Some aspects of the Amish lifestyle lend themselves to the production of high quality farm produce. At the same time, the logistical realities of transporting a perishable product via horse and buggy present significant barriers for the Amish to market their goods.
To address this challenge, a number of produce auctions have sprung up in Amish communities around the state. One of the newer additions is Owl Creek Produce Auction in Morrow County that was started in 2006.
“The idea is to provide a local marketing outlet that doesn’t require transportation costs that can’t be absorbed by local growers. Before this they would either have to haul to Columbus or one of the other auctions or sell from home,” said Kelly Brown, Owl Creek Produce Auction manager. “There are around 40 stockholders of the auction business in this local community. We sell year round on Fridays. We go to two days a week in spring, then three days a week in June and go back to two days in October then to one day in November. There is a core of maybe 50 growers that are serious about making money with it. We’ll have as high as 130 consigners in a week, which is about normal for the summer months.”
There is a wide variety of produce offered at the auction from apples to zucchini.
“We never have enough small fruits and berries in the summer months and this last winter was tough on the berries. Now, of course, apples are coming on. Tomatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, and onions are all big crops here too. We sell hundreds of thousands of softball-sized onions. We sell lots of green beans and sweet corn is another big item,” he said. “Potatoes, apples, dried onions, and cabbage are all important in the winter. Baked goods and eggs are popular items year round. We also sell some hay and straw and firewood.”
The produce best suited for individual farms in the area depends on a number of factors, but maybe the most important is the labor.
“Labor for produce growers is the real key. Most of our Amish growers target their production to the labor they will have as their families grow and change,” he said. “It becomes a different blend of produce as the families change.”
The vast majority of the items sold at the auction are from local farms in the community, some Amish and some not.
“I would say around 25% of sellers here are not Amish,” Brown said. “We probably have a 10-mile radius where 90% of the stuff comes from and the rest is from maybe a 30 mile radius. Mostly though it is all raised right around here by a couple hundred Amish families. They try to keep their kids and their families on the farm with produce instead of with pounding nails.”
Maintaining a high level of quality products at the auction has not been much a problem.
“Quality control was a problem initially but quality always sorts itself out with the prices. Everything is priced immediately by the consumer at the auction,” he said. “Bad looking produce does not bring good prices. If you have bad looking tomatoes you’ll get bad prices and you’re not going to come back with bad tomatoes.”
“We do not even sell any cream pies or pumpkin pies with the baked goods. You are just asking for trouble with some of those kinds of things,” Brown said. “We deal with food safety every day. We ask our producers to do good agricultural practices (GAPs) training. More growers are putting together food safety plans for their farms so they have good record keeping of how their crop was planted and handled and we offer more traceability with the items we sell at the auction.”
Even with increasing scrutiny and regulation regarding food safety issues, most of the farms selling at the Owl Creek Auction are small enough to be exempt from many of the legal requirements, though no food producer is really exempt from good food safety practices, Brown said.
“Exemption from a program does not mean that they are exempt from having food that is safe. If someone gets sick from food they bought from a farm, are you exempt from a lawsuit? No. Even if you are exempt from these programs, you are not exempt from practices that maximize food safety,” Brown said. “Food safety is important and we have to pay attention to it. We keep these guys on the hot seat so they are aware of their responsibility as producers of food. Our sellers are aware of that and our buyers are aware of that. Our buyers have a relationship with our producers and they get a feel for how they are growing things — that is more important than any regulation you can put on a farm.”
Like any sellers of fresh, seasonal crops, there is growing interest in and potential for extending traditional crop growing seasons earlier and later at the Owl Creek Auction.
“The biggest challenge is having the most produce for the longest period of time and having buyers convinced that we will be able to supply their needs for a longer period of time. People call and ask us if we have sweet corn on June 10. That is crazy for us to have sweet corn on June 10, but there are buyers who can find it,” Brown said. “Guys with tunnel houses have a real advantage. As growers get better at what they do, we are encouraging them to do it inside so they can really benefit. Growing berries under cover can really work well. One guy had peppers in a tunnel this year. He had them a month early and he was really rewarded by the market.”
Every auction is a balancing act between meeting the needs of the buyers and the sellers.
“If the buyers don’t have enough choices to come to the auction and fill their truck they aren’t happy, and growers get frustrated when they bring stuff in and there aren’t enough buyers,” Brown said. “The balance is never quite right. I can never keep everybody happy, but we do a pretty good job.”
The produce auction attracts a wide range of different buyers looking for very different things.
“We sell to everyone from a grandma who wants to can beets to multi-store local grocery chains. Our most common buyers are the year-round farm markets like orchards or people who raise their own crops and come here to buy other items to supplement their production. Specialty markets that focus on fresh, local food are also important for us,” Brown said. “We are kind of a tourist destination. Some people come here to buy Amish products, but eventually they figure out that the Amish just wear a different kind of hat. Some people come here expecting things to be cheaper, and they are. We don’t have the overhead expense that retailers have so we can sell things for less, but we also sell a larger quantity. A lot of people who can and freeze and store stuff for the winter will come to the auctions.”
The idea of an Amish auction appeals to many buyers because it fits in well with the growing focus on buying local, fresh foods.
“The whole local food movement is going to become stronger. Young families are beginning to understand that fresh local food is important in nutrition,” Brown said. “We are an obese nation and we need good diets and exercise and the local foods movement is a piece of that puzzle. And, knowing where your food comes from creates the satisfaction that you are doing something positive for you and your family.
“Our cost differences with the auction are negligible compared to other food choices, but there is a convenience issue. But we are seeing that modern consumers, when they take the time to cook, recognize that fresh food is better. More people are coming here as a way to fill their bellies with good food, that is why I have grown to appreciate this business more and more.”
For more about the auction visit owlcreeknews.blogspot.com.