A group of local, state and federal offices toured the Southwest Virginia Farmers Market in Hillsville on June 17 in order to learn about the market’s remarkable success. The farmers market has not only had a major economic impact on Southwest Virginia, but now serves as a role model for other food markets.
The market, which had revenues of $3 million in its first year of operation, is now a $30 million-a-year business.
A key factor behind the market’s success is diversification, spearheaded by Manager Kevin Semones, who has kept things moving forward by finding ways to expand the produce the market offers.
“When we started the market in 1992, we had two basic crops, apples and cabbage,” said Semones. “We saw a real need to diversify. One of the first things we added was sweet corn.”
The corn, as well as broccoli, is placed in two hydra coolers made of old cheese tanks when arriving at the market.
“It’s just an ice-cold water bath to get the heat out. These are the only two in Southwest Virginia as far as we know,” said Semones.
Broccoli has proven to be a key to the market’s success, now responsible for close to half of the produce coming out of the market.
A partnership with Food City has also proven to be important in the market’s growth.
“Food City is a big player, especially when it comes to broccoli,” said Semones. “We’d probably not have been successful if not for Food City.”
Greens, green beans, tomatoes, cauliflower and pumpkins also come through the market. In fact, pumpkins from Carroll County recently were sent to Washington. D.C.
“Kevin is so good that we got a call from the White House, so we took a load of pumpkins up there,” said Carroll County Administrator Gary Larrowe, a former county extension agent.
Semones said pumpkins are a good crop for Carroll County because “They are something a small grower can grow without much expense.”
Following the tour, a round-table discussion was held in the market.
Earl Gohl, Appalachian Regional Commission co-chair, told Semones and local growers who were on hand, that he and Bill Shelton of Virginia’s Department of Economic Development, wanted to know what role agriculture plays in the future of Carroll county and economic development, and what challenges the market and growers faced.
“What I and Bill want to know is what we can do to be a part of the solution, rather than be a part of the problem,” said Gohl.
Dr. Allen Straw of the Southwest Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Virginia Tech said the market had several things going for it, such as being within 600 miles of two-thirds of the United States population. However, he said finding a use for seconds, vegetables and fruit not sold, needs to be addressed, perhaps with a commercial canning facility.
“We need to optimize what we have and take it to the next level,” said Straw.
Another plus for the area is the relationship between agriculture and education.
“Carroll County is one of only two counties in the state that has an agricultural farm associated with students and soon Carroll County High School will be the only school in the country to have a STEM Lab that specializes in agriculture,” noted Larrowe.
Still, the high cost of audits for Grading, Certification and Verification (GAP) audits, and lack of land for growing and the lack of young farmers are causes of concern.
“It’s hard to get started if you don’t have land or equipment,” said Straw. “Many young people want to farm. This is where a mentoring system comes in.”
Gohl said among the points he took away from the discussion were “It’s all about entrepreneurial, taking risks and being innovative, and food is a driving force in the economy.”
Shelton added that it’s not just about the economy.
“If you lose agriculture, you lose your heritage,” he said.
At the conclusion of the meeting, it was announced that the United States Department of Agriculture has announced a $650,000 fund to promote a new program Local Foods, Local Places, a federal initiative that will provide direct technical support to rural communities to help them build strong local food systems as part of their community’s economic action plans. Under this effort, a team of agricultural, transportation, environmental, and regional economic experts will work directly with local communities to develop comprehensive strategies that use local food systems to meet a variety of needs.
Michael Howlett can be contacted at 276-728-7311 or MikeEHowlett