Auction revives vegetable farms, builds Amish communities
OXFORD, Pa. (AP) — In box trucks and horse-drawn wagons, Amish farmers and others carry corrugated crates of bright vegetables and fruits to an open-sided auction house in Oxford, Chester County, to meet buyers for grocers, restaurants, and caterers three mornings a week.
It seems like a scene out of time. But the Oxford Produce Auction LLC, owned by 40 Amish farmers, is only 10 years old. Just off U.S. 1 highway from Philadelphia to Baltimore, the auction signals a surprising shift in the 300-year-old farm communities of western Chester and southern Lancaster Counties, where young families are making a living from smaller pieces of ground, instead of leaving the region or seeking wage jobs.
With irrigation, greenhouses, and family labor, they raise glossy tomatoes and sweet corn, peppers and eggplants, watermelons and cantaloupes, and much more. They know they can sell these items to produce-conscious city and local buyers at the auction, for prices that are competitive with the durable produce trucked east from big industrial growers.
Starting at 9 a.m., auctioneers from Petersheim & Longenecker, hired by the market, begin their rapid-fire chant and patter, drawing bids from the crowd.
At a minute or two per lot, it takes more than two hours to sell it all. “Sweet corn picked at 4 a.m., we sell it at 9, it’s on the store shelves by 11. This is the way to market produce,” says Jeff Stoltzfus, who grows strawberries and melons on his family’s 35 acres in Cochranville, 10 miles up the road.
He’s not Amish, but his name is a common one here. A trio of bearded growers in bright blue and deep green shirts step close and ask his advice on fighting the phytophthora blight that can turn new-picked watermelons to mush. Stoltzfus is also a state agricultural extension service agent.
He estimates there are as many as 100 similar auctions based in Amish and other faith communities across the country. Wherever Plain communities with their larger families are expanding, “once there’s a critical mass, there’s an auction.” A smaller market in Leola, Lancaster County, dates to 1985.
“Vegetables have replaced dairy around here,” Stoltzfus added. “You can make a living on produce, because you have thousands of neighbors. It gets into Philly restaurants and local markets.
“Twenty years ago, I thought the Amish were moving away from suburban areas. But now the bankers are doing loans on vegetable-only farms. You never used to see that. Now, you can make as much on 25 acres of vegetables as from 70 acres of dairy. They are buying the ‘farm-ettes,’ where a family might have kept a weekend horse farm, and putting in a couple greenhouses and a few acres of peppers.”
In the concrete-floored shed, twice expanded until it’s now longer than a football field, the farmers crowd by their boxes, some in bright shirts and straw hats. Children scurry on errands, or stretch their necks to watch. The buyers -- neighborhood grocers, Philadelphia restaurant suppliers, and immigrant caterers -- examine the late-August produce.
Auction markets don’t guarantee good returns. One day in mid-August, corn at the Leola market started at $2.50 a dozen and slipped to 50 cents, when trading stopped for lack of buyers, recounts Becky Clawson, a state extension agent. The food is then donated to the Chester County Food Bank.
She checked stands at Lancaster Central Market the following Saturday and found the glut hadn’t affected the retail price there of local sweet corn for urban buyers. That’s how strong demand is for fresh local produce.
“Nobody has what these guys do; nobody can compare,” says Tomm Stone, a veteran produce buyer who fills orders for businesses such as the century-old Wolff’s Apple House produce market near Media and Yates produce distributor in West Grove, as well as wholesalers and markets in the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas. He also visits the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Center and the Vineland Cooperative Produce Auction, larger markets that handle bigger growers for customers including supermarket chains.
Remote buyers give broker Stone a ceiling price on each item they need. For a 3% cut, he buys them boxes and skids of produce, filling trailers. Though the pandemic boosted prices, they have come back to earth.
“Nobody can figure out what prices will do” on a given day, adds Stone, one of the few of the hundreds at Oxford on a recent Tuesday who arrived wearing a face mask. The market is also open on Thursdays and Fridays.
But regular visitors get a feel, Stone adds, showing a long list on his smartphone of the day’s produce offerings by farmers with familiar Amish names: Beiler, Esh, Lapp, Martin, a couple of Zooks, and no fewer than eight Stoltzfuses. Also Milburn Orchards of Elkton, Md., one of the many non-Amish businesses within a hundred-mile radius that also sell here.
“Ike Stoltzus has seven sons. Every one of them is an excellent grower. And they’ve all been able to stay right around here,” Stone said, marveling at how the auction has helped keep the family from scattering.
The growers aren’t necessarily “organic.” Many are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as following GAP -- Good Agricultural Practices, auditor-certified for avoiding food safety and chemical hazards. Some growers, known by their assigned numbers tagged on every lot, are so well-respected their boxes start at and get higher prices.
“I’m here buying jitomates for the salsa,” says Cristobal Castaneda, who arrived in the area as a laborer in the mushroom sheds and has developed a catering business called Taste of Puebla in Kennett Square. He used the Mexican word for red tomatoes. In southern Chester County, customers have come to expect excellent produce, he says.
The Oxford bidding space is less than a quarter of the size of the Vineland auction in Cumberland County, N.J., a 90-year-old seasonal trading floor in the heart of that historically Italian American farm community, where buyers include large grocery chains.
“The Block,” as the 80-year-old farm auction in Laurel, Del., is known, attracts Amish growers and others along the Delmarva peninsula. The farm auction in Swedesboro, N.J., closed in 2010 as tomato fields have given way to warehouses along U.S. 322 in Gloucester County.
The Oxford market remains open in the winter for one day, Friday. It can open that day due to the proliferation of greenhouses in the area, warmed by ground pipes heated by propane or by beech and oak from local woodlots. The Amish generally eschew big electric or phone services, favoring spring-wound, solar, bottled-gas, or battery-powered motors and other unplugged technologies.
At the market in Oxford at 190 Union School Road, auctioneer David Longenecker walks the rows as he delivers his pitch. Colleague Alvin Fisher, in straw hat and red shirt, works one row over, making his sales. Longenecker’s wife, Amish-born Ophra Rose, leads auctions on Fridays.
“Dollar bill, fifty, dollar thirty-five, sixty-five, seventy-five, sold, sixty-five annnd a buck,” sings Longenecker.
“Fifty-five, sixty-five, eighty,” calls out Fisher, his back to Longenecker’s, pointing at bidders as his bonneted, long-skirted assistant marks the bids and lot numbers down. “Make it a dollar bill,” he coaxes.
Longenecker has moved on: “All right, we got melons. Dollar, dollar fifty, one seventy-five, sold, one-fifty.”
UPDATE: Responding to inquiries sparked by this article, the Penn State agricultural extension service will be hosting “a virtual tour” and webinar on the Oxford Produce Auction, Tuesday, Oct. 5 11 a.m. Learn more and register: https://extension.psu.edu/produce-auction-tour-and-information-session-for-buyers-webinar