Joint Subcommittee Studying Virginia's Farmers Market System

August 25, 1999, Oak Grove

October 5, 1999, Richmond

The Joint Subcommittee Studying Virginia's Farmers Market System was established as a result of HJR 506, introduced in 1999. While the resolution was not enacted, the Speaker of the House of Delegates requested that a subcommittee be appointed to undertake the study. As described by HJR 506, the joint subcommittee is to "examine the Farmers Market System management structure and the relationship of that structure to the localities and farmers each market serves." The joint subcommittee held its first meeting in Virginia's Northern Neck so that it could observe a farmers' market in operation. The purpose of its second meeting was to receive public comment.

History of Farmers Market Board Law

In 1985, a joint subcommittee was formed to study the feasibility of establishing a system of wholesale farmers' market facilities in Virginia, for the purpose of providing a nucleus for new and improved marketing of agricultural products. The subcommittee recommended that a Farmers Market Network Board be created to work jointly with localities to establish a farmers' market network. Legislation creating the board was enacted in 1986. In 1988, the General Assembly appropriated funding requested by the Southside Virginia Marketing Cooperative to purchase a wholesale farmers' market in Southside. The market was established but later ceased operations.

The Farmers Market Board law was most recently amended in 1989, in legislation that designated the board as a policy board. Among the purposes of the board listed in the legislation are: identifying farmers' market needs throughout the Commonwealth, promoting the orderly growth and development of farmers' markets, promoting public awareness of farmers' markets, promoting the coordination of Virginia's farmers' market development with other segments of the economy, and assisting in the coordination activities of various state agencies and other organizations contributing to the development of Virginia's farmers' market system. The board has also been charged with developing a statewide master plan for the development of the network.

The Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services is empowered to "establish, operate and maintain a network of markets." To do so, he may employ personnel to operate the system of markets; develop and manage a program budget for the farmers' market network; provide marketing and promotional services for the network; develop detailed technical plans for, acquire or build, and manage the network; and rent or purchase land and facilities as deemed necessary to establish markets or to enhance farmers' market development.

Current Market System

At present, there are four farmers' markets in Virginia, one each in Southwest Virginia, the Eastern Shore, the Northern Neck, and Southeastern Virginia. These markets have all been built with money appropriated by the General Assembly pursuant to a request by a local group of growers. According to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the purpose of the system that has evolved is to provide post-harvest handling and marketing services for small and medium-sized produce growers. While the commissioner's authority with respect to markets applies to wholesale, shipping point and retail markets, the system does not encompass the latter. There are quite a few retail markets in Virginia, however, that are operated independently of the system.

All four of the markets in the system are located on land that has been donated to the Commonwealth and are operated pursuant to a contract with the state. Three are operated by private sector grower organizations, and one is operated by a county. The Commonwealth is responsible for facility and site capital repair and maintenance for each, while the operator is responsible for day-to-day maintenance and repair. Under the contracts that govern operation of the markets, profits and losses accrue to the market operator, and the operator is required to make reports on market operations at the Farmers Market Board's quarterly meetings.

The four markets in the system differ in a number of ways. The Northern Neck Market, established in 1998 at a project cost of $3.2 million, is operated by a growers' association. The association has hired a general manager, Parker Farms, to handle the daily operations of the market. Parker Farms is the market's sole tenant. All of the equipment contained in the market, other than a hydrocooler, was provided by Parker Farms. The market receives products from about 2500 acres' worth of crops and about 35 producers.

The Eastern Shore Farmers' Market, established in 1994 at a project cost of $2.4 million, receives products from about 4000 acres' worth of crops and 200 producers and has three tenants. The market is operated by a growers' association but does not include grading facilities like the Northern Neck Market does.

The Southwestern Virginia Market, established in 1992 at a project cost of $1.3 million, has three wholesale tenants and includes a small retail space. It also includes packing and grading facilities, but they are much smaller than those contained in the Northern Neck Market. The Southwestern market receives more products that are produced outside of Virginia than the other markets, in an effort to provide a full line of produce.

The Southeastern Market, established in 1998 at a project cost of $5 million, is receiving management assistance from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. One of its tenants is the Virginia Department of Corrections, and about 25 producers are using the market's services.

Public Testimony; Next Meeting

The primary purpose of the subcommittee's October meeting in Richmond was to hear from farmers in the four markets' production areas. The testimony emphasized differences in the ways that each market operates and revealed varying levels of satisfaction among producers as to the quality of services provided by the markets. It was noted that the differences among the markets can, in part, be attributed to the fact that each market was established as a result of a proposal made by a local grower's group. Ideally, then, each market should be responsive to the needs of farmers in the region surrounding the market. Subcommittee members also stated, however, that there should be some degree of uniformity in the way that the markets are operated to ensure fairness to producers in all the markets' production areas.

The subcommittee plans to review the comments made during the public hearing at its next meeting and discuss whether any changes in legislation or policy are needed to improve the farmers' market system. Also raised at the October meeting was the issue of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' role in assisting retail farmers' markets and identifying other marketing opportunities for small farmers. The subcommittee plans to discuss this issue further at its next meeting.

The Honorable Robert S. Bloxom, Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Nikki Rovner