Iconic ‘Block’ ready to start its 75th year

Managing Editor

LAUREL, Del. (June 9, 2015) — June 10 starts the 75th sales season for the Laurel Farmers Auction Market, known throughout Delaware and beyond as “the Block,” an auction born from farmers wanting a fair price for crops and one that’s withstood drastic changes in the produce industry.
When the selling begins Wednesday, it’ll be largely unceremonious, Calvin Musser, auction manager said.
An open house was held on June 7 with numerous activities and displays for the public to showcase the auction and its history and on sale day, Musser said, “we’ll just get right to it.”
Started in 1940, the Block quickly became a center for agricultural commerce in Sussex County, particularly for nearby melon growers.
“It’s been the icon and sort of the home base for the watermelon industry on Delmarva,” said Ed Kee, Delaware agriculture secretary and former state Extension vegetable specialist who wrote a book on the history of the auction’s first 60 years.
Produce auctions operated in at least six other Delaware towns in Kent and Sussex counties and a broker-controlled auction called the Laurel Produce Association preceded the Block in Laurel.
“Farmers were dissatisfied with the trade practices followed at this auction and charged that the brokers controlled the auction to their advantage,” Kee wrote in his 2000 book, “Where Buyer and Seller Meet.”
“Consequently, growers using these auctions were subjected to restrictions and procedures that often prevented arriving at a fair price. Or worse, buyers bought from favorites or stimulated over production by promising more sales than they could deliver.”
After a series of meetings of area farmers in the early part of 1940, a 10-member board of directors was formed and set out to get more farmers to buy the initial stock for a farmer-operated auction.
They ended up with 213 people, nearly all farmers, chipping in $5 to generate the seed money to start the Southern Delaware Truck Grower’s Association and its Laurel Auction Market.
“I think that’s remarkable to do that in 1940,” Kee said. “It’s hard for me to get five farmers to agree on where to get a cup of coffee.”
The farmer-owned market opened on May 27, 1940, across Tenth Street from the broker-owned Laurel Produce Association, with strawberries then moving through several crops as they came in season.
The Block took off quickly and by August, the broker-owned auction was shuttered.
In 1954 the buildings and operations of the Block were moved to its current location on Georgetown Road near the newly opened Route 13 dual highway.
But even before the move, growers flocked to the auction, forming long lines of trucks around the auction property and waiting for hours to have their lot sold.
That was the Block’s course for decades as growers went through the auction’s drive-thru building that still stands today, then to the buyers dock stall for loading and were paid in cash that day.
In the 1990s, with grocery chain stores wanting more advance notice of price and quantity information and the improvement of seedless varieties, more and more watermelon sales moved away from the auction’s hammer toward private agreements between grower and broker with the auction grounds becoming a site mainly for loading.
In recent years, more watermelon growers built packing sheds on their own farms to hasten shipments. 
But there’s still plenty of activity at the Block.
The six platforms at the auctions are leased by separate brokers who operate from offices on the property during the season.
“Through it all, the fact that the property, through the block managers and board, had the foresight to build the platforms and make updates, all of that has been critically important,” Kee said.
Musser said last year the most vehicles in one day to go though the line was 10, a stark contrast from the memories of loaded trucks lined up for almost a mile.
“It’s dwindling away,” Musser said, but that’s led to changes to accommodate smaller buyers and sellers and more variety of items that come to the auction.
Three years ago, after Musser took over as auction manager, the board approved building a new pavilion that’s been devoted to bin and box lot sales, a move that grew sales dramatically each year since.
Musser said there’s enough interest in the bin and box lot sales to build another pavilion to hold produce.
“We’re moving forward. If we hadn’t done that building, I think the auction would be gone now,” Musser said.
The auction also expanded its sales of produce supplies for growers from a few thousand dollars to $25,000 last year.
With the auction’s surge in small lot sales, Musser said they’re putting more effort in attracting individuals to visit and buy produce there as well.
Musser said soon after becoming manager, he and a board member traveled to the Leola Produce Auction in Pennsylvania to see how it operated and if anything there could be applied to the auction in Laurel.
While talking to the Leola market manager, Musser said he distantly remembers an older Amishman tapping him on the shoulder and telling him 25 years ago when they were getting the auction started, they travelled to Laurel to see how the auction in Delaware operated.
“They came down to see how we were performing, and they took it to another level,” Musser said. “You talk about things coming full circle.”
Kee said the “tremendous involvement and commitment of the farmers”  and fairness and dedication from the auction’s managers through the years have been major reasons for its lasting three-quarters of a century, and benefited not only growers.
“Hundreds of kids have paid their way through college by working at the Block,” he added. “It’s been a real job creator that way for the young people in the area.”
Musser said the auctions’ structure, operating as a cooperative that paid members in profitable times and reinvested in the auction has added to its staying power.
Location to population centers and the auction’s marketing ability are other big factors, he added.
Musser said looking ahead, the auction’s goals are to continue to increase volume to attract more and larger buyers and “just keep moving forward at a steady pace.”
He said as long as its growers can change to meet customer needs, there will still be a need for the Block.
“It’ll sustain itself very much so,” Musser said. “You just have to watch the trends keep up with them and not stay stagnant.”