BIDDING FOR BEAUTY
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.”