Growing the Buffalo Valley Produce Auction, Inc. for 30 Years
May 10, 2019
The largest Christmas tree and pumpkin wholesale auction on the east coast began with a simple idea. Local farmers in the Central Susquehanna Valley wanted to diversify their vegetable sales with a new market outlet. Twenty-seven farmers gathered on cinder block benches outside of Mifflinburg to discuss solutions.
“Ultimately, we each bought a $1,000 share of stock that day to launch a produce auction,” remembered Neil Courtney, an original shareholder. “It’s the American dream, alive and well. If you bought a share in 1987, and sold it today, it would have returned you over $100,000.00 in profits.”
In the spring of 1987, the Buffalo Valley Produce Auction, Inc. opened. “Like many start-up businesses, there were plenty of struggles in the beginning,” shared Neil. After two years, Neil became auction manager in addition to his auctioneer responsibilities.
“My wife helped and we did everything together,” Neil said. Markets and wholesalers bought the local farmers’ produce. Many of those first customers continue to buy from the auction 30 years later.
Auctions were Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. “As the years progressed, we began bringing in products from outside the area to give a broader market appeal and stretch the season,” Neil recalled.
The market opens in April with flower & nursery stock sales. Neil’s son Ben, who grew up in the business and is now the operations manager, says fresh produce sold at the auction treks from the south to the north. May includes Florida watermelons, followed by Georgia and South Carolina peaches and Delaware and Maryland sweet corn until the local supply is ample. The season ends with pumpkins and the famous Christmas tree auction that draws more than 175 buyers from across the east coast.
Held the Thursday and Friday before Thanksgiving, the Christmas sale includes wreaths, decorative items and trees.
“This year, there was a tree shortage so we only sold 31,000 trees,” remarked Ben. “Our peak was 97,000 trees a few years ago.”
As the business steadily grew, the shareholders built facilities to accommodate the expansion. “Our first building was 30 by 60 feet, or 1800 square feet,” Neil remembered. “We added on in 1991, 1995, 2004 and 2011 and constructed our latest building in 2018.”
The recently completed building measures 150’ x 600’ or 90,000 square feet, or two acres under roof.
“This was the first building we constructed that I thought we could grow into,” Neil noted. “We filled it in both pumpkin and wreath season this year.”
Logistics and geography pose the greatest challenges and opportunities to the auction. “We just try to keep up with the growth,” Ben explained.
“With logistics, the challenge is sheer volume,” said Neil. “We’re not a furniture business. We have perishable product and it has to move; it can’t wait.”
As an example, during pumpkin season, 80 tractor-trailer loads per week move out of the auction, delivering to customers from Florida to Maine. The market owns three trucks and they broker the balance of trucks. “With our proximity to Interstate 80, it’s easy to get trucks,” Ben explained. “We have more truck and freight options, an advantage compared to other markets.”
The business’s location also provides a competitive advantage to source both growers and buyers. “We are within 250 miles of 33% of the U.S. population centers,” said Ben.
“I think our customer service to both buyers and growers also fueled our growth,” said Neil. “In our peak season, we sell with four auctioneers simultaneously and we have 24 full-time employees who are willing to work 16 to 18 hour days to make sure the product gets loaded & delivered quickly.”
Neil continued, “I think there are only a few places in the country where this concept will work. The work ethic in the Central Susquehanna Valley makes it happen.”