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Behind The Scenes At The Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction

Randi B. Hagi

If you live in the Shenandoah Valley and you enjoy fresh veggies, there’s a good chance that the tomatoes, green onions or squash on your plate came through the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction.  WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Charlie Martin grew up on the 57-acre farm just outside of Bridgewater where he now grows produce and feed corn, and keeps 6,000 chickens for hatchery egg production. His grandfather bought it in the early 1930's, and Martin bought it from his father in 1978.

The land around him has changed a lot over the decades, with rows of homes being built closer and closer as Bridgewater's population grew. But Martin doesn't harbor any ill will towards them.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Charlie Martin farms near Bridgewater and helped found the nearby produce auction.

CHARLIE MARTIN: Sell the best, eat the rest, or give it away. That's my motto. And with my neighbors, housing developments coming in, if I can't beat 'em, feed 'em!

REPORTER: Oh yeah, so you've seen all this get built, huh?

MARTIN: Absolutely. All around me was farm ground.

Feeding his neighbors has clearly won them over – as we talked by the tomatoes, people biking and driving by would periodically honk and wave.

MARTIN: The produce is a very stable income. It's not, well, it's a little hard to say – [car honks, Martin waves] Your chickens are more consistent, because they're in a controlled climate. They're in housing. You're guaranteed so much for your eggs, as long as you take reasonable good care of them … Where produce, there's a lot of variables.

Martin used to sell the bulk of his produce to a grocery store in Bridgewater. That was before he and a group of other farmers in the area started the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction – which is now his preferred place to sell.

MARTIN: I would not want to go anywhere else. It all gets sold!

[sounds at the auction]

The auction is housed in a giant sort of open-air warehouse in Rockingham County, west of Dayton. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, growers drop off their wares, which then get auctioned off to buyers who come from roadside stands, grocery stores, and the occasional restaurant.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Jeff Heatwole is the auction's manager.

JEFF HEATWOLE: Back before 2005, there was not much for roadside stands or the like in the Valley, in Rockingham County especially.

Jeff Heatwole is the auction manager.

HEATWOLE: … and so the produce auction has really allowed them to have the opportunity to get the wide range of produce they need to be able to sell that way, so that in and of itself has grown a little segment of the economy in a way, here in the Shenandoah Valley, because it's a readily available, wide variety of local produce.

On a Thursday morning in June, buyers clustered around trollies brimming with hothouse tomatoes, green onions, kohlrabi, and squash. This auction season, demand appears to be back to normal after a real bumper year in 2020. Heatwole said that roadside stands and outdoor markets were more appealing than going inside stores for many people at the beginning of the pandemic.

HEATWOLE: The demand last year was just off the charts high for us. So yeah, we had an incredible year, actually.

One of the auction's long-standing buyers is Cy Khochareun, who along with his family, owns the Harrisonburg restaurants BEYOND and Taste of Thai, and the Oriental Food Market. One of the things he loves most about the auction is that it reminds him of the community atmosphere that developed around his father's lumber business back in Laos.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Ty Khochareun, Cy's 16-year-old son, trains in the kitchen at BEYOND.

CY KHOCHAREUN: … And when the Vietnam War came, when North Vietnam took over South Vietnam, it kind of spread to Laos and Cambodia. So we escaped from Laos to Thailand in 1980. We lived in a refugee camp for close to two years, and then we [came as] refugees here, to Northern Virginia, in 1981.

He also likes to be able to inspect the produce before he buys – something you can't do when ordering from a corporate supplier.

KHOCHAREUN: Being a chef, being a business owner, you always want to look for what the customer wants … we're also looking for quality, and that's really important to us. So like we buy onion this time of year, cabbage, broccoli. It's really fresh, really good quality there.

And those fresh veggies make it into the recipes at BEYOND and Khochareun’s other eateries – such as their spicy tuna sushi roll, which has fresh cucumber and green onion. A few blocks away, at the Friendly City Food Co-op, you can buy auction produce for yourself – including nectarines and green beans.

Friendly City Food Co-op is a financial supporter of WMRA.

Dietrich Ewing is the produce team leader at the co-op.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Dietrich Ewing is the produce team leader at the Friendly City Food Co-op.

DIETRICH EWING: When I started out, it's really intimidating because there's a lot of buyers there, and things go really quick, because there's tons of stuff there, and so the auctioneer wants to zip through it. So at first it was just like, 'what am I buying? How many am I buying?' And you end up with, like, 'okay, I got these 20 things of cucumbers.' Now it's like, I go in with a plan and I kind of know what I'm going to get.

Most of the co-op's produce comes from certified organic farms, but the majority of farmers who sell at the auction use conventional practices. But local produce doesn't have to be shipped across the country or continent, and Ewing said that sometimes he can find items at the produce auction early in the season, or more reliably.

EWING: The farmers that I buy from there, if I buy from them regularly, I try to talk to them and kind of figure out what their growing practices are.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.