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Laurel Farmers Auction provides marketplace for local produce

Tom Wright, manager of Laurel Farmers Auction Inc. in Laurel, DE, told The Produce News that the cooperative has had over 2,000 stockholders in its 71-year career.

“How many we have at any given time depends on the number of people we’re accommodating,” he explained. “In the summer, we typically have about 25 large growers who have 100-plus acres, and another 400 small growers and gardeners, some who may bring only a box or two of produce during the entire season. Typically, the smaller growers will bring a box or two of squash every day for a while, and then later in the season they’ll bring tomatoes, for example.”

The auction was started by a group of growers in the area who felt they were not getting a fair deal from local brokers. They put together the capital and started the cooperative to market their own products.

“Our auction advantage is that the produce we sell can be harvested, packed, shipped, sold at retail and on consumers’ tables within 24 hours,” said Mr. Wright. “We’re close to many major markets, including New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia. And we go south when areas there are off season. You can’t get better watermelon or cantaloupe than what is produced on the Eastern Shore.”

States’ locally grown initiatives are helpful in bringing people back to seasonal produce, and Laurel Farmers Auction works with some states to help promote locally produced items. “There are so many fresh produce stands in front of the homes in this region that if anyone has to go to a grocery store to buy their produce, they probably aren’t getting out of their houses much these days,” said Mr. Wright.

Because the auction does not take possession of product but rather acts as an agent, the responsibility for food safety and traceability lies between the farmer and the buyer. Mr. Wright said that harvesters are highly trained and distributors have all the required certifications in place. Farmers set their own prices, and the auction takes a fee for its marketing services.

Mr. Wright is as much a legend in the area as the Laurel Farmers Market itself. He was an eighth-grade teacher for 32 years, although he farmed before beginning his teaching career. About two years ago, he suffered a devastating accident when a tractor ran over him. He was hospitalized with 18 broken ribs, a broken pelvis and a badly damaged leg. But with great doctors and therapists, his recovery and rehabilitation have been phenomenal.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 percent recovered,” he said. “But I now get around with a cane, which is mainly for security. I still farm my own garden. I get to the end of a row, stop and rest for a minute, and then I start on the next. They [doctors and therapists] were tough on me at times and often made me move when I didn’t want to. But I knew I couldn’t quit because I have local people who depend on me for fresh produce.”

Laurel Farmers Auction sells a full range of fresh produce, “from A for apples to Z for zucchini,” said Mr. Wright. “The more-popular items include other melon varieties, tomatoes, corn, squash, peppers, green beans, pole beans, lima beans, cucumbers and pickles. In the fall, we handle some sweet potatoes, pumpkins, gourds and even some corn stalks for decoration.”

The majority of the cooperatives’ produce is shipped in all directions within a 50-mile radius, but some goes as far as 100 miles.

“We provide a valuable service to local farmers and to the community,” said Mr. Wright. “Buyers come in knowing that they’ll see a variety of produce every day.”

Because it is a nonprofit cooperative, Laurel Farmers Auction refunds the remaining selling fee back to its farmers. It charges 3.5 percent, and in a good year, farmers get back as much as 25 percent of their fee.

“We’re an old-fashioned organization that provides a highly demanded service,” Mr. Wright added. “This year is going great. There have been ample warm days and nights in the region, and produce is looking as good as ever.”

He joked that he spends so much time at the auction during the season that his wife threatens to send his mail there.

“It’s a rewarding business in that it does so much good for so many people,” said Mr. Wright. “It’s my pleasure to be here to help ensure that they have access to the outstanding fruits and vegetables that local farmers and gardeners produce.”