Some new options: Project aims to help Prince Edward farms grow

Published 7:19 pm Sunday, January 21, 2024

A group with members spread across Central and Southside believes it can help Prince Edward farms, thanks to a recent grant. The money, given to the Southside Virginia Fruit and Vegetable Producers Association, is meant to foster growth in the region’s farming operations.

As for the association, it has members in eight Virginia counties — Campbell, Prince Edward, Charlotte, Lunenburg, Appomattox, Brunswick, Halifax and Mecklenburg. At its Tuesday, Jan. 9 meeting, the Tobacco Regional Revitalization Commission’s Southern Virginia Committee approved a $105,000 grant request to allow the producers association to complete its new distribution center.

The tobacco commission’s funding, combined with a federal grant, will allow the association to make necessary improvements and equip the new aggregation and distribution center at Cullen in Charlotte County, according to details included in the commission’s member packets.

Email newsletter signup

The association will use the $105,000 from the tobacco commission along with a matching $105,000 United States Department of Agriculture Rural Business Development Grant to ready the new facility for use.

SVFVPA President Cornell “Brick” Goldman said they have been using the old fire station in Charlotte Courthouse and have run out of space.

“We’re cramped there. We’ve got one cooler in that facility right now and that’s really all the space that we have,” Goldman said. “In our new facility that we moved to we will put up three coolers.”

Information provided to the tobacco commission at its meeting last week states the association is seeking funds to complete the aggregation facility, purchase needed equipment and for expansion of cooler space to increase storage and product shelf life.

“This project will improve the association’s ability to accept, sort and store products,” the report in the packet stated.

What is the Association? 

Formed in 2019, the association is made up of 28 independent, small farm operations from eight area counties, including Lunenburg. 

“Collectively, more than 100 acres of produce is grown including sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, cabbage, Swiss chard, collards, potatoes and squash,” commission materials state.

Working together as an association, Goldman said it has allowed the farmers to collectively sell to larger buyers, such as Food Lion and 4P Foods. Through a federal grant, the association has also started providing local vegetables and fruit to food banks in the region.

“They’ve raved about the vegetables that we bring them because they’re super fresh,” Goldman said. “We pick them one day and then for the most part they get them the next day.”

Additionally, through a Virginia Department of Agriculture program that encourages use of locally grown produce in schools, SVFVPA is now providing its products for students in the region. He said Prince Edward County Schools has been one of their largest customers in the education arena.

Goldman expects the association’s sales to generate more than $1 million or more in 2024.

“That’s pretty good for a little group like us,” he said. “We’re shooting to do it in 2024 and I think we’ll get that.”

In the explanation of the project provided to the commission, SVFVPA will not only improve the association’s ability to accept, sort and store products, but allow it to add new members.

The association has a goal of increasing its member farms by 60% and doubling its sales revenue, while also increasing agricultural employment in the region. 

“It will also pave a path for non-Good Agricultural Practices certified growers to market their products through the association,” commission materials state. “This will allow smaller start-up farms an opportunity to enter production, and for other farms to diversity into fruit and vegetable production.”

Help for Prince Edward farms 

Goldman explained they’ve got some buyers who will buy vegetables from the group and you don’t have to be GAP certified.

“When we get a new grower who comes in and he’s not GAP certified, then we’ll move him to that slot and let his vegetables go to the buyers who don’t require gap certification,” he said.

Goldman said the main reason that they pulled the group together is to share talent. 

“Some of us are better at growing tomatoes than the others. And some of us are better at watermelons,” he said. “We share knowledge from one person to the next to help us all be better producers.”

By then aggregating their products, bringing all of them together into one site, they can consolidate into larger lots.

“We attract bigger buyers and we’ve gotten better prices for our product in doing that,” he said.

An October 2023 grant request for $1.2 million was tabled by the tobacco commission and the group was asked to submit a new application with a revised scope and budget, according to staff comments in the packet.

“This more modest request addresses the association’s most critical costs and removes a significant portion of the previous funding request which was for a private entity’s interests related to software development,” the commission staff stated in its report.

They noted the funding will complete necessary improvements and equip the aggregation and distribution center for operation.

“Grant funds will be used towards the cost to purchase a cooler for direct to customer marketing, for purchase of an electric pallet jack to move product at the facility and costs to relocate a 20-foot by 30-foot building to the site,” according to the committee staff.

The commission’s staff pointed to other factors that support the projected growth for Prince Edward farms and other locations.

Developing a partnership  

“A partnership has developed with the local Amish community cheese facility for the association to distribute their cheese products  and support further growth in cheese production in the region,” the staff comments state. “Staff recognizes that the efforts of the SVFVPA, and progress to date, reflects a strong commitment by the agribusiness community to partner for expanding opportunities for small and start-up farm operations.”

The new 6,000 square food aggregation facility was funded by the tobacco commission through a $176,000 grant in January 2020.

Goldman said work on wiring is already underway to be followed by plumbing.

“We expect to be in this building and operating by April,” he said.

The producers association has members in eight Virginia counties — Campbell, Prince Edward, Charlotte, Lunenburg, Appomattox, Brunswick, Halifax and Mecklenburg, plus one across the state line in North Carolina.

“We’re open for any grower who wants to join,” Goldman said. “We’ve not turned down any growers who have come to us and wanted to be a part of our group.”

Any owners of Prince Edward farms interested can contact association office manager and founding member Amy Carwile at 434-391-4754.