Auction revives vegetable farms and builds Amish communities

In horse-drawn vans and wagons, Amish farmers and others transport corrugated boxes of shiny vegetables and fruit to an open auction house in Oxford, County Chester, for meet buyers of grocers, restaurants and caterers three mornings a week.

It looks like a scene out of time. But the Oxford Produce Auction LLC, owned by 40 Amish farmers, is only 10 years old. Just off US Highway 1 from Philadelphia to Baltimore, the auction signals a surprising change in the 300-year-old farming communities of West Chester and South Lancaster counties, where young families live from smaller plots of land, instead of leaving the area or looking for paid employment.

With irrigation, greenhouses, and family labor, they grow bright tomatoes and sweet corn, peppers and eggplants, watermelons and cantaloupe, and much more. They know they can sell these items to anxious urban and local buyers of the products at auction, competitively priced with the durable products trucked east from large industrial producers.

Starting at 9 a.m., the auctioneers of Petersheim & Longenecker, hired by the market, begin their song and rapid crackle, pulling offers from the crowd.

A minute or two per lot, it takes over two hours to sell everything. “Sweet corn picked at 4 a.m., we sell it at 9 a.m., it’s on store shelves at 11 a.m. That’s the way to market produce,” says Jeff Stoltzfus, who grows strawberries and fruits. melons on his family’s 35 acres in Cochranville, 10 miles down the road.

He is not Amish, but his name is common here. A trio of bearded growers dressed in bright blue and dark green shirts come closer and ask him for advice on tackling the phytophthora blight that can turn newly picked watermelons into mush. Stoltzfus is also an agent of the public agricultural extension service.

He estimates that there are as many as 100 similar auctions based in the Amish and other religious communities across the country. Wherever Plain communities with their large families thrive, “once there is critical mass, there is an auction.” A smaller market in Leola, Lancaster County, dates from 1985.

“Vegetables have replaced dairy products here,” added Stoltzfus. “You can live off your products because you have thousands of neighbors. It enters Philly restaurants and local markets.

“Twenty years ago, I thought the Amish were moving away from the suburbs. But now the bankers are giving loans to exclusively vegetable farms. You never saw that. Now you can do as much on 25 acres of vegetables as you can on 70 acres of dairy. They buy the “farms,” ​​where a family could have kept a horse farm on weekends, and set up a few greenhouses and a few acres of peppers there. “

In the concrete-floored shed, twice enlarged until it is now longer than a football field, farmers crowd their boxes, some in bright shirts and straw hats. Children rush to run errands or stretch their necks to watch. Buyers – neighborhood grocers, Philadelphia restaurant vendors, and immigrant caterers – examine produce from late August.

Auction markets do not guarantee good returns. One day in mid-August, Leola’s market corn started at $ 2.50 a dozen and slipped to 50 cents, when the trade stopped for lack of buyers, says Becky Clawson, an agent of popularization of the State. The food is then donated to the Chester County Food Bank.

She checked out the stalls in Lancaster Central Market the following Saturday and found that the glut had not affected the retail price of local sweet corn for urban shoppers. Hence the strong demand for fresh local products.

“Nobody has what these guys are doing; no one can compare, ”says Tomm Stone, a seasoned farmer buyer who fills orders for businesses like the century-old Wolff’s Apple House produce market near Media and Yates, a produce distributor in West Grove, as well as wholesalers and markets in Philadelphia and Baltimore. areas. He also visits the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Center and the Vineland Cooperative Produce Auction, larger markets that operate larger producers for customers, including supermarket chains.

Remote buyers give Broker Stone a ceiling price for each item they need. For a 3% cut, he buys them crates and pallets of produce, filling trailers. Although the pandemic has driven up prices, they have come back to earth.

“No one can know what the prices will do” on any given day, adds Stone, one of the few at Oxford on a recent Tuesday who arrived with a face mask. The market is also open on Thursdays and Fridays.

But regular visitors have an idea, Stone adds, showing a long list on his smartphone of daily product offerings by farmers with familiar Amish names: Beiler, Esh, Lapp, Martin, a few Zooks and no less than eight Stoltzfuse. Also Milburn Orchards of Elkton, MD, one of the many non-Amish businesses within a hundred mile radius that also sell here.

“Ike Stoltzus has seven sons. Each of them is an excellent cultivator. And they were all able to stay here, ”Stone said, marveling at how the auction helped keep the family from dispersing.

The producers are not necessarily “organic”. Many are certified by the US Department of Agriculture as following GAP – Good Agricultural Practices, Auditor Certified to Avoid Food Safety and Chemical Risks. Some growers, known by their assigned numbers labeled on each batch, are so respected that their boxes start out and get higher prices.

“I’m here to buy jitomates for salsa,” says Cristobal Castaneda, who came to the area as a mushroom farm worker and developed a catering business called Taste of Puebla in Kennett Square. He used the Mexican word for red tomatoes. Customers in southern Chester County expect great products, he says.

The Oxford auction space is less than a quarter the size of the Vineland auction in Cumberland County, New Jersey, a 90-year-old seasonal trading floor at the heart of this historically farming community Italian-American, where shoppers include large grocery chains.

“The Block,” as the 80-year-old farm auction in Laurel, Del. Is called, draws Amish growers and others along the Delmarva Peninsula. The farm auction in Swedesboro, New Jersey closed in 2010 as tomato fields gave way to warehouses along US 322 in Gloucester County.

The Oxford Market remains open in winter for one day on Fridays. It can open that day due to the proliferation of greenhouses in the area, heated by underground pipes heated with propane or by beech and oak from local woodlots. The Amish generally shy away from major electrical or telephone services, preferring spring motors, solar, bottled gas, or battery motors, and other unplugged technologies.

At the Oxford Market at 190 Union School Road, auctioneer David Longenecker walks through the ranks while delivering his pitch. Colleague Alvin Fisher, in a straw hat and red shirt, works a row further, making his sales. Longenecker’s wife, Amish-born Ophra Rose, runs the auctions on Fridays.

“Dollar bill, fifty, thirty-five, sixty-five, seventy-five, sold, sixty-five-one dollar,” sings Longenecker.

“Fifty-five, sixty-five, eighty,” Fisher shouts, his back to Longenecker’s, pointing at the bidders as his long-skirted assistant notes the bids and lot numbers. “Make it a dollar bill,” he coaxes her.

Longenecker moved on: “Okay, we have melons. Dollar, dollar fifty, one seventy-five, sold, one fifty.

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UPDATE: Responding to requests prompted by this article, the Penn State Agricultural Extension Service will be hosting a “virtual tour” and webinar on the Oxford Produce Auction on Tuesday, October 5 at 11 am. Learn more and register: https: // extension. psu.edu/produce-auction-tour-and-information-session-for-buyers-webinar

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