MASON — Robert “Bob” Barnitz, of Mason, was one of five men inducted Saturday into the West Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Hall of Fame at Jackson’s Mill.
President of Bob’s Market and Greenhouses Inc., Barnitz touts the 20 acres that comprises the market and greenhouses as “West Virginia’s biggest little farm.” Explaining that farming is defined as planting a seed and growing a plant, Barnitz said in 2013 Bob’s Market produced 128 million plug seedlings and had $17 million in gross sales.
Although Barnitz said he never dreamed his business would grow as large as it is today, he was “rooted” as a young boy into the produce and plant business. His father was a truck farmer in Letart Falls, Ohio, back in the 1920s, and was assisted by his grandfathers on both sides of the family.
The men would ship their produce by rail or on flatbed boats. After losing 75 acres of potatoes during the Depression and drought years, however, his father sold the farm in 1939 and bought a roadside market in Pomeroy.
As a young man, Bob Barnitz became involved in his dad’s produce business. He would drive a tractor-trailer to South Carolina and back up the eastern shore, selling the fruits and vegetables at retail and wholesale.
Barnitz graduated from Pomeroy High School in 1950, and attended both Ohio State and Ohio University before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 1952. There he spent four years, and attended college another year before finally rejoining his dad in the trucking business. They expanded into West Virginia, renting ground to grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and cabbage.
Barnitz left the growing business once again after getting married in 1959. He worked for Valley Bell Dairy, and later for Goodyear in Apple Grove as a lab technician.
By 1970, Barnitz had dreams of getting away from shift work, however, and bought five acres of land where the market in Mason now sits.
“I had expectations of growing enough produce for the roadside market,” Barnitz said, “and I had two small greenhouses to grow the seeds big enough to plant in the fields.”
Barnitz said he soon found growing plants inside was far superior to outside growing because there were no weeds, rain or frost to deal with.
In 1976, Barnitz left the plant. His wife, Corena, had been overseeing the market, as well as taking care of the couple’s five sons. Today, all five of those sons are employed at, and operating, the business. Barnitz said his sons are all owners through estate planning.
Barnitz credits the growth of his company to three things: producing a top quality product, giving good service to customers, and having integrity. He prides himself in that he still buys watermelons and peaches from the same family today as he did in 1972.
Bob’s Market now has retail sites in Mason and Parkersburg; Belpre and Gallipolis, Ohio; and Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Barnitz said the retail markets account for only 25 percent of the gross sales, however. Small plants and plugs are the main moneymaker for the business, followed by wholesale finished products, and then retail.
Barnitz is quick to point out that the corporation did not grow to what it is today by his hands alone. He highly credits his wife, sons, the grandchildren and daughters-in-law who work at the business, as well as employees.
Employing about 180 during peak season from January to June, Barnitz stated, “We have had many, many wonderful employees through the years.”
Barnitz concluded he loves what he does and has never regretted going into the business. At 82, Barnitz can still be found daily at the market or greenhouses.