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Growing the Economy: Officials call SWVA Farmers Market a model facility

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By Staff Reports

By SHANNON WATKINS AND SHAINA STOCKTON
Staff

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Southwest Virginia Farmer's Market is a success story that has become a model for other markets, as it generates between $20 and $30 million in revenues each year, and has successfully partnered with local grocers such as Food City.
Federal officials paid a visit to the Hillsville market and other local farmer's markets in the Twin Counties on June 17 to discuss the opportunities that local food systems have in creating jobs, improving community health and boosting economic growth.
Touring the area were top officials from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA).
The group began with a visit to SWVA Farmers Market off Interstate 77's Exit 14 in Hillsville, which has earned its high reputation through successful marketing and growth since its inception in the 1990s. The meeting began with a tour of the cannery and market, and ended with a roundtable discussion on the food economy of Southwest Virginia.
Guy Land, the ARC's federal chief of staff, told The Gazette that his group has conducted tours of local food systems in Appalachia for the past few months. The ARC serves 13 different states, according to Land.
Due the SWVA Farmers Market's success, Land said that, "For us, this was the anchor stop on our tour.”
Officials also announced a $650,000 funding and technical assistance partnership sponsored by ARC, USDA, EPA and other federal agencies to support the development of other local food systems, as part of a strategy for boosting community sustainability and competitiveness. Land explained that the theme for this effort is called "Local Foods, Local Places," named for both the success of local food economies and the localities where they grow and flourish.
Throughout their tour of Appalachia, Land was happy to report an overall series of success stories with the other markets. "We have found that there is a lot of energy in local food economy, we've learned that it is good for fostering entrepreneurship, and we've seen a number of health benefits that stem from [eating locally-grown food]," he said. "The best part is, we are still in the early stages of this."
Another bonus to local agriculture is that it provides educational opportunities for school systems ― and the potential for future breadwinners to stay and grow their own farms in the communities they grew up in.

Market Tour
SWVA Farmers Market Manager Kevin Semones, who led the group tour, has been on with the market since 1991, and has seen dramatic changes to the business over the years. "This building wasn't built until 1995," he said as the group stood inside the main market and watched the vendors set up their booths for the day.
The market is open 363 days a year, and moves as much local produce as possible. "We do sell some non-local [items], just to offer more variety," Semones added.
He walked the group from the market to the cannery, showing them the various pieces of equipment ― such as a hydro-cooler and multiple refrigeration chambers ― that have been added as the market grew.
Cabbage, broccoli, corn, greens and pumpkins were just a few examples of crops that have succeeded in this area. As fruits and veggies ripen for harvest, the workload can soar to chaotic levels, according to Semones. "Today, we have three workers preparing shipments of broccoli, but other times we could have 15-20 employees here working," Semones said. "It takes a pile of workers when the time is right."
The market is currently working to add more selections to their local crops, including berries and cilantro.

Discussion
ARC's Federal Co-Chair Earl Gohl led a group discussion after the tour, where the officials brainstormed what is needed for the continued success and progression of local agriculture.
"The challenge that we find is that there is no magic solution, and we have to discourage communities from doing what another community might do, because what one locality does might not work for another locality," said Land. "Strategies for these markets have to be tailored to fit the local community and the assets/resources that are available."
Dr. Allen Straw, who took over the tour from Semones during the discussion, told officials that the area has plenty of people willing to work, and made several suggestions for expanding opportunities within the field. "Could we develop some sort of food system? What about a processing plant? What about a cannery?" he asked.
Carroll County Administrator Gary Larrowe added that the schools also have a unique opportunity with their new ag farm. "We are the first ones in the nation to have a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] lab for agriculture, and not only are we growing produce, but we are educating students in problem-solving, and giving them the skills to work," he said. "We are basing this off of our heritage, and we are trying to build our future."
Straw agreed that this effort was needed in order to attract a new generation of farmers to the region. "We are also thinking of moving to surrounding counties, because of the land we need. And water is also a need," he said, highlighting examples of what would need to be discussed as expansions are made for local marketing.
"Another thing is food safety," he continued. "I appreciate our auditors and what they do, but many growers spend thousands of dollars to bring in auditors from California, or other countries to come in," he said, and asked if there was a way to attract representatives in that field to this area for everyone's benefit."
Ken McFadyen, director of Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority, reminded the group that the area has opportunities ― particularly with Wildwood Industrial Park, which has been talked about as an attractive spot for agriculture and food product processing industries.
McFadyen also gave a nod to Grayson Natural Farms, noting that grass-fed beef is another example of a successful local food market.

