Markets Take On Different Meanings
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
HARRISONBURG — Hundreds of people are flocking to the Harrisonburg Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays to pick up fresh food grown by their neighbors, and similar markets will open in the coming weeks in communities up and down the Shenandoah Valley.
Though they might sell in the same venues, the market means different things to different vendors. To some, it’s the backbone of an agribusiness that supports their family. To others, its an important part of a diverse retail and wholesale mix, or a side effort providing some extra cash.
Regardless of its importance to their business model, though, several local farmers-market vendors expressed serious focus on providing a good product and operating a profitable enterprise.
Providing A Start
Now in its 10th year, Woods Edge Farm launched as a business at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market.
Owner Elaine Nolt added a six-day-a-week (at peak), six-month-a-year farm stand along Harpine Highway just north of the city about four years ago. She wholesales to some local restaurants and sometimes takes fruit and vegetables to the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction. However, she said 40 to 45 percent of Woods Edge’s business still comes from the market.
“It’s a very important part of our livelihood to be there,” Nolt said of the market.
She and her son, Calvin, farm between 7 and 8 acres on three parcels in the Singers Glen area. Fifteen employees help during the peak season.
They sell vegetables, berries, herbs, perennial and annual plants, eggs, and homemade jams and jellies. Blue tilapia, which they’re raising in conjunction with James Madison University students working on an aquaponics project, should be ready to sell in six months to a year.
Though not certified, Pennsylvania native Nolt said Woods Edge follows Organic Materials Review Institute growing guidelines.
She markets her stand from her vendor space in the farmers market. Usually stand prices are a bit lower, she said, because retailing at the market adds costs.
Nolt said the Harrisonburg Farmers Market was vital to Woods Edge Farm in its early days because it was about the only venue in which it could sell when she and her daughter, Stacey Yoder, started.
“It was very important that we saw that we could sell stuff,” she said, “and it gave us confidence to grow more and to build greenhouses and high tunnels.”
On farmers market Saturdays in Broadway, “Basinger Beef’s booth” is the answer to the old television commercial question, “Where’s the beef?”
Phil Basinger’s workd with cattle for nearly 25 years, at first buying calves, raising them for about six months, and shipping them back to the livestock market for resale. He then started selling quarter, half or whole animals processed by Dayton’s Valley Meat Processors. Four years ago he started selling by the piece, with the cuts processed by T&E Meats in Harrisonburg and Gore’s Custom Slaughter and Processing in Edinburg.
Four years ago, Basinger heard the Broadway Farmers Market was looking for a meat vendor, and his grass-fed beef — hamburger, steaks and roasts — has been well-received.
“I was looking for a different way to market our beef,” he said. “It was partly to get our name out so more people would know about it, and just a different way to provide income.”
He has about 40 head of cattle on about 60 acres, 20 of which he owns in the Linville area. A full-time construction worker, Basinger said his three children help with the beef operation.
“It teaches the kids something,” he said, “marketing, how to take care of animals and be responsible.”
Basinger said beef sales total $25,000 to $30,000 annually, with more than 30 animals sold in quarters, halves and wholes. About five animals a year are sold at the farmers market, via Woods Edge Farm and from his house, so only about 15 to 20 percent of the overall revenue comes from market sales.
Farmers market customers, he admitted, have become quarter, halve and whole buyers.
Being able to market his beef as grass-fed attracts buyers, Basinger said.
“It’s different from a lot of what’s out there, and people are looking for what’s healthier for them,” he said.
“People have seen and heard about it, they decide to try it out, and they decide to become repeat customers.”
Stand Not Alone
People have been buying produce from the farm stand just south of Dayton since Amos Showalter started selling there in 2005. But some of those who regularly drove past Wayside Produce never bought from the farm until it established a presence in the Broadway and Bridgewater farmers markets.
“It’s been a revelation to us to discover just how many moments of exposure it can take for a potential consumer to make the decision to enter your selling space,” said Alex Mason, co-owner of the produce operation now run by his family. “We still have new customers come in and confess to us of having passed by the stand on numerous occasions and only now making the decision to enter.”
The family extended it operations to the Broadway Farmers Market in 2013 and ventured to Bridgewater last year, he said. Despite the proximity to the latter market, he figures they’re reaching customers they wouldn’t have otherwise and have the opportunity to direct them to the farm for future purchases.
