Producers Association helps farmers

Published 10:54 am Sunday, November 5, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

What began as a vision five years ago has blossomed into a force of change for Southside Virginia and beyond.

The Southside Virginia Fruit and Vegetable Producers Association consists of about 20 growers from eight counties. They work together to feed locally grown produce to Virginia families — an idea dreamed up by five Charlotte County farmers in 2018.

As primarily small vegetable growers, the group sought to expand marketing opportunities beyond direct consumer sales.

“We thought about coming together and aggregating our product to sell into some bigger markets,” explained Cornell “Brick” Goldman, SVFVPA president and founding member. “And we thought that in coming together, we could help each other — sharing equipment, knowledge — and become more efficient as small growers.”

Support came pouring in once word spread about the group’s mission. Funds from county Farm Bureaus helped kickstart the initiative, and assistance from groups like Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia State University and the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability helped launch SVFVPA into a bustling operation. 

In 2019, they began supplying produce to Food Lion and attracting other large buyers.

“We’ve been blessed,” Goldman remarked. “We’ve been able to get new people to come in and buy from us each year.”

Whitney Perkins, assistant director for VA FAIRS, said it’s been “inspiring” to watch them work together. “This association really came on the backs of some core volunteers who had a vision and put in a lot of hard work to see it through.” 

VA FAIRS helped SVFVPA secure over $739,000 in state and federal funding, including a $126,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Business Development Grant. The funds supported the purchase of walk-in coolers and the group’s first refrigerated truck in 2019. 

“It’s amazing to see an actual reefer truck pull out with pallets of produce on it — I still haven’t gotten over that feeling,” said Amy Carwile, SVFVPA founding member and office manager. She recalled the group’s early days of unloading produce by hand from minivans.

Another $176,000 grant from The Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission funded the purchase of a permanent headquarters on 10 acres of land with test plots for beginning farmers. The group is set to move from its current space in January.

Perkins said the group’s passion for mentoring young and aspiring growers is especially encouraging.

“That’s an extra step that their association is taking that’s really important for their community — making sure that pipeline of growers is sustainable,” she said.

“We always make room for new growers,” Goldman added. He said he and other experienced growers will sometimes offer a few acres of land to newcomers eager to learn. 

The group also gives back to other communities by supplying food banks and school systems with fresh produce. They work to expand their reach, with some deliveries reaching food banks as far as Washington, D.C., and 4P Foods, which delivers to schools across the state.

“I’m just amazed at how many people this little band of growers has been able to feed,” Carwile said. “We’re a group of people that love farming and growing produce for anyone that has a need or desire.”

The organization continues to expand its operations and resources, growing by about 25% annually, and transitioning from a volunteer workforce to a paid one.

Membership is open to anyone. Annual dues of $100 per farm are primarily intended to ensure commitment from growers. Those interested are encouraged to contact Carwile at 434-391-4754.