the Highest Bidder
and “English” buyers come together at the Mohawk Valley Produce
Auction, the center of Montgomery County’s shifting farm culture
man in a straw hat holds a microphone. He’s standing on a
platform next to a low trailer full of pumpkins, butternut
squash, watermelons and boxes of tomatoes. A bushy beard rings
the edge of his otherwise clean-shaven face, and he wears
suspenders. Behind the auctioneer, a man in jeans and a flannel
shirt holds a plastic bottle of Pepsi and puffs a cigarette,
assessing the produce from behind shiny sunglasses.
These men are emblems of their worlds: one Amish, one American.
They do business with each other weekly at the Mohawk Valley
Produce Auction, west of the shut-down Beech-Nut factory,
down a well-farmed stretch of Route 10, deep in the heart
of an area of New York that is maintaining its rural characteristics
thanks, in part, to a new crop of farmers.
Amish and Mennonites from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,
and other areas have been settling in Montgomery County as
farmland has grown available. Where debt-heavy family farms
have failed, another family-farm model is thriving. Relying
on family and community ties to tackle agricultural tasks
that are time-consuming and labor-intensive, these people
continue to apply old-fashioned habits to the vocation. In
this way, they capitalize on the business opportunities of
small-scale farming. The produce auction is a part of this
Not all produce auctions are Amish or Mennonite. The Laurel
Produce Auction in Maryland, for example, adopted this selling
platform in 1940 to help truck farms get their watermelons
to market. That produce auction, and many others, are set
up to serve wholesalers, while the Mohawk Valley Produce Auction
serves all ends of the buying spectrum. On any Tuesday or
Friday of the growing season you can buy a truckload of assorted
produce or a few quarts of peppers. There are about 50 such
operations across the country.
The Mohawk Valley Produce Auction began in May 2009. Forty-eight
shareholders own the corporation; not all of these people
offer items at auction. One hundred and fifty different consigners
sell at the market, which takes a 10 percent commission from
the sale price. Amish and Mennonite families consign produce,
decorative plants, baked goods and canned goods, and area
dairy farmers sell vegetables at the auction to supplement
their income. The items and consigners come from about a 30-mile
radius, although the canned goods and some fruit (and in the
winter, coal) are from Pennsylvania.
started this to help revitalize the valley, and bring this
farmland back to good use,” says Ben Fisher, auctioneer. “There’s
people moving to the area just to farm here.”
On a Friday in September, the auction is small. Tuesday’s
was bigger, according to Fisher. Both days the auction begins
at 10 sharp, outside the large open-sided building. The first
section of the auction is geared at wholesalers. A few people
buy large quantities of melons, squash and tomatoes, which
are offered at a price per-case or per-piece.
Each sale begins when an announcer declares the goods on offer.
“Seventy-six butternut squash,” or “37 cantaloupes,” he says
into his microphone, his words clipped in a Pennsylvania Dutch
Fisher rattles and trills the prices, his fingers and hands
moving in time with his voice as his eyes trace the crowd,
finding the buyers, setting their prices. He is a young man,
and his dress seems at odds with his actions, but he is entirely
at ease in the situation. Many buyers are regulars, and he
knows and declares their numbers as each deal is made. Less-frequent
customers hold up fluorescent green cards with auction numbers
written in magic marker.
The auction snakes indoors around aisles of food organized
on pallets and divided into selling lots. The morning is wearing
on, and the auctioneer races to start the bidding almost before
the announcer can call out the goods: “Two cases Loring peaches,”
or “Four half-bushels yellow beans.” The racing pace goes
quiet as the generator, which has been powering the microphones
and the food trailer that sits outside the building, offering
incongruous hamburgers and French fries, runs out of fuel.
someone put gas in the generator?” Fisher calls, his voice
unamplified, over the rows of food. “Would be helpful.”
The staff number 12 and are a mix of people—Amish and “English,”
as the non-Amish are known. They are convivial about their
work, happy to be handling food and part of the auction. About
60 people are shopping today, and they’re largely quiet as
they move through the building, waiting to bid on what they
want to buy. People come from Albany and Syracuse, and from
much, much closer towns, buying for their own use and storage,
or to resell at stores and other wholesale outlets.
