BID­DING FOR BEAUTY

Martha Stewart Living - - Contents - PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY GUS POW­ELL TEXT BY CATHER­INE HONG

At an auc­tion in ru­ral Penn­syl­va­nia, it’s show­stop­ping pump­kins, not fa­mous art­works, that draw crowds ev­ery fall. We got a VIP pass.

EVER WON­DER WHERE your pump­kin came from? Once a week be­tween La­bor Day and Hal­loween, gor­geous squashes are auc­tioned off in the heart of Penn­syl­va­nia’s Amish coun­try, then taken to gro­cery stores and nurs­eries in var­i­ous parts of the U.S. We tagged along with a sea­soned buyer to see all the glo­ri­ous op­tions—large and small, bumpy and smooth, breath­tak­ing and beau­ti­ful.

Clock­wise from top left: A cov­eted blue Jar­rah­dale stands out in a mixed-heir­loom bin. Melissa Lowrie, a buyer for the home- goods store Ter­rain, in­spects the fairy­tale pump­kins (af­ter a suc­cess­ful day, she ar­ranges for two trac­tor trail­ers to trans­port her pur­chases back to Ter­rain). Gi­ants like these prizewin­ning 225-to- 550-pounders are of­ten at the cen­ter of heated bid­ding wars. Auc­tion­eers and bid­ders com­mu­ni­cate through hand sig­nals.

ON A COOL OC­TO­BER MORN­ING in Lan­caster County, Penn­syl­va­nia, some of the coun­try’s best and most beau­ti­ful Cu­cur­bita are up for bid at the Le­ola Pro­duce Auc­tion. There are clas­sic orange ones, rang­ing from pale peach to deep per­sim­mon, as far as the eye can see; and black, cream, green, and blue spec­i­mens in ev­ery imag­in­able shape and size. Buy­ers for gro­cery stores and nurs­eries—some from as far as Vir­ginia and North Carolina—roam, sip cof­fee, chat, and check out the goods. One of them is Melissa Lowrie, a se­nior plant buyer for the gar­den-and-home mecca Ter­rain, who leaves her place in Philadel­phia at dawn nearly ev­ery Wed­nes­day this time of year to at­tend.

As at any pro­duce auc­tion, Le­ola’s of­fer­ings re­flect what­ever’s peak­ing. In warmer months, berries, cher­ries, corn, and toma­toes dom­i­nate. In au­tumn it’s all about cauliflower, broc­coli, ap­ples, and, of course, pump­kins. “I love the rit­ual of driv­ing here in the very early morn­ing,” says Lowrie, a Ch­ester County na­tive who’s go­ing on her sev­enth year as an at­tendee. “As the sun rises, there’s a mist on the fields, and the air is crisp with that ini­tial feel­ing of fall.”

At seven a.m., when the first buy­ers ap­pear, many farm­ers are bring­ing in their in­ven­tory for the day. Some bear their loads on trac­tors and pickup trucks; oth­ers, wear­ing straw hats and sus­penders, ar­rive in tra­di­tional horse-drawn carts. These are the lo­cal Amish and Men­non­ite farm­ers, long the back­bone of Lan­caster’s agri­cul­tural scene and revered for their ex­per­tise with heir­loom va­ri­eties. “The auc­tion is a lo­gis­ti­cal mas­ter­piece,” Lowrie says. “They’ve fig­ured out how to make all these mov­ing pieces work ef­fi­ciently, and with al­most no tech­nol­ogy.”

While the rapid, mostly silent auc­tions are free and open to the pub­lic, they’re still very much an in­sider af­fair, fre­quented by a small, stead­fast group of whole­salers. “Ev­ery­body’s siz­ing up the lots and cal­cu­lat­ing their bids, and it’s a bit of a rush,” Lowrie says. “But it’s also beau­ti­ful in its sim­plic­ity, and it’s the cen­ter­piece of the com­mu­nity.”

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