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Tri-County Cooperative Auction rolling with times

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

HIGHTSTOWN (May 15, 2017) — First founded in 1933 during the height of the Great Depression, the Tri-County Cooperative Auction Market has proven to be a friend to farmers in bad times, good times, and in-between times as well.
With sustained demand by consumers for locally grown food, the market is working to get the message out that it can serve a wider range of buyers.
“Local is the buzzword nowadays. I really think that is the case. People want local and they can taste the difference,” said Bill Dea, general manager-broker at the market, has worked with produce all of his life.
Although a sign out front declares the place is “Wholesale Only,” Dea and others who lead the administration at the farmers’ market are hoping to spread awareness of the place among foodies and locavores.
It’s located near the geographic center of the Garden State, minutes from the New Jersey Turnpike’s Exit 8 and located on Route 33, a major east-west corridor.
Between 25 and 55 vegetable and fruit growers take their produce to the market three times a week during the season, Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.  Buyers include farmers who run produce stands on their property, restaurant owners and the general public.
The market “was in its prime in the 1940s, 50s and 60s and I think in the 1970s we saw a little decline as farmers began to sell their properties off for housing or whatever it might be,” Dea said of the history of the facility.
“Now farmers out there are sustaining themselves by selling off their own produce at their own market, and in some cases agri-tourism. And then there’s us, we’re a supplier for restaurants, and a lot of different people, the farmers’ markets, wholesalers,” Dea said.
The market grew out of much more austere times when farmers had limited places to sell their produce.
“I talked to a lot of different farmers and they told me they recall the 1970’s when the trucks would be lined all the way up the street,” Dea said. “These old-timers recall trucks all the way down the road, past Airport Road, and that’s when they had an auction. In the last eight years we’ve transformed from an auction just to direct sales,” he said.
This season, the cooperative will be running a marketing campaign to let the general public know they are welcome to come over and buy fresh produce literally hours after it’s been picked.
“It’s not really known that consumers can come here and buy in larger quantities if they want, so we need to get that message out there,” Dea said.“You can come in here and do your pickling, get a whole case, fill up 10 or 12 jars for pickling and you’re all set.”
He said he’s seen some people come in and buy bags of corn and split them up with neighbors. The market also sells eggs, popcorn and honey in bulk.
“We would like to have our own CSA and run a CSA out of here, and we need to change our image of being an auction,” Dea said. “We are no longer an auction, we are a produce supply place where anybody can come here and buy fresh produce three days a week, at a significantly lower cost than they would pay elsewhere.”
Dea has worked in various Bucks County, Pa., supermarkets and as director of perishables for one chain of supermarkets. He has been at the Tri-County market for four years.
Restaurant chefs and owners like to come in and pre-order on Mondays for Wednesday and on Fridays for the busier weekends, Dea said, adding the market has about 65 farmer-members.
“Fifty of them are active and 25 of them are the majority of very active farmers that sell here each week,” he said.
During the season, the staff running the market includes four cashiers, a bookkeeper, a secretary and three people working on the loading docks. Produce lists are kept up to date on the Tri-County website, which Dea said is being revamped for even greater convenience to sellers and buyers.
“I list everything on our website, and it tells what the item is, the price, how much is available and we try to move it out that way,” Dea said. Within a matter of weeks now, farmers will be able to go into the Tri-County website with a password and list what produce they have that week, further broadening the direct sales appeal of the facility. 
“It’s a great convenience for the farmer and the buyers themselves,” he argued. There are no membership fees for buyers. Sellers pay an annual membership fee of $150 by May 1 or $250 after.
“We’re looking for younger farmers right now so we’re offering free membership to any FFA member or 4-H member that has a small amount of product to sell, we’ll give them a space on the dock and advise them about how to package and sell the product and we’ll just take our commission,” he said, noting the cooperative still takes a sales commission.
“This is the first year we’re working with FFA members and we need to get young farmers involved here,” Dea said. It’s also a gathering place where younger farmers can interact with veteran farmers, ask for advice and learn from them.
“We’re also trying to improve communication between Tri-County, the farmer and the buyer, make everything a bit quicker with a better website.”