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.
Such concerns led the Amish men to look for a better way to market their crops. They wanted to receive a fair price in return for their hard labor. And they wanted prompt payment. Their solution was the Leola Produce Auction, which Stoltzfus and several associates founded in 1984. Fourteen investors put up a total of about $150,000, all of it their own cash money. The first year, they set up in an existing facility some distance from where the auction now stands. Stoltzfus recalled: “We started there, to do a trial run. After one year, we knew it could and should work.” The second season, they purchased the land and buildings at the current location, just outside the little town of Leola, Pennsylvania.
Today the facility comprises two sale barns, an office, loading dock and parking lot, where horse drawn buggies mingle with the automobiles belonging to the “English,” as the Amish refer to the surrounding society. There is even a snack bar that sells Amish as well as “English” favorites. The complex covers several acres. From the beginning, the auction was open to any grower, not just to the Amish. “We try to accommodate everyone as much as we can,” Stoltzfus said.
The auction season runs March through November. During its peak, it operates six days a week, always closed on Sundays.
Auction day starts early. Farmers begin unloading their crops at 5 a.m. Large lots aren't unloaded, but remain in the wagons which brought them from the farm. The wagons queue up, often driven by barefoot Amish teenagers and pulled by teams of stocky draught horses. The wagon lots are sold in their own drive-thru sale barn. Bidding begins at 7 a.m. Each wagon gets its turn, stopping between the raised, covered concrete platforms which house the auctioneer and public. Prospective buyers have a brief opportunity to inspect the lots, though most have already examined them with a keen and dispassionate eye. Often samples have been set out, melons cut open, and so on--buyers are invited to taste the produce. Most of these buyers are regulars, and often they are acquainted with the growers, at least with respect to the quality of the latters' wares. “It's all a reflection of the farmer's own skill,” as Stoltzfus was quick to point out.
Bidding is quick, efficient, sometimes spirited, but usually sedate. Everyone here is a professional. When the bidding has concluded, buyers receive a ticket with the lot number and price. At the end of business, or whenever a buyer has what he came for, check-out is completed at the auction office. The buyer pays his money, which normally reaches the seller within a few days, less the auction's commission. The produce is carefully loaded, usually into trucks. The market employs a number of young men to help with the loading, which proceeds quickly and efficiently, though most everyone seems to be having a good time as well.
After the wagon loads have gone, the auction becomes mobile, as the microphoned auctioneer steadily works from larger to smaller lots. The crowd follows, following a serpentine course up one aisle and down the next. The smallest lots are sold last. It’s these smaller lots that are apt to be of the most interest to families or individuals, those folks just looking for a few bushels of vegetables to take home for canning or freezing. The crowd of bidders has thinned markedly by this point. But informality makes up for the smaller group, and the bidding is lively and merry.
The auction's buyers are a diverse group. Large-scale buyers in trucks purchase fruits and vegetables for resale at local stores throughout the Northeast. Some are jobbers, who resell their stock at restaurants or along a regular route of mom-and-pop grocery outlets. This region knows and loves fresh produce, and the ultimate consumers come from many ethnicities and cultures. Much of the produce is purchased directly by restaurants, which send their own small trucks or vans to purchase the best produce for their clientèle.
Elmer Stotzfus sees this style of marketing as an idea whose time has come, and he sees the Leola Produce auction as a model for the future of post-industrial agriculture. “There are now more than 70 auctions across the country, but Leola was the first,” he says. “It’s an example of free-market at its finest.”