Reaping Benefits

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Carroll County farmers have found fertile ground in partnerships with Virginia Produce and Food City, and that's strengthening the local agricultural sector.

Farmers who supply these fall crops to the grocery chain with locations in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky know they will make enough to be in the black at the end of the growing season, said Moir Beamer of Virginia Produce.

Many in the local agricultural community have joined together to make this happen, he said. Besides the farmers, the effort has the strong support of the Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Southwest Virginia Farmers Market, which provides hydrocooling and packing services.

Virginia Produce works with Food City's Mike Tipton, director of produce and floral operations; and Jerry Clingerman, produce procurement manager, to make it happen.

"The main thing for people to understand is how much revenue that Food City has put back into our area in supporting farmers," Moir Beamer said. "We have got full-time farmers in the area, who were part-time farmers before — that lets you know how much [Food City] has contributed in the area."

The way it works is Virginia Produce cooperates with Food City to figure out how much of a supply the grocery stores will need for the season, Kevin Beamer explained. He coordinates with the farmers on the crops to grow and how much to produce to give the stores an adequate supply.

"We try to make it when a customer walks in Food City, they've got the product for them to buy," Moir Beamer said.

The stores check their records from last year's sales, and Virginia Produce develops a projection from there, Kevin Beamer said. The farmers grow extra, and Virginia Produce can wholesale the excess to other places.

Farmers tend to concentrate on one crop, and they continuously work with Food City to make sure the quality is there, Moir Beamer said. Alan Worrell grows corn, Snake Creek Farms grows cabbage, James Light broccoli and Kenneth Dalton cauliflower, among others.

"It takes a lot of gamble out of farming," Moir Beamer said. "They know they can make a profit with the price that Food City set.”

Food City provides a fixed price, so farmers know what they are going to get for their crops, he said.

Cabbage is a good example of what can happen when farmers have to depend on fluctuating prices, Kevin said. Though the price paid to farms has fallen in general, Food City is still paying participating farmers the higher fixed price the parties agreed on.

Local farmers send two or three tractor-trailer loads a day through Virginia Produce to the grocery chain's distribution center in Abingdon, Moir said. The produce gets shipped to the network of stores from there.

Alan Worrell of the Laurel community decided to take the plunge and make a full-time career of growing produce and vegetables.

He quit his job of nine years with Southern States, though he still drives a school bus. "I decided to go out on my own."

He had cattle for a little while, but turned to crops.

"We ship acres and acres of corn through Virginia Produce to Food City," Worrell said.

Green beans proved to be a good crop for his farm, too. He estimates that they'll pick 2,500 bushels of beans this year, 70 percent of which will go to Food City.

"If it wasn't for Food City's dedication to buying locally grown produce, I would be one of the people looking for a job today," Worrell said. "Food City's definitely allowed me to continue farming and also to expand and to plan for the future."

Farmers across the Twin Counties and neighboring counties — and even parts of North Carolina — have benefited from the efforts of Food City, Virginia Produce and the wholesale farmers' market, Worrell said. He feels like agriculture will provide him a solid career for years to come.

People talk about buying local, but Food City actually does it, says J.C. Banks of Snake Creek Farms.

It's good to have a buyer lined up, he said. Food City is a good customer that's looking for a quality product from the farmers.

"I'm loyal to them and they're loyal to me," he said.

They give you a good, solid price, and the way it's set up a farmer doesn't have to worry about playing the bidding game, Banks said.

Participants continue to look for other crops that could be grown locally, the Beamers said. After starting out with pumpkins and cabbage, adding broccoli and testing cauliflower, the next trial crop will be romaine lettuce.

For years, Carroll County farmers grew mainly cabbage, but diversification of farms has proven profitable, Moir said.

The Beamers said they appreciate Kevin Semones at the Southwest Virginia Farmers' Market, who has worked long hours to make this effort a success.

"There's no stopping point to what can be done working together, Moir Beamer said.

Agriculture is really the backbone of the area, and with cooperation and the right opportunities, Moir Beamer says people can keep local farms operating.

Farming is a tradition here, he added. One of the best results of this effort is the younger members of farming families learn that their land can turn a profit.

Moir expects that will help the agricultural tradition here continue into the future.

"We've got to have this type industry if this country wants to eat."

Growing crops like broccoli and cauliflower here instead of shipping them from the West Coast means customers will get fresher produce and shipping costs are lowered. "And we keep our economy going here."

"The main reason that I can see for shopping at Food City is the money we pay is coming right back here..." Moir said. "That's a lot better than it going away from here."