Elmer Brubacher sells the corn and tomatoes and other produce his family has harvested at a stand on his Loveville farm, ear by ear and bushel by bushel.
He and other Mennonite farmers in St. Mary's County have been doing this for years, selling from tables along the side of the road or hiring a driver to take their crops to an auction in Prince George's County. But they hope that, perhaps as soon as next spring, they will be taking their vegetables and fruits just around the corner: They want to build a wholesale auction house on the corner of Route 247 and Bishop Road in Loveville, in the middle of their farming community.
"Our community has been selling wholesale for years," Brubacher said. "I guess we're finally ready to do it on our own."
Their idea, one they have talked about for a few years, is now working its way through county government and its rules. Since the area is zoned for farming, they need permission to build a large commercial building there. It appears likely they will be accommodated.
"We need to do this," said Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), president of the Board of County Commissioners, and the other board members agreed that it would be a great way to support farmers in an area they are hoping to keep rural. "While we would like to preserve agriculture, we can't force farming," McKay said. "And if farmers keep losing money, they won't keep farming."
He said the auction house could be like the old tobacco market in Hughesville: "The farmers took it to market, the buyers would come."
It has become harder for farmers to make money, especially as a booming housing market has driven up land prices in recent years. So this spring, several Mennonite farmers brought the plan to their community, said local farmer Ivan Wenger. Together, they decided it was time to take action.
Although the idea was launched (and money raised) by a group of Mennonites, the auction would be open to anyone in the area, they said.
Forty farmers are interested, Brubacher said, but supporters expect that to double in the next year as the project gets off the ground. They have talked with people who work at similar partnerships in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and those are successful, said Loveville farmer Nathaniel Stauffer -- even increasing the market for retail stands.
The auction house stock would be seasonal, starting with bedding plants in the spring, lettuce and cabbage, green and yellow squash, then early cantaloupes, tomatoes, eggplant, corn, watermelon over the summer months, and on to pumpkins and kale in the fall. And items for sale could include handcrafts such as quilts.
The farmers hope to build a roughly 15,000-square-foot open pavilion building on a 51/2-acre lot. The structure would house offices, a kitchen, bathrooms, and plenty of room for both tractor-trailers and buggies.
"There are some components we're not used to," said William Mehaffey, an engineer who has designed many similar projects -- but not with horses in mind. "The [loading] dock heights are a little different in this structure."
It's also unusual for him to see a zoning question have such strong support, he said.
At a public hearing Tuesday, a group of Mennonite farmers removed their straw hats and sat in the back of the room, hands folded, listening to the commissioners. No one stood up to make a public comment, so commissioners closed the hearing and the farmers will now go on to the next step, a hearing process with the Board of Zoning Appeals.
"I think it's going to be a very positive addition to the farming community throughout St. Mary's County," said Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown).
"We're looking forward to making this happen," said Commissioner Lawrence D. Jarboe (R-Golden Beach).