Carroll County earning ‘Salad Bowl of Southwest Va.’ nickname

HILLSVILLE—All it took was a warehouse, cooling units and a large loading dock to help the fresh produce industry in Southwest Virginia take off.

This is where the local foods movement meets most consumers, according to Southwest Virginia Farmers Market Manager Kevin Semones.

“When you come down to it, most folks go to a chain store or a grocery store and buy their groceries there. Some do come to a farmers’ market or to roadside stands to buy local foods, but the bulk of the product is sold in chain-type stores,” Semones said. Public-private facilities like the Hillsville market make that possible, he noted.

Twenty years ago apples and cabbage were the major produce crops raised and sold in Virginia’s mountainous southwest. Today about 50 growers send apples, broccoli, cabbage, peppers, pumpkins, sweet corn, tomatoes and other produce through the wholesale market to grocery chains up and down the East Coast.

The 30,000-square-foot market is part of a state-owned network of shipping point markets. It has served as many as 300 growers over the past two decades and facilitated as much as $30 million in produce sales in one year. The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation lobbied for funding for the markets, and the Virginia Tobacco Commission has helped upgrade coolers and other facilities in Hillsville.

“We’ve got great growers, but it’s impossible for them to get a volume of product to a market without these types of cooling systems and the loading docks,” Semones said. “We may load five tractor-trailers at a time here. When sweet corn is in season, we’re running hydrocoolers and loading trucks 24 hours a day. That’s a million-dollar-a-year business that didn’t even exist a few years ago.”

The Virginia Pumpkin Growers Association also got its start at the Southwest market, Semones said. “Within 50 miles of here there are now 3,000 acres of pumpkins being grown. We thought farmers would plant only a few acres of pumpkins at first, but the business just took off and some growers have 300 acres of pumpkins now.”

James Light of Carroll County used to grow cabbage only; he now raises 50 acres of broccoli and cabbage a year. Because most broccoli is grown in the Western United States, the shipping advantage is paying off for East Coast grocery chains as fuel costs have risen. He’s now the principle supplier of broccoli for Food City, a grocery chain in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

“They have a pretty good idea of the amount they use per week during the fall and summer when I supply them,” Light said, “so we’ll plant accordingly. And if we know they’re going to use X amount every week, we will plant that plus 50 percent to make sure we have enough to cover our main orders.”

Contact Semones at 276-728-5540 or Norm Hyde, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146.

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