Ohio has the largest Amish population in the country, with a population of nearly 65,500, according to 2013 numbers compiled by the Amish Studies Center at Pennsylvania-based Elizabethtown College.
The Amish population has grown 18% since 2008, according to the center, and the growing Amish presence is increasingly felt in Ohio’s produce business, according to fruit and vegetable vendors across the state.
“They would consolidate and bring stuff in on consignment,” said Tony DiNovo, president of DNO Inc., a Columbus-based wholesale distributor.
Formation of produce auctions — there are nine across Ohio — helped to give the Amish product helpful competitive muscle, DiNovo said.
It started at the Ohio Produce Auction in Mount Hope, he said. Mount Hope is in Holmes County — home to an estimated 18,000 Amish residents.
“This is the biggest and best, the granddaddy of all of them,” DiNovo said of the auction there.
DNO accesses product, where possible, from as many as six auctions — primarily Mount Hope, DiNovo said.
“They don’t really fit the wholesale business very well — they work pretty well with small chains and farm markets — but there are some things you can get out of them,” DiNovo said.
Amish produce is high-quality and suits some key needs, DiNovo said.
Auctions are little more than a peripheral source of product, but they serve a useful purpose, DiNovo said.
“That auction thing was the way things were done a century ago, and it worked very well, but it doesn’t always work well as far, as the wholesale business,” he said.
Each day, bidders walk a floor that is laden with fresh goods. Products range from flowers in the early spring to vegetables beginning at the end of April to pumpkins, gourds, squash and late-coming vegetables in the fall.
Anthony Arena, president of Arena Produce Co. Inc. a Columbus wholesaler, said he also buys product seasonally at the Mount Hope auction.
“In the summer, you can get tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapenos, hablanos, and this time of year, they get into hard squash,” he said Sept. 30.
Arena said he has a buyer at the Ohio Produce Auction regularly.
“You can’t get any fresher, it’s easy to come and buy and it’s not that far — about 80 miles,” he said. “You pick it up at the auction and we’re selling it the next day.”
There’s bound to be something worth picking up at the auction, Arena said.
“I’d say we’ve got a three- or four-month window to buy product,” he said.
Food safety regulations are not a problem, Arena said.
“Those guys are governed by the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture rules) there. They get looked at, too,” Arena said.
Jim Mullet, sales director with the Mount Hope auction, said business is brisk.
“Right now, we’re doing about 20,000 pumpkins a day; that’s probably our biggest thing, but we’re getting a variety of vegetables, too,” he said.
Vegetables hit their peak in late summer.
“It’s still coming in, although not as much as summer,” he said.
Vegetables will continue to float into the auction until the “first killing frost,” he said.
The produce auction — it’s scheduled four days a week in the summer and Tuesdays and Thursdays in the fall — runs generally from late April to mid-November, Mullet said.
The Amish play an active role in the auction, making up about two-thirds of it, Mullet said.
Quality isn’t an issue with the Amish, Mullet said.
“I would put our auction people against anybody else’s in quality, food safety wise, being knowledgeable,” he said.
He also said his Amish growers are all up to date in food safety rules.
“They’re well informed in what they’ll have to do,” he said.
Mullet estimated his auction handles product from up to 60 Amish growers in the summer and more than 100 in the fall.
The auction has grown with the Amish population, Mullet said.
“In 18 seasons, there was one year it did not grow,” he said.
A lot of product is funneled into farm markets, grocery stores and restaurants, plus some wholesalers, Mullet said.
Retailers show up, too, he said.
“Our biggest (retail) buyers have 13-14 grocery stores,” he said.