DAYTON, Va. - At the wholesale produce market in this Mennonite community, farming families arrive by horse and buggy and pallets are stacked high with freshly harvested Shenandoah Valley onions, corn, green peppers and squash.
The setting evokes a simpler, pre-industrial era. In reality, small-scale farmers are experiencing growing pains as they adapt to the country's expanding diet for locally grown foods and the exacting demands of high-volume distributors of their produce.
Companies such as Sysco Corp., Whole Foods Market Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. want guaranteed volumes, set prices for an entire season and the ability to trace produce back to its source in the event of a food-related health scare, among other things.
However, such standards, and other formal trappings of the business world often conflict with the ethics and practical considerations of small-scale farmers, especially those who are deeply religious.
''They feel they are producing something as safe and secure as their relationship with the Lord,'' said David Watson of the Association of Family Farms.
Still, Amish and Mennonite and even non-religious small-scale growers in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states are mindful of the money to be made from this emerging relationship with big distributors.
And they are willing to engage in some horse trading to create business relationships.
For example, they want industry demands such as specialty boxes and company labels to be factored into their price, according to Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leo-pold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
The demand for what small-scale farmers have to offer is burgeoning. In July, Wal-Mart said it would sell $400 million worth of locally grown produce this year, making it the largest player in that market.
After studying the success of other operations, the Dayton auction, which began in May 2005, has seen its annual sales top $1 million. Eric S. Bend-feldt, an agricultural extension agent who has worked closely with the Mennonite community to get the auction up and running, said that while the agrarian-based Amish and Mennonite communities are currently grappling with the demands of a new market, they are ultimately a natural fit for the big food companies.