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Berries for the highest bidder: why some towns are embracing produce auctions

Boxes of freshly picked yellow squash, peas, berries and peaches sit in a row on the auction floor.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Boxes of squash, peas, berries and peaches line the floor at the Chesterhill Produce Auction, where the highest bidders will reap the harvest.

Every Monday and Thursday at 4 o’clock, the Chesterhill Produce Auction springs into action.

Farmers drop off weekly harvests from the backs of buggies and pickup trucks. And local buyers — from nearby restaurants, schools, hospitals and food pantries — get ready to bid on boxes stuffed with yellow squash and green beans, blueberries and purple plums.

Bradley Meek is one of those buyers. The vintner makes non-traditional wine from fruits other than grapes. This summer, his eye is on rhubarb.

“For whatever reason, the sourness goes out during fermentation and there’s a little bit of residual sugar,” he said.

Meek frequents this auction because, unlike at the farmer’s market, he can buy pallets instead of pints of freshly picked fruit here.

“Blueberries at the Athens Farmers Market are going for $7 a pint right now,” he explained, eyes wide. “When I came out here, they were selling flats of blueberries, and I was getting them really cheap.”

Plus, there’s another benefit to this auction.

“All of this produce is grown here,” said Sam Watson, an Americorps member for Rural Action, the nonprofit that helps run this auction for the rural farming village of about 300 people.

“It's like the Mecca of where our food is grown in this county,” they said. “And the people who actually live here literally don't have access to it.”

Boxes of green beans, yellow squash, onions and fresh berries line a concrete floor, surrounded by onlookers in folding chairs.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Bidders surround a week's harvest of yellow squash, green beans, rhubarb and berries at the Chesterhill Produce Auction.

There are plenty of dollar stores near Chesterhill, Watson said, but the closest Kroger or Aldi is about 20 miles from the village center. So even though corn and zucchini and tomatoes blossom in droves beside winding rural roads, it’s not necessarily easy to buy those fresh veggies.

In fact, 2,430 people in Morgan County — 17.5% of the population — are food insecure, according to Feeding America.

The Chesterhill Produce Auction started under a driveway tent back in 2005 to address that problem.

The rise of produce auctions in Ohio

The first produce auction to come to Ohio started in Geauga County, just east of Cleveland.

At the time, many of the Amish farmers there worked in the dairy industry, producing grade B milk for a cheese plant in Middlefield. When the plant started only accepting federally regulated grade A milk, those Amish farmers found themselves in a bind.

“The farmers, due to religious beliefs, couldn't convert over to electricity or coolers or diesel generator coolers or anything like that,” said Brad Bergefurd, who worked as an Ohio State extension educator there.

So, many switched to produce farming. But they faced an immediate problem.

“When you grain farm, you can haul it to local elevators. When you raise livestock, you can take it to local livestock auctions. When you’re a dairy farmer, you take it to the local dairy plant,” Bergefurd said. “But produce, you have to come up with your own marketing.”

“Due to the Amish not being able to have trucks and travel to the big cities to deliver produce to the restaurants or the wholesale buyers or the chain stores, they had to come up with a marketing structure that would allow buyers to come to them.”

Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Boxes and baskets at the Chesterhill Produce Auction are stuffed with fruits and vegetables, like these plums.

Their solution: a produce auction. And it worked.

Since then, Bergefurd has found it’s not just good for the horse-and-buggy crowd. The auctions give people a way to buy local produce in bulk and pick their own price no matter who the supplier is.

Since then, the idea has caught on: there are now 15 auctions like it across the state and most are doing really well.

“Every produce auction that has been established in Ohio ever since the first in ‘92, they've been growing leaps and bounds,” Bergefurd said.

Stimulating the local economy

Nearly twenty years in, more than 150 producers now sell at the Chesterhill Produce Auction in a single season, and it’s about to grow even more.

With nearly a million dollars from the state’s Appalachian Community Grant Program, it has plans to expand the auction floor, and build bathrooms and a kitchen, where food can be packaged and prepared.

This expansion won’t just increase access to healthy, fresh food, organizers hope it’ll also stimulate the economy.

“Basically, we’re doing economic development with local agriculture,” said Tom Redfern, Rural Action’s director of sustainable agriculture. “We’re aggregating from multiple small producers to create a food based destination in a rural place, where people are now coming and spending money here, and maybe in the community too.”

Three people sit on folding chairs just inside a covered shelter. Their backs face the camera.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Three bidders sit inside the covered Chesterhill Produce Auction, ready to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables in bulk.

That’s exactly the point of the grant.

Through its ‘Downtowns and Destinations’ initiative, the state is investing more than $154 million in similar projects across the state, with hopes of attracting tourism to the region, while raising the quality of life for locals.

Other projects include expanding a bike trail near Ross County’s Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks sites, building a corridor to welcome visitors to Hocking Hills and renovating one of the last remaining inns along the old National Road.

Redfern is hopeful these investments will help in places like Chesterhill, where more than 20% of the population lives in poverty.

“Nobody’s going to build a factory around here,” he said. “We can’t wait on that.”

So instead, he’s focusing on what the county already has: plenty of farmland and the fruits and veggies to show for it.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.