By Abby Holman
It’s auction day. Just before 5 am Amish time, the sun peeks in through the windows of the simple house that Noah Gingerich built on ten acres in the Amish community near Clark. Even at this early hour, Noah has to work quickly if he wants to have a profitable haul.
After hooking his paint horses to the wagon, Noah gets to work picking colorful fruits and vegetables from the fields in his backyard. Tomatoes ripened to a perfect red are plucked from the vine and placed in twenty-pound boxes. Peppers are picked, washed, and polished before being counted and put in their boxes. Watermelon and cantaloupe are placed in large cardboard bins to be sold in quantities ranging from ten to more than one hundred. Noah makes sure everything is weighed and counted accurately.
Noah and about twenty other farmers in the community work their plots of land with the help of their families, harvesting the evenings prior or the mornings of the twice-weekly Clark Produce Auction, owned and operated by the Amish community in Clark. The farmers work until the last possible moment picking their crops, even sacrificing a better spot in line to make sure they have the freshest, most abundant lot possible for the day.
After their wagons are loaded, they head to the auction house at 1966 Highway Y in Clark. On the far side of the building, four lines are formed, and the sellers begin writing down on index cards what they’ve brought. Numbers one through four are drawn to determine the order of lines to enter the auction ring; even if a farmer were first to arrive, he could wind up entering the ring at the end of the auction if his line is number four.
The auction starts at 10:30 am English time, 9:30 am Amish time. The Amish do not observe daylight savings, and they call non-Amish people “English.”
Both buyers and sellers are assigned permanent numbers to identify themselves and the lot that is being sold.
Buyers consist of restaurant owners, roadside stand vendors, buyers for chain stores, and individual homeowners. Produce is sold in various quan- tities, allowing the market to be feasible for buyers big and small.
Anthony Peoples, the auctioneer, sits in a stand, microphone in hand, ready to start. As soon as the gavel hits, the bidding begins. Auction workers attach stickers with the quantity purchased and buyer number, allowing sellers an easy way to keep track of which boxes go to which buyers. Buyers put their purchasing number on their cars, and after- ward, sellers load purchased goods into the cars. A woman sitting next to Anthony writes a receipt for the auction office to account for how much the buyer owes and how much the farmer will receive. Once the load has been sold, the wagon is hurried out of the ring, and it’s on to the next lot. On auction day, everything moves quickly.
According to James Quinn of the University of Missouri, farmers in the community of Leola, Pennsylvania, established the Leola Produce Auction in 1984 to replace a dying cash crop industry centered on tobacco. Auctions similar in structure were being used in New Jersey, Arkansas, Texas, and Georgia as last resort options for produce that was nearing the end of its lifespan. But the Leola growers transitioned the auction into a main market source.
The concept of centering the market on a wholesale theme separated the auction in Leola from the last resort model. This shift in focus al- lowed the auction to be located in the Amish community, as opposed to farmers taking their products to a distributor. It saved the cost of ship- ping and brought consumers to the farms.
For farmers like Noah, the home-based auction allows him more time to care for and harvest the best crop, providing consumers with the best product possible.
Missouri is home to eight auctions in the Northwest, Central, and Southwest regions of the state, all with connections to Amish and Mennonite communities. The first auction in Missour—the Central Missouri Produce Auction, located in Fortuna—was established in 1994 as a limited liability corporation and continues to be the largest auction in the state. In 2012, the auction sold over 750,000 pounds of tomatoes between June and November, resulting in over $2.5 million in sales revenue for the season.
Since the Leola auction developed, around sixty-five more auctions have started across the United States.
The Clark Produce Auction was established in 2003 and is overseen by a board of five members. Each member sits on the board for five years, and replacements are elected each year. The board is in charge of establishing rules and regulations, such as the weight requirement for each produce box and in what quantities boxes are sold. Chris Gingerich—Noah’s father, who served on the board until this past year—said the board is also there to help community members if there are issues at the auction or during the auction season when the auction house man- ager is busy with other concerns.
As the auction model introduces changes to the way farmers sell their produce, it also changes the way that crops are raised. Farm tours, implemented by University of Missouri Extension faculty such as James, are one example.
Although the Amish and Mennonite communities are close knit, James says that they rarely visit each other’s farms and follow conventional practices rather than going and seeing what methods other farms employ. The farm tours elicit causal conversation between growers about their practices. In 2013, growers voted for the three or four farms they wanted to visit on the tour. James says the program is advantageous because the farmers are able to learn more from talking among each other and to validate methods they may already be using.
People from around the country and the world are looking at the marketing model implemented in these communities for guidance on how to sustain their own farms. James led a group from South Africa around the Clark community and showed visitors the model, which they can implement by working together and with little to no technology or machinery.
The success of these auctions has injected new revenue into the Amish and Mennonite communities, allowing diversification in economic bases. According to James, wood shops, metal shops, bakeries, and dairy production are flourishing because of the people who are driven in to buy produce.
Members of the average Amish family have different roles to provide income. Many men both farm and work a trade. For example, Noah also works as a butcher to sustain his family during the winter. Women tend to household chores and some have extra duties, such as running a general store or a bakery.
But now, more time and energy are being invested into growing because of the profitability. James says that the economic growth of the Amish and Mennonite communities is helping the state overall. The communities are all rurally located, which is helping stabilize the population. And even as farmers reap the benefits of the auction model, new challenges loom.
With the Food Safety Modernization Act, Good Agricultural Practices—or GAP—certification will be required for all farmers in the Amish and Mennonite communities. These practices aim to verify that fruits and vegetables are being produced, cleaned, and stored in the safest manner possible. However, the requirement carries with it an abundance of documentation and paperwork that the farmers must complete to show compliance.
Chris says that even though GAP certification will require more work on the part of the farmers, he anticipates the auction and sales out of individual homes will continue to grow.
Revenue generated from the auctions is an integral resource for the Amish and Mennonite communities of Missouri.
After three hours of good times and competitive bidding, the microphones are turned off, the farmers load the last boxes into cars, and buyers drive away with their freshly won lots. As for the farmers, there’s still plenty of daylight. Noah and the others will drive their teams back home and get back to work watering and caring for their remaining vines and tending to livestock until the sun has set once more. After all, on auction day, there’s no time to waste.
Amish Produce Auctions Around the State
Barton County Produce Auction
669-A NW 30th Lane, Lamar
Four County Produce Auction
Route WW, Windsor
C-Highway Produce Auction
Route Short P, Seymour
Central Missouri Produce Auction
37808 Route E, Fortuna
Clark Produce Auction
1966 Route Y, Clark
Highway 60 Produce Auction
35 Killdeer Road, Seymour
Leadmine Produce Auction
839 Route T, Tunas
North Missouri Produce Aution
32633 Route F, Jamesport