Even on a stormy summer night with tongues of lightning practically right over your head the faithful pull up to the docks of the Tri-County Cooperative Auction Market on Route 33 West in East Windsor, trucks loaded with fresh Jersey produce. Well-known to chefs and farmstand owners in the area, the produce auction, a central New Jersey tradition, has taken place from July through October on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings — for more than 75 years.

On this particular night, vehicles labeled such as “C&P Bertoldi Farms, Vineland,” “Giamarese Farm, East Brunswick,” “De Wolf U Pick, New Egypt,” and “Hillsboro Farm and Country Market” have brought cucumbers, watermelon, white peaches, yellow peaches, donut peaches, cabbage, corn, potatoes, pickles, eggplant, beets, all kinds of tomatoes, nectarines, peppers galore, sunflowers, zinnias — you name it.

Small-scale farmers, farmstand owners, restaurateurs and even a few members of the general population who like to buy produce in bulk (for parties, canning, freezing, or sharing with neighbors) brave the rain to get the best deal on produce so fresh much of it was probably still in the ground 24 hours ago. The sellers and potential buyers wear jeans, t-shirts, baseball hats, and work boots wet from the puddles that have sprung up from the Wednesday night downpour, and someone has even brought their little brown mutt for the big event.

Tri-County has become a hub for farmers to bring in what they grow in excess and buy what other farmers have too much of and then offer it to the general public. This diversity is what makes a great farmer’s market, says auction manager Pegi Ballister-Howells. “Nobody can grow it all.”

The action takes place in a simple wooden auction house, the original, with benches to seat about 40 and sides exposed to the elements. An old floor fan has been turned off, because what can fight 80 degree heat and 100 percent July humidity? Above the auctioneer, an old bell is rung at the opening and closing of the auction session.

You hear the fast-paced patter of Alfred Finocchiaro, the seasoned auctioneer who guides the bidding, and that unmistakable sound evokes something all-American. Smiling, he holds a watermelon aloft one moment, and seems to have special fun with cucumbers the next. Tri-County, as many of the participants call it, is reinventing itself and, according to Ballister-Howells, is doing quite well this year, thanks to a number of factors. “We’re under new management and we also have a board of directors who are very active,” she says. “We all work together to make the auction what it’s supposed to be and what the community needs it to be. There is no reason for it not to thrive and we’re now moving in a positive direction.

“Another aspect is, we realize things change as time goes on,” she continues. “When the auction first started, it was a large scale wholesale facility. But we have had to shift gears — we can’t pursue supermarkets because we can’t fulfill their needs. Instead, we sell to a lot of farm markets and people who do ‘tailgate markets,’ as well as small farmers who come in from all over the state to supplement what they grow.”

Another element of Tri-County’s success has to do with why the auction was founded in the first place — our shaky economy, and the sheer need for people to acquire food at a reasonable price. During the Depression, the concept of the auction was a rural development project, a way to help people feed their families during hard times. “Now here we are in tough times again and everybody needs food,” Ballister-Howells says. “When you’re trying to stretch your budget, one of the best things to do is come to a place like the auction. You can buy a bag of 48 to 52 ears of corn for $15. Then you can share it with your friends and neighbors. Or, if you’re having a party or cook-out, it’s an economic way to have plenty of corn. It’ll also freeze. Now you’ve just fed your family for mere dollars instead of what it costs to go out to eat. Also, more and more people are saving money by putting up their own peaches, preserves, and things, or making their own tomato sauce, and buying in bulk at the auction is perfect for things like this.”

The success of the Tri-County Auction also reflects the slow food, locally grown movement. As opposed to factory farmed and shipped items, this produce is picked as close to perfection as can be and sold right away. The highest nutritional values are locked in and so is the best taste. One chef and restaurateur who swears by the freshness of the produce he has found at the auction is Jim Hayes, whose Bistro Soleil is right up the street from Tri-County (see U.S. 1, July 15, “Cooking His Way Through the Garden”). He says building a relationship with the farmers is an advantage for him, and has allowed him to purchase some exceptional produce that he often puts on the menu the very next night.

“We talk about what’s good now, what’s coming in, if the rain has had an effect on the taste, or if there’s a high water content in it,” Hayes says. “When you talk to the farmer who is growing your food, no one has a more intimate relationship than that person. Most people know about wine — whether it was a good year for grapes — and it’s the same concept with food, to know whether there has been too much sun, too much rain. To get these intimate details from the farmers is quite helpful.”

Speaking one morning after an auction, Hayes notes that he bought corn, sunflowers, and several kinds of squash the night before, including an oboe melon, “a long squash that looks like a baseball bat,” he says.

Ballister-Howells says other chefs who frequent the market include Jim Weaver, executive chef and owner of Tre Piani restaurant in the Princeton Forrestal Village, as well as chefs from Princeton-based Terra Momo Restaurant Group.

Ballister-Howells, whose father sold produce for decades, is also a horticulture consultant, radio host, and author of two books on gardening in New Jersey. She is in her second year managing the auction and says there are a couple of new additions for Tri-County’s 2009 season.

This season, farmer members will be given the opportunity to sell directly to customers from their trucks. Direct sales begin 5 p.m. on auction nights and end promptly at 6:30 p.m., when numbers are drawn for the auction to begin.

In addition, Tri-County is offering the public the opportunity to participate in a Community Shares Agriculture Project (CSA), where, for $500 a season, families can purchase a crate full of fresh produce each week for 20 weeks. Pick-up day is Thursday mornings until noon. Since the program began on June 18, for each week that has passed, the organization will reduce the fee by $25 to allow for late members.

Ballister-Howells says Tri-County’s CSA is a win-win situation for buyers and sellers. “You get a diversity of produce, and you support a farmer in your community. I look things over on Wednesday nights and see who has what, and put together a crate of eight to 10 different items. I like to have one sweet fruit item in there — it’s been blueberries, blackberries, and peaches, and now we’re getting into the cantaloupes and watermelon. We’ve also had Swiss chard, rainbow Swiss chard, bok choy, different lettuces, arugula, zucchini, cabbage, golden beets — all kinds of fresh Jersey produce at a bargain price.”

The CSA has only added to the colorful, chaotic, but also down-homey atmosphere of Tri-County. There is something comforting about it. This is not the mall, the big box store, or a supermarket with a flat screen TV smack in the middle of the produce section. It’s a glimpse of a former time: these are New Jersey farmers doing what they do best, and often have done for generations.

“I have a friend who equates it to the movie ‘Brigadoon,’” Ballister-Howells says. “It’s mostly a ghost town during the rest of the year, but for three nights a week in the summer, the Coop comes alive with beautiful people and produce. It’s total organized chaos for three hours while we move $15,000 worth of produce. Then everyone goes home and goes back to sleep.”

Tri-County Cooperative Auction Market, 619 Route 33 West, East Windsor. Auctions start Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 7 p.m. Come earlier for direct sales. 609-448-0193 or www.tricountycoop.net.

Membership for sellers at Tri-County costs $150 for the season, and this year there are more than 55 active selling members. (An early bird membership for those who sign up before May 1 is $100.) There is no membership fee for buyers, but they pay a purchase handling fee of $5 for nonmembers and $3 for members.

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