Wholesale produce auctions help smaller farms reach larger audience


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NEW WILMINGTON -- Harry Shiever heads to Pittsburgh three days a week to buy produce from brokers for the Butler Farm Market in Renfrew that he and his son own. The store carries everything from grapefruit to apples to corn on the cob.

But two days a week, Mr. Shiever typically drives north to the Tri County Produce Auction, a covered pavilion about the size of a Best Buy store that sits along Route 208 just west of New Wilmington. Here, farmers -- many of them Amish -- bring their goods in hopes of connecting with wholesale buyers who want local produce but don't have time to drive around to far-flung farms.

Tri County is one of about a dozen or so such auctions across Pennsylvania, and there are still more around the country that opened over the past few decades, generally with the goal of creating markets for smaller farmers who might not have the bulk needed by large customers but who can't make a living just setting up a roadside stand.

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A 2009 University of Maryland study described wholesale produce auctions as an alternative marketing strategy that could help small farmers achieve sustainable agriculture. Nine Pennsylvania auctions reviewed in the study produced an average of $3.5 million each in annual gross sales, with goods sold to market operators, other farmers, chain food stores, independent grocers and restaurants.

Tri County, founded by a group of investors in 2003 under the name New Wilmington Produce Auction, is still relatively small potatoes as these operations go. Manager Jim Johnston, who operates Tri County with his wife, Donna, estimates it might do about one third of the average gross sales of those in the study.

But they're trying to build the auction that they started running three years ago, hoping that word of mouth among farmers will draw more sellers and, in turn, buyers will be lured to the quality and variety those farmers reliably deliver.

The variety now arriving from farms mainly across Lawrence and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania, and Columbiana County in Ohio, appeals to Edward and Marilyn Misera, who regularly sell at farmers markets near the Pittsburgh Mills Mall in Frazer and in Tarentum. Mrs. Misera had a small notebook on hand at Tuesday's auction, carefully noting items. Among other things, the couple picked up onions, potatoes and eggplant.

The auction -- this time of year Tri County holds sales three days a week but will go to four days in August -- takes bids on lots as small as three boxes of bulbous, shiny onions or as large as 25 dozen ears of "picked today" bi-color corn. Items that come in as singles are set on shelving along the back wall, with the seller noting an asking price.

In the spring, annuals and starter plants fill the pavilion, said Mr. Johnston. Sometime in June, the harvests start the swing toward more fruits and vegetables, while fall auctions bring the pumpkins and other later ripening produce.

At Tuesday's auction, horse-drawn buggies and pickup trucks arrived early to unload a display worthy of any market -- beets, cabbages, strawberries, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, onions, cauliflower, red raspberries, cherries, garlic, peaches, baskets of dried flowers and others with cut blossoms, yellow beans, cucumbers, blueberries, yellow squash, cantaloupes, green peppers, banana peppers, a load of hanging plants and more.

After being unloaded, most of the buggies were parked away from the pavilion while trucks, cars and trailers -- many marked with the names of area farmers markets -- backed up and parked, ready to be loaded with their owners' purchases.

Promptly at 9:30 a.m., the auction began. Mr. Johnston, wearing a microphone headset, pointed to each lot being sold and described the item being auctioned.

Then Andrew Yoder opened the bidding with signature phrases, like "3 times the money" or "2 times the money" depending on how many boxes were being sold; the rapid, almost musical, speech patterns familiar to any auctioneer; and an intense focus on where the bids were coming from around him.

More than 50 people gathered close as the two worked their way along rows of goods lined up on the cement floor. Successful bidders' assigned numbers were written on tags attached to each lot, while paper records were handed to a small boy who ran them into the air-conditioned office where Donna Johnston rapidly typed at a computer.

"If I get the numbers right, then the right person gets paid," she said, as her fingers tapped on the keyboard. Buyers pay before leaving with their goods, while sellers get paid the following week after the accounts are reconciled. The auction gets a 12 percent commission.

Mrs. Johnston posts the market report for each week on the auction's website, http://tricountyproduce.vpweb.com/Market-Report.html. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's farmers market and auction reports service posts its results on the USDA's site along with those of other auctions.

The Tri County Produce Auction was modeled after an auction in Mount Hope, Ohio, although those involved in the New Wilmington market say the Ohio version is larger.

Mr. Shiever is all for supporting local businesses, but he wouldn't be there if there weren't products worth buying. "A lot of these Amish are my friends," he said. "I've been to their daughter's wedding. But they know I'm not a charity."

He likes the quality of goods offered at Tri County -- he says the produce really is usually picked the same day or the night before -- although sometimes prices run a little higher than what he might pay elsewhere.

He'd like to see more produce coming in from Amish farmers but at the moment, he said, carpentry seems to pay better than farming and it's hard for the auction to compete with that.

Mr. Shiever said he also swings by the Smicksburg Produce Auction in Indiana County sometimes, although the price of gasoline impacts how far he will travel.

Location and convenience is key to produce auctions, in part because the goods are so perishable. It can even affect prices, said William Troxell, with the state's Pennsylvania Vegetable Marketing and Research Program. He said farmers closer to Philadelphia may get better prices, simply because of the markets that the buyers come from and what they're willing to pay.

Those who participate in the Tri County Produce Auction as buyers or sellers are assigned a number when they first get involved and they keep those numbers, basically forever.

Tri County's very first sellers -- the farmers who hold No. 1 -- were at Tuesday's auction, as they had been at the first one back when it was held in a different location in New Wilmington.

Ben and Emma Detweiler of Volant on Tuesday brought about 14 flats of flowers, including daisies, hibiscus, rudbeckia and day lillies. In the spring, they sell from a stand at their farm, but in summer it's helpful to have the auction because, as Mrs. Detweiler noted, "We don't have as many customers this time of year."

on the web

Visit post-gazette.com to watch a video slideshow of the auction.

businessnews

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018. First Published July 19, 2012 4:00 AM


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