feeling the way my muscles warmed with exertion after three blocks always made me feel good, like I was a real contribution to society.

I enjoyed the selling part almost more than the money I received. Everyone was always in a good mood with large smiles on their faces. Mostly because fall Iowa weather just can't be beat in early October but because another year was drawing to a close and everyone was in the mood to celebrate. Whether buying a pumpkin to make into a warm pie or carve a spooky face in for Halloween or some comb honey to sweeten up the hot homemade biscuits just taken out of the oven. Sales were always brisk and just about every evening we would ride home in the now empty pickup but with a full moneybag.

About five miles north of town where I live today, there is a pumpkin farm where locals can go and pick their own pumpkins or select them from an assortment arranged on hayracks along the road. There are no humans monitoring the stand and there is just a cigar box where you can pay or make change on the honor system. I still buy my pumpkins there (if I don't grow a hill or two back home on the farm) because I like to support the independent guy versus buying them from a large box store but it just doesn't feel the same. I miss having the young lad with the cheerful banter selling the wares or commenting on the fine choice that I made in my pumpkin selection. I miss the thank you sirs and the thank you ma'ams and the offers to carry the pumpkin to my car parked blocks away. I miss the colorful splashes of orange, yellow and green underneath that large tree with the river in the background, the bridge to the west and a large old bed and breakfast to the east. I saved every penny I made during those weekends of selling pumpkins and like I said before, paid for my expensive education. But perhaps the best education I received was selling pumpkins out of the back of a pickup at the Forest Craft Festival under that large tree of yellow fire.

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

I've Got Five, Will You Give Me Ten

A rural public auction is nothing like a Sotheby's auction in which the auctioneer speaks in a precise, well pronounced English. A rural auctioneer prides himself or herself on how fast they can speak letting prices roll off their tongues faster than a bell clapper in a goose's ass. Pretty darn fast in other words. For someone not used to them, I imagine it is almost as if it were a foreign language but once you get the hang of it, you're good. My foreign born wife for whom English is her second language, was able to pick it up very fast and at her second auction was already buying things much to my amazement. There are many types of bidders at auctions and that is what I wish to elaborate a little more in this blog today.

The bidder that I hate to get into a bidding war the most is the no-holds-barred-take-no-prisoners bidder. They are a bidder who has it set in their mind that the object of their affection is being bid on right that moment and they were going to bid whatever it takes to get that object even if it breaks the bank. Whether they can buy a brand new one for a cheaper price never seems to enter their minds. Mostly the demographics of this group falls under the female persuasion especially when it comes to jewelries, glass, china and other fine things like that but not always. I once saw a man drop around fifteen grand at an auction buying up antique furniture of his grandmother who evidently decided to stave off sibling arguments by selling the works after her death. Just this past weekend, another fellow just held up his bidding card like a credit card as the auctioneer counted higher until he was the last bidder standing at $700 for an old table in much need of repair. But these men seem to be a rarity in this category.

Junk dealers and the occasional auction obsessed individual make up another category. In this group, they are the ones who buy up large quantities of junk in boxes that nobody in interested, usually for a token bid of one dollar. The junk dealers will them find a couple pieces that they can sell to someone who just has to have "one" or needs "one" to complete their collection for a lot higher price. If they buy a box that contains thirty items for only a dollar, they only need to sell one item for a dollar to break even. There must be some moneymaking occurring judging by their numbers but I've never seen a really rich looking one. Occasionally you see someone who is just obsessed at the notion of getting an entire box of anything for a dollar and they can be seen hauling away their prizes to a groaningly overweight vehicle.

There are the prize hunters who search the auctions for that one highly collectible item that they know they can turn around and sell for big bucks. Because there are usually more than two of these people at any given auction, they have to resort to simple tricks in order to get their prize for a cheap price. The most common trick is to "stack" a box. They get to the auction well in advance and hide their prize in the bottom of a box of junk that will most likely sell for a buck. Then once they have one the bid, they will excitedly dump all the junk out, retrieve the prize and leave the rest lay. I like to bid them up just for sport when I can spot them just so they have to pay more than they would have and ruin their profit margin. Sometimes it doesn't even have to be for something valuable but merely just because they really want the item and don't want to have to bid against it. I once saw a woman sort through a pile of cookbooks and pick out an old Betty Crocker one that usually go for a good price. She carried it around for a while as if studying it before the auctioneer got to it and then slipped it into a box of stuff that she had already bought. I was going to call her on it but when I got over to where she was, she had slipped through the crowd and disappeared. These are the most detestable people at an auction.

