Growers Fill Increased Demand at Weaverland Auction

6/29/2013 1:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. — It was 8:21 on a Tuesday morning at the Weaverland Produce Auction in New Holland, Pa. A farmer driving a steel-wheeled John Deere 5520 had just pulled up next to the market building, towing a good-sized wagon. The wagon was loaded with newly dug potatoes, freshly picked strawberries and carefully harvested ornamental plants. Before 8:23 a.m. rolled around, the farmer had transferred his flowers and vegetables to one of the hundreds of flatbed hand carts the auction has in its 399-foot-long-by-78-foot-wide open-sided structure. Then he was gone and another wagon took his place.

Auctioneer Tim Weaver appeared out of nowhere, headset already in place under his straw hat, confessed to running late that morning, and helped unload the next wagon and the next.

At 8:25 a.m., there were almost no people around, but carts full of produce began filling up the east side of the building. The west side was already loaded with flowers, which had been brought there either the night before or earlier in the morning. Flowers can come in early, but most of the produce sold at Weaverland Auction is harvested the day it is sold. That’s especially true of the most perishable crops, like strawberries, asparagus and lettuce. Tomatoes, zucchini and potatoes might be picked the day before.

At 8:29 a.m., Bruce Eberly, the auction manager, was leaning on one of the carts, keeping an eye on things in his tall, quiet way, as the building filled with more produce, and buyers filtered in. At 9:01 a.m., a grower was still arranging boxes of stunningly perfect zucchinis on his cart. At 9:02 a.m., Eberly announced that the auction was about to start. And by 9:03 a.m., auctioneer Tim Weaver was already calling for bids on his third cart of the morning, another load of stunningly perfect zucchinis.

And there were people everywhere, shoulder to shoulder in what had been a ghost town half an hour before. Weaver’s side of the aisle was in the middle of the building. On the outside, Dan Stoltzfus, the other regular auctioneer at Weaverland’s sales was asking for bids on his line of carts. Weaver and Stoltzfus were about 15 feet apart, both using microphones and amplified speakers. Noisy and confusing for the newcomer, but, according to Bruce Eberly, it works for the buyers because they can shop both sides of the aisle at once.

It was a lively auction, with probably 300 buyers and 300 sellers, Eberly guessed. Over the course of a season, there will be close to 2,000 unique buyers and 2,000 unique sellers, some of whom may only show up once or twice a year. Weaverland’s season runs approximately from the middle of March to the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, except that last year it was still selling pumpkins the week after Thanksgiving. The buyers are supermarkets, smaller grocery stores, farmers markets, roadside stands, restaurants and a few individuals who really like their vegetables and, especially, strawberries.

None of the buyers that Eberly can think of are processors. Which means that nearly everything bought at the auction is resold as fresh produce. And when those vegetables and berries and melons arrive at Weaverland they are — to say it again —stunningly perfect.

The farmers who sell at the market, according to Eberly, have learned how to grow, pick and pack produce with tremendous eye appeal. The better it looks, the better the price.

Eberly has been the Weaverland manager for the past six years, and for the 30 years prior, he owned a produce stand at the Reading Fairgrounds. He sold produce every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. And every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday he looked for produce, going farm to farm. Shopping got easier for him and other buyers when the Leola Produce Auction started in 1985.

Weaverland began in 1997, when 33 local farmers pooled their resources to start the business. Those original shareholders still own the business, and appoint a nine-member board of directors, to whom Eberly reports. Only 10 miles of mostly country road separate Weaverland and Leola, but both businesses are going strong. In fact, Eberly said they are working with an engineer on plans to double the size of Weaverland’s roofed facility.

He anticipates no problem having a steady supply of goods to sell, thanks almost entirely to the Plain Sect families who market through Weaverland. A typical-size operation might have 15 acres in flowers and/or vegetables. Some growers produce a little bit of everything throughout the season. Some specialize in tomatoes, sweet corn, watermelons or other high-value crops.

But nearly all the growers are within 10 miles of the market, and therein lies the secret to success for both Weaverland and the growers, who bring their products to market mostly on horse- and tractor-drawn wagons. Eberly sees an increasing demand for locally grown produce, and he said the farmers who come to Weaverland are happy to boost production. In the six years he’s been the manager, Weaverland sales have posted year-to-year increases.

Harvesting a dozen flats of strawberries early in the morning, hauling them a few miles down the road to Weaverland and selling them for $15 a flat is a good way for a farmer to gross $180 while his English neighbors are just getting themselves and their insulated coffee cups settled into their office cubicles. And a week or so ago, those earlier-in-the-season berries were bringing $32 a flat.

Weaverland is an auction, after all, and there are no guarantees. Growers have learned to deal with it, Eberly said. If a grower has lettuce, he can figure on good prices early in the season, but, on this particular Tuesday, lettuce was going for a buck-and-a-half a box and the box itself cost a buck. Good prices early should balance out the low prices later on.

Eberly said the auction has bought seven trailer loads of cardboard boxes so far this year and he expects to buy another three trailer loads before the season is over. The boxes are resold to growers at a reasonable price, which helps keep their costs down. A tomato box with a lid, for example, costs the grower $1.25, whether the box sells for $20 or $30.

The farmers who sell at Weaverland do compete with each other for the top prices, but there’s often not much difference between the top price and the bottom for a particular vegetable. The real competition comes from giant growers in places like California, North Carolina and even Peru.

On this particular Tuesday morning, there was a buyer for a local supermarket, one that hauls a trailer load or two every week from Weaverland when growers are at the height of their harvests. But he wasn’t buying. Most shipped produce was still cheaper. He cited strawberries. The morning they were going for $32 a flat at Weaverland, he bought berries shipped from North Carolina to Philadelphia for $8 a flat.

But price isn’t the only consideration to the buyers who attend Weaverland auctions. Freshness, quality and the fact that they are locally grown can trump a rock bottom price for buyers and their retail customers. And no matter how well an item is handled after it’s picked in California or Peru, it’s not likely to reach Northeast consumers in stunningly perfect condition.

Weaverland Auction operates Tuesdays and Thursdays from mid-March through the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Other market days are added as the growing season progresses. The address is 1030 Precast Rd., New Holland, and the phone number is 717-355-0834.

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