2016 a record year for Food City's support of local farmers

J. H. Osborne • Mar 10, 2017 at 8:00 PM

ABINGDON, Va. — In 2016 Abingdon-based grocer Food City purchased more than $6 million of locally-grown produce, up about 11 percent over 2015’s total — and roughly 12-fold the $500,000 purchased in 2000, the year the chain initiated its focus on local farmers. That made 2016 a record year for the program, K-VA-T President and CEO Steve Smith said Thursday.

K-VA-T is the parent corporation of Food City, which operates stores in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

Smith revealed the numbers as he and other Food City officials hosted an annual luncheon for the local farmers the chain works with in what Bucky Slagle, the company’s director of produce/floral described as a “win-win” partnership.

The chain’s local produce program took root in Weber City, Va., 17 years ago, Slagle said.

“Our company has a long history of working with local farmers,” Slagle said. “Back in 2000, Mr. Jack Smith leased a location in Weber City to the farmers so they would have a place to sell their local product. In the stores we started with just a few Grainger County tomatoes. And today we buy from over 50 farmers in the states of Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky. So, we’ve come a long way with your help.”

As examples of how the program has flourished, Slagle pointed out that in 2016 Food City purchased over 100 acres of tomatoes from Grainger County, Tenn.; and almost  80 acres of corn and  60 acres of half-runner beans from Unicoi, Tennessee.

“We’re very proud to support the local growers,” Slagle said. “We’re very, very excited to do that. Thanks for helping us bring the freshest of fresh product to our customers. It’s pretty neat to be able to tell a consumer ... a tomato they are purchasing in our store may have literally been on the vine less than 24 hours before they are purchasing that product. It doesn’t get much fresher than that. And it’s a win-win. Our customers get fresh, fresh product and the money they’re spending is staying right in the communities where they live and where we operate stores. So that is fantastic and we want to continue to grow that.”

A vital factor in promoting the program, Slagle said, is “field tours” during which managers and staff from Food City’s produce departments visit  partner farms to learn about what each grows and a bit of each farm’s history. Being able to share that information with customers in their stores has  been a touchstone of the program, Slagle said.

“Thank you for your partnerships, it’s truly what makes our locally-grown produce program a success,” Slagle said.

The luncheon culminated with Smith’s announcement of the newest recipient of the annual Wayne Scott Memorial Grower of the Year Award.

Smith said the award is named for Scott in honor of his outstanding leadership and dedication to local farming.

This year’s recipient (for 2016) is Ricky Berrier, a Food City local produce partner for more than 11 years.

Berrier is a sixth-generation farmer at family-owned Berrier Farms in Cana, Va.

“I read this the other day and I had to think about that just a little bit,” Smith said before Berrier’s name was revealed to luncheon attendees. “Sixth-generation farmer: cultivating the same land where his great-great-great-grandfather planted his first crop in 1853. That’s a ‘wow!’ This local grower grew up in a farmhouse in the middle of the farm, picking the crop in a sand pail as a youngster. He later graduated to metal buckets, splitting the $15 weekly paycheck with his older brother. During the summer months he picked the crop every morning and stapled cardboard boxes each afternoon in preparation for the next day’s picking. He moved to the packing house in the fall, piling 40-pound, bushel boxes into his family’s one-ton Chevrolet truck.Sometimes, he would stay up late and hitch a ride, with his grandfather, to the produce warehouse in Winston-Salem, N.C., where they delivered the crop just after midnight so local buyers could choose from among the freshest produce in the morning. The midnight rides were a great advantage for a kid and a perfect chance to absorb his Popaw’s  bits of wisdom — and he often got a free breakfast out of the deal.”

After finishing college, Barrier taught school for several years. Then, in 1998, he embraced partnering with his father in the thriving family orchard business. Hoping to expand, Barrier quickly added peach trees to the farm — and he shares credit for his success with it his family’s involvement, including the continued participation of his father, along with that of his wife and daughters.

Smith asked Berrier to explain a little about his life as a farmer and turning to it as a full-time profession after going to college and teaching school.

Berrier said having grown up around the business, he knew of course there’s a lot of manual labor involved, but what he’d learned in the last 20 years is running a farm now means lots of management and paperwork.

“I was teacher for seven years and I said ‘ well, I’m looking forward to getting away from the paperwork,’” Berrier said. “And now, as a farmer, I’m doing more paperwork than I ever did when I was teaching in the ‘90s. It’s definitely a business.It’s something that’s ... in my blood, I love it, I can put up with the hassles of things that go on just to continue to do what I do. I love it. I absolutely do.”

Speaking with reporters afterward, Berrier was asked to put a value on Food City’s buying his produce.

“Food City saved our business,” Berrier said.

A final comment?

“Thank God for his blessings on us,” Berrier said.

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