Funding Announcement

To wrap up the morning's events, the ARC announced in Hillsville that $650,000 in funding and technical assistance will be provided by a new program supported by the USDA, EPA and other federal agencies, to encourage the continued success of local food markets.
"We are doing this to promote 'Local Food and Local Places,' so that we can focus on local traditions and marry the two concepts," said Gohl.
This effort was encouraged by the success of a pilot program that was offered last year, which attracted 63 applications from all 13 states that the ARC serves. "We are committed to trying this again, but this time we are interested primarily in the markets trying to figure things out," said Land.
According to the official announcement posted on the White House government website, the program aims to "boost economic opportunities for local farmers and businesses, and foster entrepreneurship; improve access to healthy local food, particularly among disadvantaged groups with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables; and revitalize downtowns, main street districts, and traditional neighborhoods by supporting farmer's markets, food hubs, community gardens, community kitchens, and other kinds of local food enterprises, and by providing people with affordable choices for accessing those amenities, such as walking, biking, or taking transit."
The program will provide technical support to its selected communities to develop an appropriate action plan to attain these goals. "Special consideration will be given to communities that are in the early stages of developing and restoring local food enterprises and creating economically vibrant communities," the announcement reads. "Selected communities in Appalachia and the Delta region will be eligible to receive financial assistance to help them implement those plans."
Communities all over the United States will be eligible to apply, but particular consideration will be given to communities in areas served by the ARC, areas served by the Delta Regional Authority (DRA), federally designated promise zones, and USDA-designated strikeforce counties.
More information about the program, and how to apply can be found at www.whitehouse.gov. Letters of interest will be accepted until July 15.

Galax Tour
The ARC, USDA and EPA representatives continued on to the farmers market in Galax, where they met up with Galax Tourism Director Ray Kohl. He described how the market is not just for selling food, but also partnering with the Wellness Center and Twin County Regional Hospital to help create a healthy community.
In 2009, the city received a $99,600 Rural Business Enterprise Grant to help the Galax Farmer's Market construct public restrooms, a utility closet for storage and a food prep area, as well as other improvements. Later, in 2011, the city received $34,130 from the Farmers Market Promotion Program to re-energize its market.
Kohl gave a brief history of the farmers market and advised that produce sold there must be local. "We don't want anything shipped from Florida. We don't want anybody to buy things from another market and bring them here. We do have a couple of people who go to the orchards and pick things in the fall, and bring them here, but they're local apples that they go and pick themselves."
He enumerated different vendors, including those for meat, canned goods and other foods throughout the market season, from early sping to late fall and during the holiday season.
"I know the lady who does the breads and stuff ― I know that's really good for me, the things she does," he told the crowd to laughter. "But, I really like the little old lady who does the fried apple pies."
"Where is she?" joked Gohl.
The group made a brief stop at Chestnut Creek School of the Arts, as well. ARC approved a $500,000 grant in 2013 to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development/City of Galax for the school's woodworking studio, which will provide artisan classes to 180 participants and skills training to 40 students and 40 workers. The project is expected to create eight new entrepreneurial businesses, $780,000 in leveraged private investment and $650,000 in increased tourism revenues.
CCSA Director Chris Pollins-Shackelford showed off one of the themed bass fiddles created for the city's public art project and described the process of choosing the designs for each, as well as informing them of programs such as the annual youth art exhibit.
The final stop after the art school was Meadow Creek Dairy, whose Grayson cheese, one of the three the farm produces, was a finalist for the Good Food Awards.
"I walked them through, explained in detail how we make our cheese and gave them a little tasting," said Helen Feete, who owns the farm along with her husband, Rick.
Feete's cows are grass-fed and produce organic milk.
"We sell cheese into the urban markets and then spend that money back into the local community," she said. "I think they were slightly surprised by our level of distribution. They were excited by it."
Feete noted that the space they currently have to age their cheeses in is full to capacity, which has slightly slowed production down.
Feete felt the group was also interested to know that the farm is expanding by about a couple hundred acres, though the extra space is mostly being used for grazing right now.