It’s almost laughable to look back at how far the Southwest Virginia Farmers’ Market in Hillsville has come since opening 25 years ago.
Now a thriving business featuring several vendors year-round on the retail side, the market also features a wholesale side that distributes local produce to a handful of large grocery store chains. The wholesale side also features hydro coolers, forced-air coolers and ice machines, and is Gap certified. But when it first opened in 1992, the multi-million dollar business barely made it from one day to the next.
“The original retail shed was nothing more than a lean-to. It wasn’t a real good set-up because if it rained you were wet and your stuff was wet,” said Donna Peery, who operates Brady’s Produce inside the Farmers’ Market along with her sister Debby Brady. “When it first opened, you had to come in, set up for the day, clean up all your stuff, and then leave. You had to do that every single day. And it just didn’t work.”
Originally opened by the sisters’ father, the late Donald Brady, Brady’s Produce was one of just a handful of vendors at the market in those days. Today, they are the only original vendor left, and by far the biggest vendor at the Hillsville produce giant. One reason Brady’s Produce has stood the test of time is that they were quickly able to adapt and diversify their product.
“The first years there was not a whole lot. The very first year nobody had planned for the opening so you didn’t have any variety of anything. And then the next year we actually grew some corn and potatoes and tomatoes and cabbage and that was about it,” Brady said. “And then cabbage prices got so bad so we cut out the cabbage and started diversifying. I think the very first year we had about 17 acres of mixed stuff that we had diversified to – just like a big garden. And now it is just a bigger garden. Now we have 55 acres.”
There have been many changes in the industry since the Southwest Virginia Farmers’ Market opened a quarter of a century ago. On the wholesale side, more and more product is going to the big chain grocery stores. Kevin Semones, manager of the market, said U.S. 52 used to be known as Produce Alley. Now there are just three or four stands left through Cana. He said the Brady’s were ahead of the curve when they started diversifying their business.
“It has really changed from Mom and Pops stores here and in West Virginia and Southern Ohio, and what they were always used to doing to more and more chain stores. We are working with four chains now and about everybody is doing something with some chain,” Semones said. “The variety has changed drastically. It started in 1992 as pretty much either cabbage or apples. That is why we really struggled. One thing (Brady’s) really caught on to was they saw the importance of diversity. When this thing started all they were growing was cabbage and they figured out corn and some other stuff was needed because people would come and ask for it. If everybody is just selling corn, it is not going to work.”
Peery calls the market an “evolutionary thing,” noting the family business has grown with the demand. A funny story she remembers about the early days is when her dad first planted corn, there just really wasn’t a demand for it at the farmers’ market. At the time, they were selling corn for a dollar a dozen – or basically what anybody would give them. Until one day late in the fall a man came by asking for 100 bundles of six to eight cornstalks tied up for decorations.
“Debby asked how much he was paying on them and he said maybe a dollar and a half a bunch. Debby said, ‘I can have them in the morning,’” Peery said. “Debby said her and the Mexicans took off just a hell a flying back there to the corn field tying twine strings around them. They made more off cornstalks the first year then they made off the corn to eat. And so we have sold cornstalks in a little bundle ever since. It’s just how things evolve.”
You also look for niches in the market to use to your advantage. For instance, Debby said Brady’s recently found there are not many cantaloupes on the market late in the season.
“I tried them many years ago and it didn’t work real well and we didn’t have enough people. But I have gone back and grown some cantaloupes the last two years and they have been really, really good and there is a market for it late. We don’t have until about end of August, first of September,” she said. “And so by that time South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, everybody is finished and we have a product that is out of season elsewhere.”
Peery noted Brady’s and other vendors catch a lot of flak because they are not always cheaper than the grocery stores. It’s impossible in many cases because grocery stores are selling produce cheaper than small vendors can grow it. At the same time, there’s a lot to be said for produce that was pulled from the farm that day less than five miles from the farmers’ market.
“There’s a difference when you come out here and buy corn that was pulled this morning and eat it,” Brady said. “It has a different texture, it has a different flavor, and it is different from the grocery store.”
There’s a bit of irony in why the Southwest Virginia Farmers’ Market blew up into what it is today. Both Donna and Debby say it boils down to the addition of restrooms in the fall of 2004 when the Virginia Welcome Center in Lambsburg was closed temporarily for renovations. A Virginia Welcome Center had to be located somewhere, so the cabins that belonged to the defunct AmeriLink agreed to host the welcome center. The caveat was they would not allow their restrooms to be public.
“So we agreed to stay open through the winter. We had always closed right after Christmas,” Perry said. “We agreed to stay open, had a big sign out front that said public restrooms. And so people came off the road looking for the Virginia Welcome Center and found us. And we still have a lot of those people who first found us then and now they come back. And it has also become a meeting point for families, so that was truly a turning point.”
Of course, 2004 was also the year that their father, Donald Brady, died. It gave the sisters a little more latitude to make changes because the Farmers’ Market was his baby.
“He and a couple of other farmers went to D.C. and lobbied for that market so hard because it was going somewhere and daddy wanted it in Carroll County,” Peery said. “There was a group of them and they lobbied Rick Boucher hard to get it located in Virginia. But 2004-2005 was really the turning point because when we stayed open during the winter we got some people to come in and do some design work and to redo our display and then open through the winter and then the gift baskets at Christmas. We had a little help in our transition but we did make a transition after daddy’s death. And that truly was a turning point.”
Brady said many grocery stores today have forward contracts with farmers. Some farmers in the area went that route and are now out of business. Even today, Brady said she has to pay $11.27 an hour for labor, but she couldn’t do it without them. One of her employees, Rigo Garcia, has been with the Bradys for more than 34 years. Almost his entire family has been and continues to be a part of the farm. Donna even let one of the children live with her for 10 years because the girl wanted an education and didn’t want to go back to Mexico.
“They are a part of the family. We even bought them a mobile home. All of the family works here except one son and one daughter,” Peery said.
The business now has grown to the point to where Donna has seven employees at the Farmers’ Market and Debby has seven on the farm. Because of the market, Peery said it has not only sustained the Bradys, but several other families over the past 25 years.
“We have 11 families here that it is their only job. We are keeping 11 families going,” Brady added. “If it wasn’t for Rigo being here for so many years I would have probably quit. If it weren’t for Kevin (Semones) and his help there at that market there, it would have never amounted to anything. He has been a Godsend to all the farmers in our area. He helps in any way he can, whether it be that market, whether it be in marketing their product, Kevin is just an all-around good guy.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN