When Terry Romp, produce buyer for Heinen’s Fine Foods, needs to reach the vendor responsible for much of the in-season produce for their 17 stores, he either shouts into a speakerphone or sends a fax to the vendor’s neighbor down the road.
Such is the way of things with a commitment to buying local.
The man on the other end of the speakerphone is Isaac Keim, Amish bishop and lifelong farmer. Keim is Heinen’s right-hand man for much of the produce abundantly displayed in stores from June through October.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it to us,” says Romp. “It offers us a great product at a fair price and enables the Amish to prosper.”
The venue for that prosperity sits at the intersection of Ashland, Lorain, Medina and Wayne counties, just down the country road from a tiny post office that I mistook for a garden shed. On a sweltering July evening at the peak of the growing season, I accompanied Romp and Heinen’s Director of Produce Vinnie Latessa to the Homerville Wholesale Produce Auction—the place to be for produce buyers, restaurateurs, local folk and “agritourists”—those intrigued by the notion of buying local amidst the Amish culture. What Keim is not able to supply to Heinen’s from his own family’s farms he purchases at the auction on the store’s behalf.
In an open concrete pavilion strung with buzzing flies and twisty halogen bulbs, horse-drawn buggies file through a two-lane auction block, a farmer displaying bursting boxes of produce waves a long wand like a ringmaster. Solemn Amish men and women look on from a makeshift galley, proud parents overseeing the presentation of their crops. The evening hums with the auctioneer’s chant as waiting trucks are stocked and wheelbarrows heaped with locally grown harvest. But it wasn’t always this way.
For many reasons the life of any farmer is not an easy one, but requirements of the Amish culture add an additional layer of challenge. Amish dairy farmers struggle to maintain their product without the luxury of electric refrigeration, while produce farmers face the logistical difficulty of transporting crops from outlying fields to buyers without relying on motorized trucks. While many Amish farmers have abandoned the fields for more stable trades such as carpentry, not all growers in this four-county area were interested in exchanging their plows for hammers. Those committed to the craft of produce farming collectively relayed a need for a centralized location from which to sell their wares. Enter Fred Owen, lifelong English (meaning non-Amish) farmer and graduate of Ohio State University with a degree in agricultural science. In 1997, Owen partnered with 20 Amish growers to begin the Homerville Auction, facilitated by Owen’s daughter, auctioneer Andrea Owen-Shearer. Those 20 eligible growers now number close to 600 in a facility that has been expanded 19 times since its inception.
Teenaged Amish boys scurry on the other side of the auction block, feverishly packing the just-purchased produce—worker bees in overalls and straw hats. Clad in jeans in the hot evening sun, Owen sits patiently in an idling forklift, ready to transfer the produce from wagons into waiting trucks. During a brief pause in this well-oiled process, Owen proudly speaks of the millions of dollars the auction pumps back into the local economy. Despite this substantial contribution to the community, it is the family component of the auction that also gives Owen satisfaction. “We all want our children to farm,” he explains. “The produce auction is one of the best ways to make that happen.”
The children are easy to spot throughout the aisles of vegetables and table of fruits. A separate pavilion houses a small-lot auction, where buyers can purchase lesser quantities of produce. A tiny Amish girl toddles barefoot, curious eyes peering out from her navy blue bonnet, a firm hold on the hand of a watchful mother. English children wait patiently, parents at the ready to bid at the mention of the watermelon or berries they’ve come to buy.
Kimberly Harrison, a mother from Oberlin, was raised going to produce auctions and now brings her young sons Kirk and Adam to Homerville. The trio loads the family minivan so full of produce they sometimes have to hold the extra on their laps all the way home. They share their bounty with relatives, and as a thank you for the family doctor. “My parents always taught me that you share whatever you can,” says Harrison. “I like teaching my children that.”
I ask Owen how consumers can know there won’t be any squishy zucchini or spoiling tomatoes underneath the perfect produce displayed on the tops of the
auction boxes. He explains that the Amish are “entirely self-policing regarding quality.” In other words, if a farmer begins to take short cuts or attempts to cheat the system, other growers will turn up the heat.
Additionally, since many farms grow the same crops, farmers are motivated to provide the highest-quality product in order to appeal to largescale buyers like Heinen’s. Keim knows which farmers grow the most robust tomatoes and the juiciest cantaloupe, and goes to those growers when Heinen’s comes to call.
“Isaac is consistent,” explains Latessa. “He checks every time.” Keim dedicates four to six workers to packing the refrigerated trucks that leave the thrice-weekly auction for an early morning arrival at Heinen’s central warehouse. Distribution to individual stores puts the product on the shelves that afternoon. “I’m responsible for what I buy here,” explains Keim. “Everything here is picked the day of the auction. We stress flavor and shelf life.”
Heinen’s mission to grow its local produce program—the goal in bringing Romp on board—has been a great success over the last eight years. With an extensive history as a farm marketer, Romp brings longstanrelationships with Amish and other area farmers to the Heinen’s family. As Romp toured me through the aisles of the small-lot pavilion, a young Amish man enthusiastically shouted, “Terry Romp! How’re ya doing?” While I looked on, the two caught up about family and the goings on of the growing season, an easy conversation in the evening breeze. A commitment to these personal connections drives the train of Heinen’s produce success.
Romp even visits the growers during the off season, reviewing the year and examining ways to improve in the future. As a result of these meetings, customers gain access to trial items each year— baby squash, purple beans, heirloom tomatoes—all part of an effort to keep the produce department alive with appealing new offerings. Signs above local produce bear the names and often the photographs of the farmers responsible for the proffered goods, reinforcing the connection between growers and consumers.
Leaving the auction we drive at a snail’s pace behind an Amish buggy. A young boy’s innocent stare peeks out amidst the quiet of the country road. We stop for water at a small country store, farm dust in our throats, and begin the journey back home. Behind us, refrigerated trucks are being loaded, bound for Heinen’s stores with English drivers at the wheel. I think of the shoppers who tomorrow will buy the candy onions I just admired, the berries bursting from their wooden baskets. It’s good to know this sort of thing still happens—hard work, dedication to authenticity and the best interest of the customer—regardless of the extra effort. I just may go buy those candy onions myself.