CULLEN, VA — “This was kind of the last piece of the puzzle,” said Charlotte County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent Bob Jones, visiting one of the twice-weekly auctions at the new Southside Produce Auction facility.
The auction began in 2012, but its foundation was laid with a series of prior developments. An Amish community has been growing in Charlotte County for the past 15 years, with members coming from more developed communities in Pennsylvania and Delaware. The newcomers were used to living in places with a produce auction and hence knew the benefits of such a marketplace, though they themselves typically hadn’t been involved in growing produce. Throughout the county, though, more and more people were starting their own produce and horticulture operations.
So Jones undertook a feasibility study. Would an auction in Charlotte County attract enough growers? Enough quality produce? Enough buyers? As part of the community’s research into answering these questions, they visited with the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction in Dayton, VA. Finally, in January 2012, the community had a meeting to gauge the interest in establishing a produce auction. Eighty people showed up, and three months later the Southside Produce Auction had its first sale, in an old store building in Cullen. The auction had 52 sales in 2012, in total attracting 52 growers, 27 wholesale buyers, 3,500 visitors and moving an estimated 350,000 pounds of produce.
The sale was clearly a success, so members in the community leased some land and built an auction facility, which was ready for the first sale of last year. In 2013 the auction had 57 sales, in total attracting 100 growers, 41 wholesale buyers, 6,000 visitors and moving an estimated 650,000 pounds of produce.
At present, about half of the auction’s buyers are for wholesale accounts. “They buy for restaurants, to supplement CSAs, to sell at farmers’ markets,” Jones said. They come from as far away as Lynchburg, Charlottesville, even Richmond and North Carolina.
The other half are retail buyers, families from across southside Virginia — Charlotte, Campbell, Halifax, Buckingham and Prince Edward Counties. The auction, said Charlotte County Board of Supervisors member Dr. Nancy Carwile, “puts us on the map.”
It’s also, in her opinion, one way to preserve farmland. “It’s encouraged the farming community,” she said.
Lorrie Barron is one such encouraged community member — in fact, the auction has inspired her and her husband to embrace farming full-time. A few years ago, when her husband lost his job, Barron grew produce to supplement the income they get from growing about 10 acres of dark tobacco. The auction, Barron said, “was a saving grace for us. It helped provide enough income to stay on the farm and keep our feet on the ground.”
Today, Barron grows cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers in a high-tunnel system, and has planted one acre of blackberries. She has a stand at the Lynchburg Community Market. She is both a buyer and a seller at the auction, buying vegetable plants to grow and produce to sell at the Lynchburg market. It’s also an outlet for her excess produce. Supported in part by the success of the auction, Barron plans on expanding her produce operation, installing next year another high tunnel and the following year another acre of blackberries.
Brick Goldman of Cullen grows 15 acres of open field produce — zucchini, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, okra, cabbage, melons, broccoli, kale, onions, beets and more. He sells his produce at two farmers’ markets and to some large accounts. Like Barron, Goldman is both a buyer and a seller at the auction. For him, the auction was “an initiative to expand production,” knowing that he would have an outlet for extra harvest.
“The flip side is it’s a source to buy stuff I need if I don’t have it,” he said.
For example, Goldman recently purchased produce at the auction to fill out an order for 150 ten-pound boxes of mixed vegetables. He was able to grow much of what he needed for the order himself, but since it was early in the year and the year was a little behind due to cold weather, he supplemented with produce grown in hothouses.
At each auction, Virginia Extension has an exhibit which includes a feature called “Product of the Week.” The goal is to showcase an item that will be prominent in either that week’s or the coming week’s auctions. Last year strawberries were sold at the auction over the course of two weeks. The first week about 100 eight-quart flats of strawberries sold for around $16 to $18 per flat. The next week, Jones and Extension decided to showcase how easy it is to preserve strawberries. In part due to that showcase, the second week — during which 400 flats of strawberries were sold — saw prices of about $32 per flat.
Jones is helped with the Product of the Week feature and with other aspects of the auction by Caitlin Miller, Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agent in Prince Edward County. The auction is held on Tuesdays and Fridays from mid-April through November.
Jones expects the auction to be even bigger this year than last. He points to the 28 new enterprises in Charlotte County which have been established since 2011 to grow produce, plants or flowers. As those businesses develop, as they have more produce to sell, the auction will be there as a marketplace for them.
Barron, for example, will be harvesting more blackberries this year as her acre patch matures. Last year, the yield was about 30 percent of what a mature patch would have. This year, she expects a yield of about 70 percent of a fully developed patch.
Blackberry harvest is a “crazy” time, she said.
With the help of the auction, though, “We’re getting there.”