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HILLSVILLE — After previous Virginia Tobacco Commission grants to the Southwest Virginia Farmers’ Market helped it move about $1.3 million more in produce, the Carroll County facility has been recommended for another $197,011 in funding.
Tammy Hall wrote the grant application for additional funding from the commission, requesting $400,000 to buy more forced air coolers; a new wash and wax grader line; collapsible plastic bins; a refrigerated truck; and tow motors and pallet jacks.
This request goes with the overall goals of offering more “specialized cooling processes, grading and packaging to increase farmers’ marketability,” according to information from the tobacco commission.
The state commission has supported this effort so far by providing grants totaling about $559,000. This funding paid for the hydrocoolers at the wholesale building, a device that quickly removes heat from farm products like sweet corn.
This cooling process opens up new markets for local farmers to sell their produce.
It was these hydrocoolers and other equipment bought with Virginia Tobacco Commission funds that led to the $1.3 million in new produce handled by the farmers’ market in 2011, according to information from the state agency.
If the farmers’ market near Interstate 77 receives funding for the new equipment, officials estimate the facility will be able to market “an additional $2.7 million of product handled over three years from a list of nearly 90 farmers served from 10 tobacco regional counties,” according to the commission’s staff recommendations.
“The applicants provided detailed supplemental info showing growth of product sales over the last five years and projections for the coming years, with revenues primarily coming from corn, broccoli and greens...” the recommendations said.
(Total containers of sweet corn that went through the farmers’ market in 2011 amounted to 76,738, Hall told The Gazette.)
Officials also expect to see potential growth in cucumbers and pumpkins.
“The majority of product is being distributed for sale outside the tobacco region, which translates to the ‘importing’ of income from outside the region for area producers,” tobacco commission staff wrote. “This well-operated and highly successful facility is providing arguably the best documentation of the results of commission investments among all agribusiness projects.”
Winning the grant funding would not only help the farmers’ market increase capacity, but also would allow the facility to pursue more Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) food safety measures, Hall told The Gazette.
“At any given time, every tow motor and pallet jack are being used down here,” she said of the growing season.
The plastic crates are also more easily washed and sanitized, thereby improving food safety.
More equipment and more coolers would allow the produce to be processed more quickly. Beyond that, some of the equipment at the farmers’ market should be updated to meet today’s more stringent agricultural safety efforts, Hall said.
When the market started back in 1992, having a textured metal surface on the inside of the coolers was generally acceptable. But today, those coolers should have smooth walls inside to promote better cleaning for food safety standards, she explained.
The wholesale building has one bay GAP-certified by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and officials continue working on a second one.
Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Wythe Morris put together a manual to help guide the items at the farmers’ market that need to be addressed for Good Agricultural Practices.
Upgrades to the coolers would be the icing on the cake, giving the facility more storage.
Hall, the GAP coordinator for the farmers’ market, would be happy with any further assistance that the Virginia Tobacco Commission could provide.
“It would help us do the processing that much faster,” she said. “Some of those things can wilt so quickly in 90 degrees.”