The Chesterhill Produce Auction stage, usually full of families looking to purchase their weekly groceries, hasn’t been touched by a family in months.
Instead, employees and volunteers of Rural Action, AmeriCorps and various other organizations have been collecting the fruits, vegetables and plants for customers, keeping the auction socially distant while bidders stand on the grass before the stage.
When the COVID-19 pandemic virus hit the world in early 2020, everyone adapted with necessary changes, even in southeast Ohio’s Morgan County. Jessie Thompson, Chesterhill Produce Auction’s floor manager, explained that most customers have been cooperative with the alterations they’ve had to make to their business model.
“There’s really not much complaint (about the masks),” Thompson said after directing employees in the moving of bushels of sweet peppers. However, there have been some negative responses when it comes to social distancing because customers can’t see the fruits and vegetables they’re bidding on up-close. “Customers get really upset when they can’t come up here and look at the produce. They really want to look at it, and they can’t.”
Yet the Chesterhill Produce Auction has remained relatively successful during the pandemic, with steady numbers of customers and reliable farms providing the produce to be auctioned off.
Rural Action, a membership-based nonprofit, has been one of the other factors keeping Chesterhill Produce Auction afloat, as the nonprofit started the auction through their Sustainable Agriculture program.
AnnMarie Waslar, a fifth-year Ohio University student studying environmental health science and anthropology, has been interning at the Chesterhill Produce Auction through Rural Action since June. Her internship initially consisted of surveying farmers in order to discover how Rural Action could better serve them. However, as the pandemic got increasingly worse, she had to socially-distance and scratch her plan of surveying farmers, working for the Chesterhill Produce Auction instead.
“It’s definitely been different, but since I’ve been here I’ve realized that they need me and it’s really rewarding knowing that right now,” Waslar said while opening paper bags that would soon be packed with fresh produce. “I extended my internship because of COVID. I was supposed to end in August, but a bunch of people had left so I was like, ‘I should stay and help out, just volunteering.’”
A core part of what Waslar does is aid the Chesterhill Produce Auction in their buying club program. Those who are interested in the auction but are unable to attend utilize the buying club by paying in advance for bags stocked with assorted seasonal produce. As Waslar fills bags with produce, she tries to match the price to the number of fruits and vegetables she includes for the buyers.
“On Mondays we buy for hospitals in West Virginia and what happens is, we’ll fill like 120 of these bags and they’re actually prescriptions for fresh produce,” Waslar said. “That’s the most rewarding thing out of all of it, that you’re filling up plenty for people who are in food deserts and don’t realize that they actually need fresh produce in their diets.”
Tom Redfern, director of sustainable agriculture at Rural Action, explained that this tightly-knit community’s desire for local food is what keeps the Chesterhill Produce Auction breathing. The local food is healthy, dependable and safe.
“It’s good food,” Redfern said, looking over the boxes and boxes of produce that had been brought in by local farmers by truck, car and even horse-and-buggy. “People know where it comes from, they know the farmers… We’ve been really pleased with the commitments of the producers, our customers and our staff in making sure we have a safe, local business.”
As Redfern spoke, the clouds finally broke and rain began to pour down over the group of customers who were in the middle of bidding for produce. The assortment of farmers, families and individual buyers all instantly snapped open their umbrellas to shield themselves and those around them. Nothing, from a pandemic to rain, would stop them from getting their fresh produce.