Cover Story

Pastoral Plenty

 Nestled in the lush, rolling hills of western Rockingham County is the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction, LLC. The drought of 2012 has sidestepped the surrounding green cornfields and abundant vegetable patches, much to the relief of Old Order Mennonite farmers who pull their tractors into the sales shed and auction off their homegrown produce in this bustling marketplace.

 

Story and Photos by John Bruce, Contributing Writer

 


Auctioneer Linden Wenger calls peaches. Cy Khochareun (red shirt) of Taste of Thai restaurant considers a bid.

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.”

Richard Rohrer says the auction changed the face of local farming.

“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 as well.

“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 auction.”

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 farmland here.”

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 explains.

“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 says.

Auction manager Jeff Heatwole moves merchandise.

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 corn.

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 support.”

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’ Market.

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.

CL:  Where are new farmers markets popping up?

Lidholm:  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 program.

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.

CL:  What has been the growth trend? How many markets are there today compared to 10 years ago?

Lidholm:  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.

CL:  How can you find out about market-related events from October to December?

Lidholm:  The VDACS special website, vdacs.virginia.gov/news/buylocal.shtml, showcases holiday markets and markets featuring special events, music, children’s activities and more.

CL:  Do any accept credit or debit cards?

Lidholm:  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 operating funds.

CL:  How can you find food with organic certification?

Lidholm:  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.

CL:  How many markets accept food stamps?

Lidholm:  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 http://vagrown.vi.virginia.gov/ or call (804) 786-3530.

 

Home ] Up ] Caught in the Web ] [ Cover Story ] Down Home ] Editorial ] Garden Muse ] Happenings ] Rural Living ] Say Cheese ]