Farmers' Market a growing concern

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — The state of the farmers' market and county fair and the future of agriculture in Carroll County is strong, officials said at the July 13 county board meeting.

County Administrator Gary Larrowe and Southwest Virginia Farmers' Market Manager Kevin Semones gave the Carroll supervisors updates on two linchpins of county farming — the produce cooling program and the upcoming county fair.

For the first time, the Aug. 27-30 county fair will be held at the farmers' market, they told the supervisors. The new hydrocooler is bringing a larger and wider variety of food through the wholesale outlet.

In short, this means there's a lot of activity over there, Larrowe and Semones said.

This is all about finding the best use for these agricultural resources, the county administrator said. It's about bringing cash into the county.

The farmers' market consists of both retail and wholesale operations, serving as a hub for produce and other agriculture-related products.

Ever since the retail building opened in 1995, sales have "gotten steadily better," Semones said. The produce coupons that come through District III Governmental Services have helped people realize what the farmers' market has to offer individuals and brought in more shoppers.

"It's hard to nail down a number, but sales in general are up and this is good for this business..." Larrowe said. The increase has been as high as 15 or 20 percent, and that's good compared with the produce business in general.

The farmers' market looks torn up with several projects going on simultaneously, Larrowe said. Work on a new entrance for the retail area is progressing.

Vehicles will enter at the first entrance as they go down Farmers Market Road, he said. A road there will go by the market village shops, around the back of the retail building and will exit out a more level place on the south side.

That's a better traffic flow, Semones said. Now, vehicles coming through the single entrance have to make an immediate hard left or right when the parking lot is full.

When RVs or other large vehicles pull in, that makes things complicated.

Officials planned a circle of "industrial strength asphalt" around the retail lot that will better support the larger trucks, Larrowe said.

Industrial strength means four inches of asphalt on eight inches of gravel, Semones said. The rest of the parking lot won't be that deep.

County officials made it so they could work with much of the existing asphalt and shale put down a couple years ago to reduce the cost of the project, Larrowe noted.

The new building for the market village keeps moving ahead, Larrowe noted. The county negotiated a part of the shops spaces for restrooms for visitors.

Semones brought out examples of produce that the wholesale market now deals in, including broccoli and cauliflower (both of which were mostly eaten after the presentation), peppers and cilantro, commonly used in Mexican food.

"This is some of the crops that's actually growing..." Larrowe explained. "This whole arena of new produce and new crops is the result of Kevin and the work that's gone on over there."

The most boxes of broccoli cut in a week was 2,800, and the farmers' market hasn't gone under 1,000 since April, Semones said. This produce goes as far away as Georgia and North Carolina.

A lot of the broccoli is sent to Food City stores.

Cauliflower is grown in Ararat. Semones said there need to be variety trials done here for cauliflower.

The farmers' market could sell 4,000 boxes a week of cilantro, but they aren't anywhere close to that yet. So far, the market has been able to get to 600 boxes.

It's a pretty labor-intensive crop, but it has a pretty good net return for farmers.

Carroll County used to be apple and cabbage country, Semones said. "Diversification really spreads the risk."

"Another thing that really adds value to the market is the cooling project that's been going on..." Larrowe said.

Semones and county maintenance supervisor Ricky Dowdy and crew looked at other examples of hydrocoolers and engineered the county's versions on site.

One hydrocooler, installed as a turnkey job, is probably $400,000, Larrowe said.

The lowest-end hydrocooler — even without electric and concrete installed — is probably $600,000 alone, Semones estimated.

Carroll County was able to install two for less because of the range of experienced construction and maintenance workers on staff — people that can handle putting in the heating and air conditions, the electrical, plumbing and more.

The hydrocoolers have mechanical tracks that pull large bin boxes through a spray of water where it is captured, cooled and recirculated.

This has helped pull in more business for the farmers' market, the officials said.

"We're supplying the cooling for a lot of places," Larrowe said.

For the fair, the county officials continue working with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to get approval for holding the annual event on open space at the farmers' market.

There's not time this year to set up a permanent building for the fair, but the county engineer prepared a set of plans to send to Richmond, Larrowe said. The plan shows a new building, another entrance near the wholesale building, parking, a driveway, space for vendors, a carnival, tractor- and horse- pull, area for a portable stage, an FFA barnyard, a pet show area and more.

The whole area is fenced, which means better crowd control, Larrowe said.

Semones expressed gratitude to the Grover King Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1115 for hosting previous years of the fair and helping get the event started again.

"We need a place we can build something that's kind of there for us to have," Semones noted. "It's hard to do that on other folks' land..."

Scheduling the fair will also work better this way, he added.

All these different projects and events are meant to support agriculture in Carroll, Larrowe said. For that reason, county officials believe the state will work with Carroll on the fair.

Chairman David Hutchins asked about the size of the proposed building, thinking it needs to be a large one to serve the fair.

Fair workers have looked at different sizes, and are considering either a 40-by-80 or 40-by-100-foot building, Semones said.

It would be nice to have a building there for exhibits and other activities in the future, Supervisor Andy Jackson said.

He'd like to see the building finished in time for this year's fair, but there's not enough time.

"But I would like to propose that we start today and go forward to get that building built, and I'd like to see it 40 by 100, because I don't believe in doing something twice," he said.

So, Jackson made a motion to start planning what's needed for the construction and costs of the building.

A plain building with no floor or bathroom and a 14-foot-high roof could be as little as $10 or $12 per square foot — or as much as $30 to $40 for a fancier building, Semones said.

Supervisor Manus McMillian seconded the motion.

It needs to be a building that the county can use for anything necessary throughout the year, like volleyball or basketball, Jackson said.

All supervisors voted yes to begin planning for the building.