The event featured speeches by Virginia Agriculture Secretary Robert Blockson and Virginia Tobacco Commission member Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City.
The insulated 15,000-square-foot metal- shell building is the central grading and transportation depot for Appalachian Sustainable Development’s Appalachian Harvest brand of organic produce and free-range eggs. The $750,000 building was funded in part by a $450,000 grant from the Tobacco Commission.
Appalachian Harvest is a network of more than 60 certified organic family farmers in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee who have come together to make locally grown, organic produce available in area supermarkets. Many of those farming for Appalachian Harvest previously grew tobacco.
The organization’s original facility, a converted barn in Stickleyville, burned down in May 2007 due to an electrical problem and more than 40,000 wax-coated cardboard boxes. From that time until earlier this year, the packing and grading was done at a temporary facility in Hiltons.
While the fire did cause some worry, ASD Executive Director Anthony Flaccavento said his organization and the farmers it assists have come out better in the long run.
“The new building is about 50 percent bigger than the one before and the location is a more central location with better access roads to get in and out,” he said. “You’re close to Lee County and you’re not far from southern Wise county. You’re also close to Hawkins and Sullivan counties in Tennessee, so it’s really central to all of our growers.
“It turned out to be a perfect transition and bought us some time to figure out a plan, find a spot, negotiate on the land, raise the money. We had a little time to do that and we were pretty lucky.”
While not completely finished, Flaccavento said one of the building’s two walk-in coolers is fully operational, along with the grading and cleaning lines.
In the coming month, ASD hopes to add new software to help the plant run more smoothly and geothermal heating and cooling — a move that should bring energy costs down drastically, he said.
Although the building itself is a simple metal warehouse, Flaccavento said it will be one of the most important aspects of the success of the Appalachian Harvest brand and the farmers behind it.
“Without this packing facility, we would have no way of connecting with our buyers,” Flaccavento said. “They have to have some kind of consistency of size, look and quality and that is what we do there. They all meet the same standards, they’re certified organic, they’re the same ripeness, quality and size.
“That’s really a building block and an essential first step for us.”
ASD’s efforts to bring locally grown produce to area grocery shelves will be highlighted this weekend on the Weather Channel’s Forecast Earth program. The episode, which focuses on Barbara Kingsolver’s best-selling book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” will feature the organization as part of a “grass-roots green” segment.
According to producer and anchor Natalie Allen, the show hopes to give an in-depth examination of ASD’s movement to support local, sustainable farming practices. The episode airs this Saturday at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and again at 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. on Sunday.