There is another group that is quite common at an auction for which I cannot come up with a good description. They will excitedly jump into bidding on a newly presented item only to bow out quickly when their maximum bidding limit has been reached. They are similar to the obsessed bidders but their bidding limits are slightly higher. The key difference is that the obsessed bidder bids on absolutely everything.

I am a background kind of bidder. I have looked over the object that I intend to bid on before the auction or at least before the auctioneer gets to that wagon of stuff. I have a mental price in my head of how high my limit is and I always try to stick with it. So when the object is up for bid, I am not one of the people standing really close to the auctioneer. I stand in the background on the periphery of the sales ring but in full view of the auctioneer. There are two things that happen at the beginning of the bid. The auctioneer starts at a high price and works the crowd gradually lowering the bid until someone jumps in or he starts it low and a bunch of people jump in immediately. If the latter happens, I just sit and watch until the bidding is slowing down before jumping in, only if it is still in my price range. If not, I just let it go and start focusing on the next item. If the former happens, it takes a little bit more finesse.

If you wait until he gets down too low, the auctioneer may lump that item with more items to get the desired bid. You either end up purchasing a pile of stuff you didn't want just to get the item you wanted or if you are unlucky, he throws in an item that someone else wants for more money than the object you wanted. For example, at one auction, I once bought a couch just to get the real desire of my wife, a pair of leather suitcases. Having no way to haul a couch or a desire for that particular style, we simply picked up the suitcases and left the couch. If your item gets lumped into a group of items and you get outbid, you can always try asking the winning bidder if they would sell you your item of desire. Sometime they will, sometimes they won't. It's a crapshoot. If you jump into the bidding too soon, sometimes you can get stuck with an item for an opening bid and perhaps could have gotten it cheaper had you waited for the auctioneer to come down.

A bidding circle is much like a poker game in that reading faces can save you a lot of money or missed opportunities. Stand in the circle and everyone can see who is bidding and can maybe read your face. Stand outside the circle like I do and they don't know who they are bidding against nor can they read your limits. For me, most people at an auction suck at maintaining a "poker face." I can tell that they are at their limit and no that if I were to raise the bid a time or two that it would most likely be mine. You can tell the opposing bidder is most likely past their mental limit by pauses as the contemplate raising the bid or not. I bid rapid fire until reaching my limit so that they never know where that might be and it also prevents people from raising the bid and dumping out at the end just to make you pay a higher price for the item.

Finally, everyone has his or her own style of bidding. To jump into a bid, you must be more aggressive unless the auctioneer knows you would be interested in the object ahead of time either by experience or directly expressed. Some people hold their bidding cards in the air, others make a shooting gesture with their hand and others like me simply wait until the auctioneer's gaze is in my direction and give a hand gesture. Once you are in the bidding, the auctioneer will direct his attention back towards you whenever your bid is now "out" or now lower than another one. In this case, a simple nod will get you back into the top bid or a shake of the head to let them know that you aren't interested in it anymore. Some people merely wink, others will give another hand gesture and yet others will hold up their bidding number. I prefer to keep my number hidden in the case of multiple bidding circles going on at once so that someone else doesn't purchase items using it.

I love going to auctions on a late fall early winter day and spending my time looking for some oddball thing that would be nice to own cheaply. It is very relaxing falling into the cadence of the auctioneers call and exciting to win a bid knowing you just saved yourself some money for something maybe slightly used, or maybe find that knick knack that would look good in your collection. And once in awhile, you strike it rich and find something almost priceless in your eyes. Just don't let me catch you getting it by stacking a box or I just might bid you up for the hell of it.