On the auction house’s long gravel driveway, a pony named
Misty pulls a two-wheel cart carrying Kelley and Michelle Rohrer, daughters
of Richard Rohrer, and his wife, Wanda. Their farm is the next driveway
over. One of the many local farmers to help organize the auction eight years
ago, Rohrer says the auction has helped change the face of farming.
“Before the auction started, farming was predominantly
poultry and dairy. Now people are branching out to grow produce so they can
farm on fewer acres and not have to deal with tightening manure
regulations,” Rohrer explains. Nowadays, Rohrer not only farms, but he helps
out on the auction team.
About 100 farmers and buyers typically take part in an
auction. The fast-paced affair usually lasts from two to three hours and
takes place three days a week in the summer and two days a week in the fall.
Each season brings more bidders than the last to the auction house, located
about five miles west of Harrisonburg near Dayton. Suppliers of farmers
markets and roadside stands are among the largest customers. Buyers flock to
the auction from as far as Virginia Beach and Washington, D.C.
What drives the loyalty of the auction’s growing customer
base? According to Jeff Heatwole, auction manager, the answer is simple, and
it lies in the fruits and vegetables grown by hardworking folks.
“The biggest factor that keeps buyers coming back is
quality,” says Heatwole, who was hired to run the auction two years ago
after working as a farm building construction contractor in Plain City,
Ohio, for 11 years. A Rockingham County native, Heatwole grew up on his
family’s Cub Run Dairy farm in McGaheysville. The auction has been a good
way for him to return to his farming roots, he says. His father, Gerald
Heatwole, serves as a board member of Shenandoah Valley Electric
Cooperative, which serves the Dayton area.
“Most of the produce that sells here comes from small Old
Order Mennonite dairy farms,” Heatwole says. “These farmers have started
growing a few acres of produce as a way to diversify and supplement their
income. They raise the produce as a family and put extra care and attention
into it compared to some large farms with hundreds of acres of produce.”
“Farmers markets and roadside stands are our bread and
butter,” Heatwole explains. “Independent grocery stores, food-buying
cooperatives and a growing number of individuals are part of the client base
“We are wholesale, so our quantities are larger than for
table or fresh consumption, but there’s a good number of people buying food
here for canning and freezing, probably half the buyers at any given
Heatwole attributes much of the growth to the recent
launch of the auction website, svproduceauction.com. “More people are
finding out about us on the Internet,” he says. “There has been gradual,
steady growth every year that the market has been in existence.”
Heatwole says he enjoys his job because of the farmers
and buyers he works with. “We’re one of those rare businesses that everyone
wants to succeed. The farmers want it to succeed because they want a good
place to sell their produce. The buyers want it to succeed because they want
the variety and this auction makes it easier for them to succeed.
Everybody’s pulling for the produce auction to be a success and work well.”
The auction’s presence has encouraged more farmers to set
aside land to grow produce. That means more produce gets grown locally.
“There was some produce being grown here before the auction, but now buyers
don’t have to go to 10 farms in a day. They can now come to our place. Now
there’s more produce being grown, and it makes sense with such beautiful
Farmers are considered local within a 100-mile radius,
but more than half are from the Dayton area. “Last year, two-thirds of what
was sold here was grown within seven miles of the auction,” Heatwole
“The auction is uniquely positioned to provide both
quality and quantity. By bringing together a bunch of small growers with the
wide variety of produce that they grow, we provide an almost unmatched
combination of quality, quantity, and diversity of produce in one place,” he
Understandably, the buyers are impressed with the
products. “Repeatedly, the thing I hear most is people talking about the
quality of the produce, and that the quality is so exceptional. When you
have a reputation like that, it makes things easier for everyone. It’s
something that farmers can hang their hats on,” Heatwole enthuses.
“In October we have piles of pumpkins,” Heatwole says, “
as well as winter squash, gourds, mums, broccoli, cauliflower, and
tomatoes.” The auction schedule is Tuesdays and Fridays at 9:30 a.m. in
October and Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. through November.
This summer, drought was not as much a problem as the
intense heat that cut back on harvests of green beans, lima beans and sweet
Local farmers see the auction as a way of supplementing
their income, Heatwole explains, usually growing between one and three
acres. And while the location might seem obscure, it was born out of
practicality, giving farmers who rely on farm tractors for transportation a
centralized location to haul in their produce.
