The little boys in straw hats and suspenders pressed up against the railing when the horse-drawn wooden cart rolled in with the morning's first load of vegetables. The auctioneer, whose jeans pocket had been worn through by tins of chewing tobacco, adjusted his belt buckle, stepped onto the podium and said, "All right, folks, come on up and gather round."
A Mennonite man with gray hair and glasses stood in bare feet and held up a box of St. Mary's County tomatoes. "Let's all get in," the auctioneer told the crowd. "Five dollar here now, five to buy, five dollar here now. Six?"
As the auctioneer's patter motored on under the new open-sided auction house in Loveville -- hawking yellow squash, string beans, cucumbers, cabbage, beets, pickles, cut flowers, cauliflower and sweet corn -- Phil Miller stood in apparent reverence. Here, the farmer imagined, was a scene from his grandfather's day: vegetables right out of the ground hauled in on wagons and sold to the highest bidder.
"I'm in awe of this. You think of the city, the war, everything in the world, and then you come here and see this. It's moving," said Miller, 52, who was buying produce to supplement what he grows in Clinton at Miller Farms. "This was the way it was like 100 years ago. Back to the simple life."
The Mennonite farmers who opened the Loveville Produce Auction in April in a 14,000-square-foot structure built with about $500,000 in communal funds appreciate it less for its nostalgic aesthetic and more for what it means for their future. In years past, farmers who wanted to sell in bulk had to make special arrangements with customers or hire truck drivers to carry their goods to an auction about 35 miles away in Cheltenham, a service one man said cost $3,000 last year.
"Here it doesn't cost us anything to haul it in with our horses," said Elmer Brubacher, chairman of a five-member committee that runs the wholesale auction. "It offers an opportunity for the young farmers to make a living on a small farm. You don't have to be a big farm to get into this market."
At Friday's auction, about 45 people showed up to sell produce to a crowd of more than 100. The market has about 250 registered buyers, such as supermarkets, flower shops and roadside vegetable stands, as well as individual customers.
When the sale begins, a horse-drawn flatbed cart brings the produce into a drive-through portion of the concrete auction floor, where it is displayed for buyers. Once the bidders name the price, the wagon moves to a rear area with hitching posts and a place to load the goods into trucks.
Sitting on his cart after he sold 20 flats of vegetable seedlings, David Stauffer, 31, said he was happy to be able to take his produce to a market three miles from his farm.
"It was a whole community project," said the Mennonite man. "Everybody worked to put this thing up."
Stauffer estimated that selling at the auction nets the farmers about 20 percent more than their other marketing options. On the first day, he said, $7,000 in produce was sold.
"It was more than we were expecting," he said.
On Friday, David McKay, the president of the four McKay's grocery stores in Southern Maryland, purchased a truckload of tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, beets, string beans and other vegetables. Though the prices of some vegetables are higher at the auction, he said, the Mennonite farmers have hothouse tomatoes and sweet corn earlier than other producers because they start their planting season a little sooner.
"And the quality is as good here as you would get in California or Florida," he said. "One thing you know here is it was picked yesterday or the day before.
"But the biggest reason why we're here is to support the local community," he said. "I think it's great for them and it's great for us."
As the summer progresses, more corn, watermelons and cantaloupes will show up at the auctions, which begin at 11 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and 9 a.m. Fridays.
Organizer Allen Brubacher said the volume of produce will increase in coming auctions.
"We really had strong sales right from the start," he said, adding with a smile, "We'd like to see more."