MOUNT HOPE, Ohio — Amish growers in Ohio account for a significant part of the state’s vegetable output and are a permanent part of the state’s agricultural future.
There are no official statistics on the size of Amish vegetables sales in the state, but Amish growers have only a fraction of the acreage of other growers, said Michael Geary, executive director of the Columbus-based Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association.
However, the Amish could be considered an increasingly important factor in Ohio fresh produce, especially as the locally grown phenomenon continues to grow.
There should be nine produce auction houses in Ohio this year, said Brad Bergefurd, horticulture specialist at the Ohio State University-South Centers, Piketon.
Bergefurd is undertaking a survey of the auction houses this summer to determine the extent of Amish and Mennonite vegetable production in Ohio.
The Farmers Produce Auction, Mount Hope, is primarily supplied by Amish growers within a 15-mile radius, said Jim Mullet, manager.
The auction features up to 400 regular growers and 200 to 300 buyers in a season that runs from mid-April to the second week of November. The auction has experienced sales growth in 15 of the 16 seasons it has operated.
The size of Amish growers is considerably smaller than that of conventional growers, Mullet said.
“The biggest Amish farmers have 25 to 30 acres,” he said. While the Mount Hope area may have a total of about 1,000 acres in vegetable production, there are several conventional growers in Ohio with 1,000 acres in one operation.
The Mount Hope Auction accounted for about $250,000 in sales in its first year of operation in 1995. In 2010, the auction took in about $3 million from sales of flowers, plants and fresh produce.
“Local-grown produce is a big deal,” Mullet said.
While there may be a perception that most of the produce grown is organic, he said that wasn’t the case.
Still, buyers value the Mount Hope Produce Auction and trust the growers there, he said, and added that food safety issues and education are addressed at monthly grower meetings.
FDA and USDA officials observed auctions last year.
“They had no idea that there were that many Amish farmers,” Mullet said. “They had their eyes opened when they found out how many growers there are.”
With the coming regulation of fresh produce safety by the FDA and potential state or federal marketing agreements, Mullet said Amish growers would adapt.
“With what our guys are doing right now, I don’t think they will have to change very much at all besides having a third-party audit, perhaps,” he said.
He speculated that over time only a few Amish growers might quit growing vegetables rather than put in a third-party audit or enhanced traceability.
Bergefurd said working with Amish growers on production or food safety issues means relying on traditional mail and face-to-face meetings rather than email and web-based seminars.
“It just means going back to traditional extension education,” he said.
Amish growers are trying to do their best to grow a safe product and are prepared to “go through the same hoops” as other growers to find markets for their produce, he said.