After five years of work and planning, the Southern Virginia Makers Market opened its doors Thursday to serve as a community classroom, coffee shop, banquet area, business incubator, and the storefront of the Southern Virginia Food Hub, a network of farmers and producers trying to get their products into the hands of people in their communities. Ann Taylor Wright, the food hub’s coordinator, said that, at last count, 122 farmers and artisan producers have signed up to participate.
Currently, the market has a variety of products, including meats, eggs, produce, snack foods, and fresh bread and scones, but Wright said the market will be adding products, and the plan is to begin offering locally-sourced meals for pick-up in July.
“We’re not fully stocked yet; we're still trying to get our legs under us and take things slow,” Wright said.
Thursday’s grand opening started at the Colonial Center with recognitions, a slideshow, and remarks from South Hill Town Manager Kim Callis and Wright before attendees walked next door to see the interior of the market, sample and buy products, and participate in a ribbon cutting.
Callis welcomed attendees to the grand opening and recognized the numerous people and agencies that have provided funding to the food hub or otherwise helped to get the food hub started, including the Tobacco Commission, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, the Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services, the Town of South Hill, the Southside Planning District Commission, the volunteers, the farmers, the producers, and Wright.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of … our town, and our region and all the people that have worked so hard to make things happen around here,” Callis said.
Callis told the audience he was excited to see what they thought of the market.
“Today, you’re going to see some things that will just amaze you,” Callis said, “and again, it’s the result of a lot of people’s passion and love … and dedication to this area.”
Wright shared about the different facets of the project and how the food hub came to be. She and her husband, Allen, first had chickens on their farm, and later added pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, and longhorn cattle. Wright wanted to be able to sell her chicken salad, so she asked Deborah Gosney of the Southside Planning District Commission about getting a business loan to fund a commercial kitchen that she and her fellow farmers could use to create value-added products. Wright said that Gosney told her she had a community project in mind and did not need a loan; she needed grants.
After that, Wright began the long process of writing grants, creating executive and advisory boards, holding meetings, and choosing the project’s target region, which includes Brunswick, Charlotte, Nottoway, Halifax, Mecklenburg, Greensville, Dinwiddie, and Lunenburg counties.
Wright said they still needed a strategic partner, which came when the Town of South Hill offered the use of the vacant building on the corner of W. Danville Street and S. Mecklenburg Avenue.
“The Town of South Hill stepped up big time,” Wright said.
Other supporters included Dominion Energy, Virginia’s Growth Alliance, the Environmental Protection Agency, and USDA Rural Development.
Wright said the building had to be renovated and then furnished with appliances for the kitchen and chairs for the classroom. The market has both an inspected kitchen that producers can use to create value-added products that can then be sold in stores and a dairy room that, once furnished, will be available for small dairy farmers to use to pasteurize and bottle their milk or make soft cheeses and ice cream. The room could also be used to bottle fruit juice. Wright said she does not know of another dairy room like this one in the country.
“Dairy farmers have been hit really, really hard,” Wright said. “You either get really, really big and sell to the big markets or you go out of business and you lose your multigenerational farm.”
The goal is for this dairy room to provide a third option for those farmers by allowing them to make their own products. Wright said the food hub is trying to make it easier for people to start their own businesses.
“To start a small business now—very expensive, not easy to do,” Wright said, “so we try to help to lower that first step to help more area people start a small business, then hopefully open their own storefront in downtown to, you know, get the downtown business going again.”
Several producers were on hand Thursday to serve up samples, of local vegetables, egg salad, sausage balls, cheesecake, and other sweet and savory foods.
The Southern Virginia Makers Market is open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and after events at the Colonial Center.