The Heirloom Vegetable Auction at Sotheby's proved a great point. That you can take a fancy food item, elevate it to center stage in one of the most exclusive venues in NYC and people will amaze you by doing great selfless deeds.
Thursday night was the fruition of months of work for the committee producing one of the seasons most unusual events billed as The Art of Farming; an Heirloom Vegetable Auction (I was a member). The concept sprouted mid-winter -- a season of longing for fields of green. Why heirloom vegetables? To create intrigue and start a conversation amongst city folk stimulating awareness about where veggies come from and the men and women who engage in backbreaking work to grow them. Heirloom vegetables remind us about the importance bio-diversity in an era of super-seeds and industrial farming. But they also highlight the difference between the privileged and the hungry. One early blogger wrote: "It simply reinforces the stereotype that sustainable foodies are rich snobs who don't care if half the planet's population is undernourished."
The money earned from ticket sales and auction items went to fund the New Farmers Program of GrowNYC, and the garden to plate programs of The Sylvia Center. The exclusive setting, and veggies that are a rarity even in the most upscale homes, joined in enhancing the lives of struggling immigrant farmers and addressing the diet related health problems of city and rural children.
As the gavel was raised on Thursday night in front of a sold out audience, worlds converged in true New York fashion. Over 4 dozen local farmers had agreed to donate their time to growing heirloom seeds to put the political topic of food, access and the plight of local farmers on the table. For 24 hours, and in spite of media competition from Barack Obama, Mahmoud Ahmadlinejad, Bill Clinton and the international team of UNGA, the auction was covered by virtually every major New York news outlet.
One last minute ticket buyer who had just learned of the auction from ABC News, bartered 125 lbs of her own biodynamic heirloom tomatoes (which went to 2 food pantries) in exchange for her ticket.
And as bidders vied for unique farm and agricultural related experiences, one simple item, Lot # 6 "Send a group of 25 children from a Harlem school to Katchkie Farm where they would participate in the Sylvia Center program" was the sleeper. Within moments, the bidding broke $10,000, before selling at $12,000 -- the highest bid of the evening. Auctioneer extraordinaire, Jamie Nivens engineered the feat of the evening, selling the lot to the three competing buyers for a total of $36,000.
Was it just me, or was there a magical moment in the room as the crowd contemplated what had just happened? The one item with nothing for the winner to take home outsold its nearest competitor almost 3 to 1. The privileged and the prominent New Yorkers connected to their most vulnerable and underprivileged neighbors. The fancy vegetables delivered as promised. The crowd, equally divided between those accustomed to attending Sotheby's auctions and those who had never been in the building before, raised over $200,000 for the 2 beneficiaries. You might call it the art of giving.
At the end of the evening, another first for the venerable institution. It was late and several of the guests had to leave to get home on time. It would soon be time to milk the cows and irrigate the fields.