ROMULUS — The first time Chenango County resident Wess VanVoorhis visited the Seneca Produce Auction, he was late. He didn’t make that mistake last Tuesday — in fact, he overcompensated, arriving more than an hour early so he wouldn’t miss a thing.
VanVoorhis, who runs farm markets in Binghamton, Whitney Point and Greene, made the long drive from Greene because the produce being sold is worth his while. He successfully bid on cantaloupes and tomatoes, among other things, and was looking to buy “whatever else I can sneak in on,” he said.
“The quality is the best,” he added. “It’s either fresh-picked that day or late the day before. I’m really glad they started this here.”
The produce auctions, which are held Tuesdays and Fridays, were launched in early May. Auction Manager David K. Stoltzfus said the enterprise was created by a local Amish community to provide a market for anybody — Amish or otherwise — to sell locally grown produce at wholesale quantities.
“We’re trying to get going to provide income opportunity for farmers with small acreage,” he said. “We are open to anybody to buy or sell.”
Most of the buyers run farm markets or roadside stands, although some people occasionally buy for their personal consumption.
Cindy Meckley of Romulus was one such person Tuesday. It was her second time at the auction; previously, she bought tomatoes, potatoes and eggs — and was particularly thrilled with the tomatoes she scored for $10 a box. They were canned by the next day.
“I used to go to the [Finger Lakes Produce Auction] in Penn Yan, but there were too many people,” said Meckley, who shops for produce she is able to can or freeze for her family. “It’s locally grown and you’re buying from the people in the community. I think that’s good.”
Stoltzfus, who also sells his produce at auction, including numerous bins of melons on Tuesdays, said more than 90 percent of the growers are from Seneca County, although a few have been coming from northern Wayne County to sell their fruit. Consignors are asked to be at the auction barn on Yerkes Road at least 30 minutes before the start. Auction organizers receive a 10 percent commission, he said.
The auctions are held in a 80-by-152-foot pole barn built in August 2011. The space is shared with the Vineyard Road Auction company, a separate entity. Stoltzfus said organizers worked on start-up plans all last year. Currently, there are no paid employees.
“We work for mutual benefit at the present time,” he said, noting on average about 15 men are on hand to run each auction — not counting the young boys who seem to enjoy using the pallet jacks to move the sold produce to waiting trucks.
The produce, along with some baked goods, are divided into rows of large, medium and small lots. Two auctioneers take turns running the auction, weaving up and down the rows, the buyers following their sing-song voice like the Pied Piper. Two helpers flank the auctioneer: One announces the lot and the grower, the other writes down the winning bid. Trucks were lined up on either side of the pole barn awaiting produce.
There was a plethora of melons Tuesday, and they went cheap. Tomatoes, on the other hand, were commanding higher prices because of this year’s poor, blight-affected crop.
The auctioneer isn’t afraid to inject a little marketing into his selling. One announced “15 dozen of delectable corn,” and another time promoted “two half bushels of pickles; they’re a nice size” — those went for $19 a box.
Sean Noxon of Frog Pond Farms in Bainbridge, Chenango County, was a heavy buyer Tuesday. His family runs a large farm stand there. He learned about the new auction company after being paid a visit by the organizers.
“The quality is unbelievable and the price is way too cheap for what it is,” said Noxon, who appreciates he doesn’t have to make the longer drive to Penn Yan. “They need more buyers.”
Stoltzfus said the supply of produce has been beyond his expectations. He assessed the season so far as going “reasonably well, meaning we expected prices to be up and down.”
The last auction likely will be held in mid-October.
“It has gone better than I feared it might,” Stoltzfus said. “Overall, it has gone better than I dared hope.”
PULLOUT1 — Plenty of produce
Tuesday’s auction offerings included:
• Red and yellow onions
• Sugar and cherry plums
• Beans (yellow and green)
• Zucchini and summer squash
• Cayenne peppers
• Onions (red and yellow)
PULLOUT2 — At a glance
What: Seneca Produce Auction
Where: 2295 Yerkes Road, Romulus
When: Auctions held at 10 a.m. Tuesdays and noon Fridays
Phone: (607) 869-5470 on auction mornings, (607) 869-5626 on other mornings, 7:30 to 8 a.m.
Market report: (712) 432-8598