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Photo: Amy Halloran

To the Highest Bidder

Amish and “English” buyers come together at the Mohawk Valley Produce Auction, the center of Montgomery County’s shifting farm culture

By Amy Halloran

A 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 system.

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.

“We 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 accent.

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.

“Will 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.

“Sometimes 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.

“This 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.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Of 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.



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