A Community Grows

Jean Konkle couldn’t take it any longer. She had just moved to Chesterhill in Morgan County and didn’t like how some were taking advantage of her Amish neighbors’ gentle and humble nature. Thieves were snatching fruits and vegetables from Amish gardens, and others were bickering over almost nonexistent blemishes in the produce, driving the price down to almost nothing because the Amish weren’t comfortable with disagreeing.

“I felt they deserved better. They were such hardworking people, and I knew I had to help them,” said Konkle, a Morgan County Farm Bureau member. She also wanted to help more people in the economically depressed county have access to fresh produce. The answer came easily­—a produce auction that would provide fair prices for the Amish and affordable fresh food for the community. Konkle knew it would work because she and her husband Marvin had seen the success of a large produce auction run by the Mennonite community in Highland County where the couple lived before they retired. At produce auctions, items are usually sold in large quantities and auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Starting the Chesterhill Produce Auction was daunting for Konkle. She was new to the southeastern Ohio county and had no idea how to fund the project. Her first step was to slowly introduce herself and her idea to the Amish. She then got the mayor, county commissioners and community to come together for a town meeting about the proposal, which received a lot of positive feedback. More help came from Morgan County Farm Bureau, Ohio State University and Rural Action, a nonprofit group that promotes economic, social and environmental justice in Appalachian Ohio.

The Konkles took a mortgage out on their farm to get the auction going and then started looking for a location that was close to Amish farms. They found it one day driving along county roads. The hilly property wasn’t listed for sale but that didn’t stop Konkle from knocking on the farmhouse and asking the owner if he would sell 10 acres for the produce auction.

“Maybe I caught him at a good time because he agreed,” she laughed.

Grants from Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation and the Southern Ohio Agriculture and Community Development Foundation helped pay for part of the auction building and driveway with the Konkles providing the bulk of the startup money.

The first auction was held in a tent in June 2005, two years after the Konkles had moved to Morgan County. As Konkle recalls, attendance was strong but the weather was lousy.

“We had an awful storm. Everybody pulled together and held onto the tent, and we were able to finish the auction. A couple of months later we had the permanent structure in place,” she said.

Today the Chesterhill Produce Auction draws more than 800 registered buyers from Ohio and West Virginia. The auction is held on Mondays and Thursdays, May through October, starting at 4 p.m. and typically lasts a couple of hours. The auction sells both large and small lots of food, attracting a wide array of customers such as Ohio University, grocery stores, farm markets, restaurants and homeowners. Because many holidays fall on Mondays, the auction often features special events such as corn roasts or potlucks to draw more customers.

“We figured we may as well make a party out of it,” said Tom Redfern, sustainable agriculture coordinator for Rural Action, which bought the produce auction from the Konkles in 2010. “We’re really trying to create a sense of community. It can take years to get somebody out here but once they do, they’re hooked.”

On Labor Day an hour before the auction starts, horse drawn buggies and trucks pull up along the side of the building and unload their items, which are placed on large plastic pallets in the middle of the building. Up for sale that day is a wide array of produce including peppers, squash, potatoes, pumpkins, watermelons, peaches, pears, eggplants and Brussels sprouts. The building is filled with young and old people who fill their plates with food from the potluck and mingle before the start of the auction. The rain on this holiday auction day hasn’t dampened the spirits for the couple of hundred people in attendance. They smile, shake hands and laugh, creating a sense of community.

Konkle, who hasn’t been to the auction for months because of her husband’s illness, is deep in conversation when she notices someone patiently waiting to talk to her. She looks up at an Amish man who grins widely and extends a callused hand.

“Hi Jean. Haven’t seen you for a long time. How are things going?” the man asks before hurrying back to finish setting out his produce.

At 4 p.m. sharp, the auction starts. The auctioneer selling large lots uses a microphone while the other auctioneer at the other end relies on his voice and his marketing skills to sell the small lots.

“Roma tomatoes! These are the sauce tomatoes,” the small lot auctioneer bellows out before selling a box for $6.50. Next up is a box of green beans sold for $7.25 and red onions for $6.50. Once the bidding is complete, the buyer pays at the office, and the growers are given weekly checks for what they sell.

“When the bids would go too low for something, Jean would buy it. It was my job to get rid of it,” Marvin laughed as he juggled the four dozen fresh eggs that his wife just bought. He knows better than to ask why she needs so many.

The decision to sell the produce market was a difficult one for the Konkles.

“The hardest day was when I sold it,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “This is like family for me. I’ve really missed it. It’s good to be back. When people ask me why I came to this area, I think it’s because God put me here to do what I did.”

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.

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Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation

The Chesterhill Produce Auction has received two Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation grants. One allowed the auction building to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the other went toward the installation of overhead garage doors.

The Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation strives for measurable community improvement through its support of special projects that focus on agricultural education and environmental and economic issues.

The Foundation has awarded dozens of Agriculture Action and Awareness Grants to support a variety of education and economic development initiatives such as Agriculture in the Classroom efforts, soil and water conservation programs and farmers market development projects in rural, suburban and urban neighborhoods. Agriculture Action and Awareness Grant applications for 2012 are due Nov. 15.

The Foundation also offers Community Grantsmanship workshops helping neighborhood groups identify talent, assess issues and create funding proposals to attract public funding and private foundation investment.
The Foundation supports a family of scholarships to help students pursue careers in science, education and community service.

Visit ofbfoundation.org or call 614-246-8210.