It all begins with community.
If you don’t have community, it won’t work.
In the summer of 1996, Mennonite farmers in Christian County, Kentucky were looking for ways to expand the market for locally grown produce. Many were transitioning out of tobacco farming and others were selling some produce from roadside stands. Most had been part of a Mennonite migration to Western Kentucky from Pennsylvania around 1990. Several farmers wondered if an auction like those on the east coast was feasible in Fairview, and they decided to hold a meeting to determine interest level. Among them was Henry Leid, who had sold regularly through one of the first and largest produce auctions in the country in Leola, Pennsylvania. Henry was convinced that Fairview could duplicate the success of the Leola auction.
Henry was a champion of the project, but he realized he needed a facilitator to deal with the “English” as the non-Amish are known. Henry approached Harold Eli of the Kentucky State University Small Farm program. Harold has been with the group every step of the way since. Harold has been with the group every step of the way since. His first task was to help set up the first formal meeting of the group. A show of hands at the first meeting indicated that most of the group was willing to buy one or more shares at $1000 each. Henry and several others calculated it would take roughly $70,000 to establish the auction, so the auction was a go.
With the election of a Board and sales of 72 shares, the group quickly bought a piece of land on Highway 68/80, and constructed a large open-air, steel-framed auction building. The Fairview Produce Auction is now in its fifth year and operates two mornings and two evenings weekly. Most of the participants are Amish and Mennonite vegetable farmers with small acreage in Christian and Todd Counties, but mainstream farmers from across Western Kentucky bring produce, flowers, and bedding plants to the auction as well. Trucks and trailers stand among the horse-drawn buggies and wagons in the parking lot, and customers range from roadside stand operations to groceries, restaurants, produce distributors, and individuals looking for homegrown vegetables. Hay, straw, and firewood are auctioned monthly or twice monthly depending on the season, and horses and small farm equipment are sold each spring and fall.
Harold Eli is a Christian County Extension agent who’s been involved in developing the thriving auction, which sold over $330,000, worth of goods in 2000. Harold helped to organize the planning meetings, and continues to coordinate field days and other events that bring growers together for production and marketing education. He was instrumental in finding groups of commercial buyers that send representatives up to bid from the Jackson/Nashville, Tennessee area and learned that a major step in recruiting commercial buyers was establishing standard packaging requirements for all of the produce. The auction now attracts grocery and wholesale buyers not only with its reputation for quality, but because it offers the convenience of consistent, uniform packaging. Harold also got involved with marketing, making phone calls, sending flyers, and distributing a newsletter to potential buyers.
Reflecting on its five-year growth, Harold remarks that while the auction was created to increase sales of local produce, it’s now motivated producers to expand and diversify their operations to meet demand. Thriving due to effective cooperation, the auction also rewards individual performance in a way that many cooperative ventures do not: each item is identified by producer number in the auction. So the highest-quality produce is can be recognized and brings the highest bids. This structure creates the added benefit of encouraging all producers to strive for quality. Although the Auction Board issues quality standards, Harold says that there is rarely a problem with inferior produce.
Born and raised in Christian County, Harold grew up in a farm family that worked horses and mules, kept hogs, a milk cow, and chickens, and raised and canned its own vegetables. Despite cultural and religious differences, his background enables him to appreciate the skills, values, and goals of Amish and Mennonite farmers. With a reputation for spurning government assistance, Harold admits that “a few Amish are kindly cool to Extension,” but he hasn’t found this leeriness to hinder the leaders’ willingness to ask for his assistance, or his ability to support and promote the auction.
Amish and Mennonite cultures extol many of the traditional virtues of small-farm communities: frugality, hard work, and neighborliness. Harold notes the presence of a “willingness to work, not get discouraged, and ride the good and the bad,” that is largely missing in today’s mainstream culture. When I Asked if the auction could work outside the Amish/Mennonite community, Harold answers with a story: Buying a share in the auction hasn’t brought a quick return; many of the “English” that invested bought in for the dividends and sold their shares when they didn’t turn around quickly enough. A Mennonite farmer told Harold that his community wasn’t interested in the dividends, and that he’d bought his shares like he’d buy a tractor, as a true investment. Just as with a tractor, the return would not come as quick cash, but as a long-range opportunity for sustenance and growth.
Auction manager Steve Sauder has been asked to speak to mainstream groups of farmers interested in copying the model, but produce auctions haven’t largely caught on outside of Amish and Mennonite communities. Harold suspects that the success of the Fairview Auction is somewhat a function of culture, particularly this quality of farsightedness and devotion to small-scale, steady, slow-growth economics. The auction might not be such a natural marketing tool in other areas, particularly in communities where trusting and interdependent relationships are not as abundant. Other practicalities like time flexibility (many Amish and Mennonites practice a craft or trade rather than work in off-farm jobs to supplement farm income,) family help, and geographic proximity make the auction a good fit in Christian County, but could be drawbacks to its success in other communities. Steve Sauder advises other groups: “It starts with community. If you don’t have strong community spirit first, this type of project is not for you.”
Harold worked closely with Henry Leid, who has since moved from Christian County, and the other leaders in getting the auction off the ground. While an agent is often instrumental in developing the internal organization of the group, guiding consensus-building, conflict-management, or fair procedures, some culturally separate, close-knit groups may not need this outside involvement. In this case the group was accustomed to acknowledging its shared goals, cooperating, and self-organizing. Because of the insular nature of the group, Harold found he was most useful as an interlocutor, finding appropriate technical resources, establishing outside contacts, and maintaining lines of communication. When the management developed confidence in marketing (Sauder now produces a newsletter and the auction is advertised in several publications), and the growers learned the nature of buyer’s needs and preferences, Harold was able to pass the torch and take a supporting role.