February 6, 2020

Farm to Food

Chesterhill Produce Auction helps fight Morgan County food desert

By Courtney Perrett | For The Post

W hen Jean and Marvin Konkle retired to the small, rural village of Chesterhill in 2003, they noticed one thing was missing from the community: a produce market.

They decided to help by creating their own.

Located about 30 minutes southwest of Athens in Morgan County, the remote location made it difficult for its residents to access fresh, good-quality produce. The Konkles started the Chesterhill Produce Auction, which helped bring an isolated community out of a food desert.

The Konkles had previously experienced the success of a large, fruitful produce auction managed by a local Mennonite community where they had lived in Bainbridge, and it planted a seed in Jean’s mind.

“Jean had the idea to create a produce auction in Chesterhill, and it became her big project,” said Tom Redfern, the director of sustainable agriculture and forestry at Rural Action, a local non-profit organization. “I came here to work with Rural Action’s agricultural program, and what we’re trying to do is make a local food system to help improve the economy.”

He said it’s imperative for a non-profit to be applying for all the grants they can in order to support their initiatives. Redfern said he knew better than anyone how badly Chesterhill needed Jean’s idea to pan out in the community’s favor.

Marvin died in early October 2019 at 85 years old, and Jean has been in declining health since. Redfern said he worked closely with the Konkles as they dedicated the future of their retirement to transforming rural Southeast Ohio into a profitable, local food hub. The process of developing a produce auction is long and laboring and something the Konkles had experience with when they moved to the area.

Redfern said the primary goal of the auction was to ensure that more people would have access to fresh produce while supporting the local farmers who grow it. Jean began the process by reaching out to her Amish neighbors, who were dedicated farmers and carpenters, to see if she could pique their interest in an otherwise daunting initiative.

“Community impact is a combination of economic impacts and fresh food access...Chesterhill has no grocery stores and few places to buy fresh produce. Given its central location, the Chesterhill Produce Auction meets the needs of this community by providing affordable food to residents.”-Jessica Dotson

She conducted meetings where she explained how the produce auction would be successful and how it would help generate more income for the community in Chesterhill.

Morgan County is one of the poorest counties in Ohio. It has a total population of fewer than 15,000 people with a median household income of $28,868 per year, according to a 2010 study done by the Ohio University Voinovich School for Leadership and Public Affairs.

“Rural Action worked with Jean, Ohio State University’s educational extension and a few producers from Bainbridge who had started the auction there, and we basically began meeting each month,” Redfern said.

Redfern said that Rural Action helped turn the Konkle’s dreams into a reality.

“The produce auction serves as a point of aggregation to make it worthwhile for people to come there,” Redfern said, describing the impact the auction made in combating the village’s geographical isolation.

As the auction developed, Rural Action created a culturally acceptable, functional framework to ensure the involvement of the Amish farmers who played a key role in the project’s success.

“The majority of people who participate in the produce auction are non-Amish, but the majority of food is from the Amish farms,” Redfern said.

Every Monday and Thursday afternoon from May to October, the market is open. Redfern said that many local consumers who participate in the auction purchase wholesale produce, including but not limited to local restaurants, resellers and Ohio University. However, most auction attendees are residents of Morgan County picking up a bag of produce for the week.

“Without the produce auction, Chesterhill would be very dependent on major corporate grocery chains miles away for access to food,” Levi Brown, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer responsible for managing the auction’s business development, said.

In June 2005, the first produce auction took place under a few shaky tents, as the official auction house was still under construction. Amish farmers watched as their produce sold in bulk, finally allowing them to turn a sustainable profit for the first time in many years.

Amish farmers often hoist fresh produce onto their horse-drawn buggies and make the journey to the auction house. Wooden pallets hold the produce on the auction floor while excited buyers inspect it, hoping to set their sights on the best fresh deals.

“These are very diversified producers,” Redfern said. “They have greenhouses, raise livestock, mill lumber and build furniture, so there’s plenty of work to do on the farms.”

Rural Action’s role has grown as the produce auction has evolved over time. Initially, the non-profit’s role was to connect the Konkles with local resources that would help them to manage the logistics of the auction. In 2010, the Konkles decided to retire permanently, and Rural Action approached them about purchasing the auction with the promise that it would remain fully functional. Rural Action now runs the auction as a social enterprise with help from community investors, various grants, loans and partnerships with local organizations.

Redfern estimated that the auction brought in approximately $370,000 in gross sales in 2019. This shows a significant increase from the auction’s early days, where a full year’s sales barely made $50,000. Despite these figures, the residents of Chesterhill say that the auction is beneficial to the community.

“A lot of people choose to go to the grocery store, but the Chesterhill Produce Auction has created a time and space for people to come and shop. They’ve brought those conveniences to the farmers, too,” said Rose Berardi, owner of the Triple Nickel Diner, a local, family-owned and operated restaurant that regularly sources produce from the auction. “I know that tons of restaurants from Athens and Morgan County buy from the produce auction, especially in order to store for the winter.”

The main goal of the auction is to create a space where people can come together to build a community, Jessica Dotson, the site assistant for the auction, said.

“Community impact is a combination of economic impacts and fresh food access,” Dotson said. “Chesterhill has no grocery stores and few places to buy fresh produce. Given its central location, the Chesterhill Produce Auction meets the needs of this community by providing affordable food to residents.”

AUTHOR: Courtney Perrett
EDITOR: Ashton Nichols
COPY EDITOR: Bre Offenberger
WEB DEVELOPMENT: Liam Hendrickson