Article and photos by Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
On a sharply curved road just outside of Bridgewater proper and spitting distance from the Dry River, lies the 57-acre farm where Charlie Martin has lived and worked the land his entire life. It’s been in the family since his grandfather bought it in the early 1930s.
Martin is jovial, quick to jokes and laughter, like when asked if he ever considered doing something else with his life.
“Yeah, mushroom hunt! Go fishing!” Martin said. “But as far as occupation, farming was in my blood.”
Martin took over the farm from his father in 1978 and became a sort of Renaissance man of the earth – he grows vegetables and feed corn, produces chicken eggs for poultry hatcheries, butchers wild game that hunters bring to him and has a small herd of cattle. (The cows are just for fun, though.)
“Old MacDonald’s farm has a lot of occupations!” he quipped.
For many years, he mostly sold produce to a small grocery store in Bridgewater. But about 15 years ago, he began selling at the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction. Martin said now, he “would not want to go anywhere else.”
In years past, sometimes he’d have “two patches of sweet corn that come in at the same time. What do I do?!” he’d worry. “As I’ve peddled door to door over the years, that was a big problem.”
But even if that happens now, Martin knows it’ll all get sold at the produce auction and end up in the hands and bellies of local residents.
The produce auction sits just a few miles from Martin’s place, in the middle of the hilly farmland that rambles westward out from Dayton. In 2005, a group of farmers and staff from the extension agency started the auction in a farmer’s shop, after visiting thriving produce auctions in Pennsylvania.
Auction Manager Jeff Heatwole said they thought a similar set-up “would work here amongst the Old Order Mennonite community.”
It did. The following year, the farmers bought a piece of land and built the expansive, industrial-style pavilion that houses the auction today.
It convenes Tuesday and Thursday mornings, with growers dropping off half-bushel boxes of vegetables and fruits, as well as hanging baskets overflowing with flowers early in the morning. Most of the growers are gone by the time the action begins, with buyers crowded around trollies of produce as the auctioneer rattles off bids.
While the majority of the growers are Mennonite, most buyers are not. They come from a variety of grocery stores, roadside stands, farmer’s markets and the occasional area restaurant.
Heatwole was raised Mennonite, and although his family wasn’t Old Order, he said he serves as a bridge between the cultures of growers and buyers.
“I understand a lot of where [Old Order Mennonites] are coming from, and some of their beliefs and ways of doing things, and also at the same time, I have a computer and all that other stuff. So I’m kind of the interpreter,” Heatwole said.
One of the programs Heatwole helped start at the auction is a collaboration with the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank called “Farm Fresh.”
About seven or eight years ago, he said, an attorney from Harrisonburg came and bid on a whole pallet of potatoes. When she won it, she told Heatwole that a truck would be coming from the food bank to pick it up – thus inspiring Heatwole to set up a formal partnership with the organization.
Through the program, people donate money directly to the food bank, which staff then use to buy produce from the auction, as well as directly from farms.
“With that, we’ve set a floor price on most of the produce here,” Heatwole explained. “If we can’t get a bid of $3 for a half-bushel box, then the food bank will buy it at $2.50. So the food bank is getting some good, local produce that way, that they can distribute, and it’s also giving a basement there for the farmer.”
Heatwole said his favorite thing about the auction is the community that’s built up around it. He grew up on a dairy farm in easternRockingham County, and while he didn’t want to stay in that business, he still wanted to be connected to agriculture.
“The people, they really are the best people to work with, and everybody wants it to succeed,” he said.
One regular buyer also lauded the auction’s atmosphere of camaraderie. Cy Khochareun, one of the owners of the family businesses that include restaurants BEYOND and Taste of Thai, as well as the Oriental Food Market, said it reminds him of the lumber business his father ran in Laos when he was a child.
“We had people working with us, and had a huge kind of community. I really kind of enjoy stuff like that,” Khochareun said. “And I truly believe it sustains itself. There are really hard working people in the Mennonite community there – I just love hanging out there.”
Khochareun buys produce at the auction for all three of the family businesses.
Right now, BEYOND serves locally grown cucumbers, onions, squash, napa cabbage and broccoli from the auction. Khochareun said he enjoys being able to inspect vegetables at the auction before bidding on them, to find the highest quality ingredients.
I like “to go and see it, look at it, touch it,” he said. “When you order from Sysco, you know, you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
For those who want to get in the kitchen themselves, they can get their hands on auction produce at the Friendly City Food Co-op. A colorful array of locally grown items from the produce auction are displayed on the 99-cent-per-pound table just outside the entrance.
Produce Team Leader Dietrich Ewing purchases a lot of items directly from farmers but said he can get some items earlier in the season at the auction than from the usual suppliers.
“For instance, right now, I don’t have any source for green beans, so I’ll go over to the auction and get some green beans,” he said. “The auction does provide a good source for quality, local fruits and vegetables.”
In one recent haul, which Ewing said was on the small side, he carted in 20 cases of white and yellow nectarines, and another 20 or so of blueberries, red onions, green beans and squash.
In addition to the main event, Ewing said he also enjoys the concession stand at the auction – particularly the whole pies they have for sale. And, as other buyers told The Citizen, he just likes the vibe of the place.
“I’ve taken my kids out there and they like to see the tractors and the horses and all the produce,” he said. “Even if you’re not buying, it’s kind of fun to hang out.”
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