A Day at the Produce Auction

Produce auctions are a great way to buy quality crops in bulk.

| Summer 2012

Set against the lively backdrop of the rich agricultural heritage of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is the Leola Produce Auction. Here, tons of local produce changes hands, leaving the lush farms and gardens that nurtured the crops, to find their way to cities throughout the Northeast and beyond. Excitement fills the air as buyers and sellers jostle each other on the crowded sales floor, examining the produce, which is sold in lots.

How large are those squash, and how early in the season (or how late)? Are the tomatoes ripe, yet firm enough to transport well to their intended destinations? How much did a similar lot bring last week, or earlier that day? Could it be resold at a fair profit, or would it be worth canning up against the long winter ahead? Plenty of cash and labor are at stake, yet camaraderie coexists with good-natured competition among buyers and sellers (and their families), auctioneers and helpers. And plenty of laughter resounds as well, as neighbors and acquaintances catch up on the news. 

Melons, watermelons, and squash were on display when I visited for two days last summer. Large quantities are sold in pallet-sized bins, each containing several hundred pounds. Smaller quantities, and smaller types, are offered in bushel- and half-bushel-sized crates. Gorgeous eggplants, all colors of peppers and tomatoes, ears of sweet corn, onions, and the first winter squash of the season abounded, all grown in the rich soil of the Pennsylvania Dutch country.

Origin of the Auction

Lancaster County has fertile soil, near-perfect weather most years, and one of the largest Amish populations of any county in the United States. The Amish are renowned for their straightforward values and for their skill at farming. They steadfastly refuse to incorporate modern mechanical contrivances into their agricultural practices, which have long been the mainstay of their traditional communities.

But the Amish are far from backward, as the productivity of their farms clearly shows. They are great innovators, unafraid to change their methods when there is so-called good reason to change, and so long as those changes do not conflict with their firmly held beliefs. That maxim goes for marketing as well as for production. 
For the Amish, the old ways of selling their crops weren't working as well as they would have liked, according to Elmer Stoltzfus, one of the co-founders of the Leola Produce Auction. I was sitting in Stoltzfus' office last August. Shelves full of legal, business, and accounting books covered the walls. I quickly figured out that, though the gentleman regarding me from behind his austere desk was a Plain Person, he was anything but simple. Business and marketing strategy tumbled from his lips as he spoke in his gentle way, occasionally stroking his white beard as he paused to compose his thoughts. Whatever else Stoltzfus might be, it was clear he was also a hard-headed businessman.

Prior to the inception of the Leola auction, “we sold through co-ops or in roadside stands,” Stoltzfus says. Farmers pooled their produce to make large lots that would interest large-scale wholesale buyers. One difficulty was grading and packaging. “Grading was an issue. If wrong, the whole load was rejected.” 
The farmers were also unconvinced by the co-ops' structure — where was all the money going? “Farmers did not fully understand the co-ops' costs,” Stoltzfus explained. Pay was divided between daily draws and an end-of-season payment. “The farmer had to wait for his money.” The farmers, understandably, didn't care for the arrangement. After all, they had already done the work, their crop was sold, and now someone else had the use of money that was owed to the farmers, often for a very long time.

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