Between 2010 — shortly after the family took over the produce business — through 2015, Mason said sales have doubled. They peaked in 2013, about 7 percent higher than they are now; he attributed the drop to increased consumer options.
Wayside Produce grows a bit of everything under the sun, he said, including niche items such as salsify, chicory, celeriac, sorrel, purple pole beans and husk cherries. Every item can’t be taken to farmers markets, however, so customers often are referred to the stand for fruits and vegetables left behind.
Growing on just 5 acres, Mason said the farm has a greenhouse and high tunnels and does all it can to maximize production, including planting multiple crops in the same area several times a year and growing green beans under tomatoes. Organic methods are used, though the farm has not been certified as an organic producer.
“We rarely have vacant space,” he said. “We pay close attention to soil fertility and biological health and activity.”
The stand and the two farmers markets aren’t Wayside’s only revenue streams. The Masons sell directly to restaurants in Harrisonburg, Staunton and Charlottesville, to a variety of businesses that offer local produce, and at the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction.
The farm stand remains the biggest source of revenue, accounting for about half of all sales. However, Mason said that figure has shrunk as Wayside has diversified its sales channels, and sales per hour at the Broadway market at times have outpaced hourly sales at the stand.
Though he wouldn’t provide total revenue, he said Wayside Produce supports five people full time and up to eight part-time workers.
Michael Hott has a honey of a retirement plan.
The grounds manager at the Edith B. Carrier Arboretum owns Hott Apiary, a small but growing enterprise that provides bee products and services. Hott sells at the farmers markets in Harrisonburg and Bridgewater.
“We have to push a lot of honey out,” Hott, 43, said of the reason he works two markets with the help of his father, Ted. “Plus there are people in the Bridgewater market who have never been to the Harrisonburg market, and people in the Harrisonburg market who have never been to the Bridgewater market. We’re trying to cover area as a whole.”
The apiary isn’t a big business yet; the McGaheysville resident said he grosses between $10,000 and $15,000 annually. But it is growing, and this is his second year at farmers markets.
He makes a bit of money removing bees, providing pollination services, and even selling spare queen. He just started selling online and wholesales his honey, bee pollen or lip balm to Mount Crawford Creamery, Friendly City Food Co-op, Massanutten Produce and the JMU Student Success Center.
At this point, though, Hott estimates that farmers market sales account for about 85 percent of the apiary business’s revenue. He said they’re also “a great way of getting your name out there, getting known for the great product you have produced.”
All of his more than 100 hives are within a 15-mile radius of Harrisonburg, he said, and his customers like knowing their honey comes from local sources.
“I know people who come to the market who are repeat customers,” said Hott, “because they know my product is local.”
Valley To D.C.
Though most area residents that sell at farmers markets don’t leave the region to sell their food, a few spread the Shenandoah Valley’s bounty elsewhere.
Marvin Ogburn, who lives on Long Meadow Farm northeast of Harrisonburg, said he’s taken a refrigerated box truck filled with produce to the Eastern Market on Capitol Hill for the past 11 years. He makes the trip about 40 times a year, from mid-March to mid-December.
“It’s an all-day market,” he said, “so it’s worth my while driving up there. I have a good clientele.”
Ogburn fills his truck with fruits and vegetables he buys at the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction and picks up from local growers he has contracted or with whom he’s has established relationships.
He used to grow a variety of produce on his own but “realized it was difficult to be an expert in everything,” he said. He now primarily focuses on tomatoes.
A retired accountant and corporate executive, Ogburn said he totals more than $100,000 a year in farmers market sales. The cost of produce acquisition, of course, cuts his profit.
Though it is a money-making endeavor, Ogburn said he thinks he helps people on both end of the sales. Local growers get more money for their produce, and Washington-area families have access to good food. He’s even signed up to sell to clients enrolled in the federal Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food-buying assistance for low-income women and families with children at nutritional risk.
“I feel like I’m doing a good thing,” he said, “taking a product that people who live in the city really enjoy, that has good nutrition. I feel like it’s partly a mission.”
Contact Vic Bradshaw at 574-6279 or firstname.lastname@example.org