A booming Amish population in the state — now more than 60,000, according to the U.S. Census — is altering the dynamic of the Ohio produce business, according to suppliers.
“We can see more regional production, especially in the Midwest, and the Amish have helped bring that about,” said Lisa Schacht, president of the board of directors with the Columbus-based Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association. Schacht and her husband, David, also grow vegetables on 60 acres in the Columbus area.
Ohio has the largest Amish population in the U.S., just ahead of Pennsylvania, according to the Census. Amish cluster in rural areas where they can farm and raise families outside the mainstream of modern life and its amenities, but they are fully engaged in a competitive produce business, Schacht said.
“They’ve made it more competitive, which is not all bad,” she said.
They compete, in part, through any of a number of produce auctions often set up within horse-and-buggy distance of their communities. Growers often pool their supplies of the same item to offer bigger volumes.
“I have a few members that might take advantage of Amish food co-ops, and they’ll buy and market that product,” said Nate Filler, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus-based Ohio Grocers Association, which has a retail membership of 425.
Schacht said the Amish meet the same challenges, including all the food safety and inspection requirements that competitors face.
“They have done a very good job knowing what the market is, knowing what the demand is and maintaining a respectable quality level, so buyers have begun to identify it as a reliable source,” Schacht said.
That wasn’t always the case, Schacht said.
“Before it was kind of up and down. Now they’re being very consistent and doing a very good job,” she said.
Filler said one compelling lure to Amish goods is its Ohio origin.
Auctions draw buyers from the state’s major markets, although Columbus is a bit sluggish in following suit, Schacht said.
Small, independent retailers around Cleveland are particularly strong supporters of Amish auctions, Schacht said.
“Cleveland and the northern part of the state depend more on small chain stores, and they’re helping to grow demand for product through those auctions,” she said.
Columbus-based DNO Inc. is trying to work with Amish suppliers to develop programs, said Tony DiNovo, the wholesaler’s president.
“The good thing is you can get a good buy from them,” he said.
Going to auctions is a good way to see product before it’s purchased, DiNovo said.
But there’s at least one other advantage to procuring product through the auctions, he said.
“It has worked well for wholesalers trying to cover orders,” he said.