I come twice a week, but I haven’t been in about four weeks.
I’m surrounded by Amish, and I can get what I want,” says
a man from Fultonville who is buying beans to can.
is my second time this week,” another man says. “I’m on vacation.
I got squash for the root cellar. I want some onions but they’re
going so high—a dollar apiece.”
Both men comment on how high the prices can go, especially
when someone is buying for resale. What they think is high,
however—a dollar for a candy-sweet onion that is bigger than
a pound—is cheap in retail settings.
Two long rows are filled with oddments, cases of water and
flats of microwave popcorn, and boxes of end-run supermarket
items: Rice-A-Roni in dented cartons, a box of mouse traps.
On the other side of the barn, decorative items are mixed
in with the edibles: boxes of colorful Indian corn and fluffy
clusters of red flowers. A woman sits at the end of two tables
of bread and sweets, many of them frosted or filled with thick
white frosting, like raisin bread and whoopee pies. The woman
sells these items, as well as the canned jams, vegetable soups,
pickled beets, peppers and other vegetables, that fill two
racks beside her.
At 11:15, the first auctioneer takes a break and an English
man in a white beard clips the microphone into the mike stand
to help with paperwork. Someone else now writes the lot number,
sale price, and high bidder on a list. Another person records
the high bidder’s number on a manila tag that stays with the
lot. Periodically, the lists move to the windows at the front
of the building, where, in the only fully enclosed part, young
women wearing bonnets sit at a counter, taking names before
the auction starts and money when people are ready to leave.
At about 11:45, a shopper with a clipboard wins a bid on some
of those coveted candy onions. He pays at the window and takes
his box truck, filled with a considerable amount of food,
onto its next stop.
Fisher, the first auctioneer, bids on wreaths. A pair of Amish
boys, straw hats in place, dip French fries into ketchup.
People trickle out with their purchases. Three women, one
wearing a baby in a front carrier, the other two seeming like
her aunt and mother, buy 24 half-pints of raspberries for
$2 apiece and take their fruit home.
This all keeps on happening, Tuesdays and Fridays until the
beginning of November, when the auction is reduced to one
day, Tuesday. Next year, the auction will run three days a
week. Someday, they may run a farmers market on Friday nights
to draw a different crowd. In the meantime, the Mohawk Valley
Produce Auction hosts consignment auctions and other events,
such as a fall pumpkin auction and quilt sale on Oct. 9.
Minden is less than an hour and a half from Albany, but what
happens under the roof, and on the concrete floor of this
sturdy enterprise, is a world away—and worth the trip. Even
if you don’t have a root cellar.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
course we·re a co-sponsor·it·s
about local stuff. And so, along with Honest Weight
Food Co-op, we·re pleased to announce the
Second Annual Local Harvest Festival, taking place
from 1 to 6 on Sunday (Sept. 19) at Albany·s
Washington Park Lake House. Enjoy a farmers-market-style
event featuring local vendors, restaurants and
artisans, local bands and more. Among the participants
are the Beancake Company, serving akara, a Nigerian
beancake; nuts from Delmar-based Our Daily Eats;
Elderberry Mary·s home-grown and homemade
jam; cookies from Vegan Creations (a Troy Farmers
Market favorite); milk from Battenkill Valley
Creamery; cheese and probiotic ice cream by Amazing
Real Live Food; Catskill-based Grandpa Pete·s
gourmet pasta sauce; Bettie·s Cup Cakes,
and such local restaurants and businesses as Bros
Tacos, New World Bistro, Casa Visco and Honest
Weight Food Co-op. . . . Carney·s Tavern
& Irish Pub (17 Main St., Ballston Lake) will
hold its annual Halfway to St. Patrick·s
Day party from 11:30 AM through the evening on
Saturday (Sept. 18). The party features Irish
Music by St. James Gate, Carney·s corned
beef and cabbage, Reuben sandwiches, and Irish
potato soup. Wear some green to offset the fall
foliage. More info: 399-9926. . . . Remember to
pass your scraps to Metroland.