One of those farmers is Ray Lynn Showalter of Mole Hill
Gardens. Showalter grows tomatoes, squash and greenhouse lettuce. Before the
auction began eight years ago, he recalls, “there were a couple of us
dabbling in produce.” Hans Konode, who was working with the local fertilizer
company, “was a big help in getting it going.”
Others who helped get the LLC going included Amos
Showalter, Dennis Showalter, Richard Showalter, Charles Martin and Steve
Showalter, he says.
Between 10 and 20 buyers and from 30 to 40 growers showed
up at the first auction that took place in a rented machine shop. “That was
as much outside as it was inside,” he grins. “We had good community
Showalter says that probably the biggest influence for
modeling the then-new auction came from Cumberland Valley Produce Auction in
Shippensburg, Penn. Eric Bendfeldt and Tom Stanley of the Virginia
Cooperative Extension Service provided much of the research to get the new
auction up and running.
The existing five-acre facility was built in 2006,
consisting of a 20,000-square-foot covered market, a cafe and a
3,200-square-foot drive-through sales shed.
OTHERS IN VIRGINIA
Three other wholesale produce auctions operate in
Virginia: Southside Produce Auction that launched operation this year in
Cullen, near Farmville; the Southeast Virginia Farmers Market/Courtland
Farmers’ Market is located in Courtland; and the Virginia Beach Farmers’
For the future, auction team member Richard Rohrer sees
benefits building his community. “I think the auction will give more people
an opportunity to have a connection to the farm,” he says, adding that far
less land is required to make a living by growing produce than by running a
dairy or poultry operation. “Someone could probably make a good living on 15
acres. Otherwise they’d have to have 50 or 60 acres,” he says.
Rohrer uses plain language to encourage everyone to see
the auction firsthand: “There’s lots of stuff here. Come buy it!”
Farmers Market Q & A
With a growing number of farmers markets in Virginia,
demand for open-air community produce suppliers seems to be booming.
Local farmers markets are growing in numbers for good
reasons. It’s more fun to buy food where there’s a hometown atmosphere and a
chance to meet friends and neighbors. More and more consumers are sensitive
to foods’ origins. Food grown in Virginia is less costly to transport,
fresher and tastier than food trucked cross-country.
What’s new for Virginia’s farmers markets? Elaine Lidholm,
director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and
Consumer Services (VDACS), fielded the following questions from Cooperative
Living (CL) about farmers markets in Virginia.
Where are new farmers markets popping up?
You’ll see a couple of trends here. There is a
mix of urban markets and rural. The new La Plaza Market is Hispanic; that’s
here in Richmond. The Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center Market outside
Fredericksburg opened in the medical center parking lot and is a tie-in
between good health and proper nutrition. Proceeds go to the cancer care
Virginia’s other newest markets are: Cary Street Market,
Richmond; Christopher Newport Market, Newport News; Market in the Park,
Surry; Onancock Market, Eastern Shore; Saltville Farmers Market, Saltville;
The Virginia Street Market, Richmond; Whole Life Market, Norfolk; Wise
Farmers Market, Wise; Woods Farmers Market, South Chesterfield.
What has been the growth trend? How many
markets are there today compared to 10 years ago?
As of July 1, we had 211 markets with about 40
of them having winter markets. The USDA has ranked Virginia in the top-ten
states with winter markets. Last year, we saw the addition of several winter
markets. We had 80 markets in 2005.
How can you find out about market-related
events from October to December?
The VDACS special website,
vdacs.virginia.gov/news/buylocal.shtml, showcases holiday markets and
markets featuring special events, music, children’s activities and more.
Do any accept credit or debit cards?
All the EBT/SNAP wireless devices can accept
credit and debit cards. If the machine is owned and not leased, the market
can offer gift cards. Many customers like to use their credit and debit
cards and will typically spend more at markets and the market can charge a
transaction fee to recoup the cost of having the machine and add to their
How can you find food with organic
The Certified Organic Farms in Virginia are
listed on our website, VirginiaGrown.com. You can do a global search for
organic, or you can search for organic in select localities or zip codes.
How many markets accept food stamps?
About 30 markets accept food stamps, but we
expect that number to climb by about 15 more. The USDA has announced grants,
administered through the Virginia Department of Social Services, that offer
free EBT terminals to markets not already offering the service.
For more information about farmers markets, please access
or call (804) 786-3530.