Small-scale fruit and vegetable growers — notably Amish family farms — find a ready stream of customers through Ohio’s network of produce auctions.
At auction, produce is sold, often in large quantities, to a range of buyers, including farm market stores and local chains and independent retailers.
“There’s several auctions in Amish country that have days that will go Monday, Wednesday, Friday in one place and Tuesday and Thursday another place, and those auctions are getting bigger and bigger,” said Frank Cangemi, owner/buyer of Miles Farmers Market in Solon, Ohio.
Cangemi said he has an array of suppliers, of which the auction route is one.
He said his store has other supply lines, but he estimated half of his inventory generally comes through the auction process.
The Amish are reliable suppliers of high-quality goods, Cangemi said.
Cangemi said he thinks Amish product and produce auctions in general are popular because customers are interested in fresh, recently picked produce without the added cost of packaging.
That the product is grown in the area is a selling point, Cangemi said.
“There’s some packaging involved but not like as if they were shipping it, but there’s no palletization, wrapping, hydrocooling and precooling,” he said.
“All their business is more directly from the farm to the counter.”
In the auction process, buyers and sellers are issued numbers, a clerk records the transactions, customers pay at the end of the auction, and growers are given weekly checks for what they sell.
Product often is brought to auction on horse-drawn buggies and laid out on pallets for customers to inspect.
At the outset of Ohio’s vegetable deal, auctions are scheduled only about twice a week.
The Farmers Produce Auction in Mount Hope, Ohio, runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with zucchini, asparagus and rhubarb heading up the list of offerings, said Jim Mullet, the auction’s manager.
“It has really taken off,” he said of the volume of locally grown items available at the auction each year.
In 2012, the Farmers Produce Auction sold 11,400 half-bushel boxes of zucchini, averaging $6.76 a box for the year, Mullet said.
Buyers compare prices at one auction against those at another, Mullet said.
“If they have a big supply, they’re pricing it cheaper and there’s different buyers who go to other auctions,” he said.
If buyers can get a better price at another auction, that’s where they’ll go, Mullet said.
During the growing season, the Farmers Produce Auction starts at 10 or 11 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Local product goes on the block beginning in April and winding up in early November.
There’s enough product to buy by the truckload, in many cases, Mullet said.
Retail chains are known to frequent the auction grounds, Mullet said.
He cited Wooster, Ohio-based Buehler’s Fresh Foods, which specializes in Ohio-grown produce, as a regular at the auction. Local independent stores and restaurants, as well as farm markets, show up.
The auction is an important outlet for smaller-scale growers, Mullet said. He said his largest participating growers generally have no more than 30-40 acres.
“We might have a guy that brings sweet corn or melons, and they might do 100 acres, but he doesn’t have everything year after year,” he said.
The product quality is as good as can be found anywhere else, Mullet said.
“Our buyers say it can’t be compared. If it’s not sold that same morning, people will sell it the next day,” Mullet said.