Virginia Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services awards more than US$500,000 in USDA funds to 18 projects that will promote, enhance competitiveness of state's specialty crops

RICHMOND, Virginia , November 2, 2011 (press release) – The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) has announced funding for eighteen agriculture-related projects that will promote and enhance the competitiveness of Virginia’s specialty crops. The projects resulted from the competitive grant process established by VDACS for USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Specialty Crop Block Grant funds.

“These grants represent a half-million dollar investment in Virginia’s economy that will boost economic development and create agribusiness jobs in the state,” said Matthew J. Lohr, VDACS Commissioner. “This year’s recipients are a diverse group of very innovative projects that include marketing, development, research and engineering projects, all of which are designed to increase the competitiveness of specialty crops in Virginia. I congratulate these individuals, educational institutions and organizations for advancing ideas that will help growers add value and enhance market opportunities across Virginia.”

The Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act of 2004 authorized the USDA to provide funds to the states to promote specialty crops including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and nursery crops. When considering grants for the USDA Specialty Crop Program, VDACS gave priority to projects that included the following activities: assisting farmers in transitioning into specialty, high value agricultural initiatives that address the eligible specialty crops; increasing net farm income through high-value or value-added enterprises; finding new ways to market or to add value to specialty agricultural products; and developing pilot and demonstration programs in specialty agriculture that have the potential for transferability within rural Virginia.

VDACS is awarding grants totaling $520,641.89 for the following projects:

Research-Based Response to the Invasion of Mid-Atlantic Tree Fruit Orchards by the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, James Christopher Bergh, Virginia Tech, Alson H. Smith, Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC), Winchester – This collaborative project involving Virginia Tech and USDA entomologists seeks to provide a response to the immediate needs of tree fruit producers and long-term, sustainable solutions to the unprecedented threat posed by this invasive species.

Sustainable Nitrogen Management for Fresh Market Tomato Production, Mark S. Reiter, Virginia Tech, Eastern Shore AREC, Painter – Tomato production systems underwent drastic change in recent years with the additions of plastic mulch, drip irrigation cover crops, and hybrid varieties that resulted in substantial yield increases. As a result, current fertilizer needs are different than those that are currently recommended. The project will use two different application methods to determine nitrogen uptake and fertilizer use efficiency.

Year-round Sustainable Approach to Weed Control, Nutrient Uptake and Eater Management for Nursery Production, Jeffrey Derr, Virginia Tech, Hampton Roads AREC, Virginia Beach - Currently, there are no adopted sustainable practices to control broadleaf and grassy weeds in nursery production, especially for production of perennials. This project will develop a sustainable weed control system for broadleaf and grassy weeds that reduces annual herbicide applications and is economically beneficial to the grower; determine which mulch species helps retain pot moisture and reduce evaporation losses, thus decreasing required irrigation volumes; determine potential for reduced pesticide leaching and off-site movement in the mulch system; quantitatively measure and document reductions in herbicide use due to mulch use and improve fertilizer uptake efficiencies and reduce nutrient loss by using the mulch system.

Mount Rogers Area Christmas Tree Growers Association Genetically Improved Seed Orchard, Charlie Conner, Mount Rogers Area Christmas Tree Growers Association, Whitetop – The Association has been involved in the management and production of Fraser fir seed for 31 years. The new grant will be used to identify genetically superior trees, collect scion material from these trees and graft it on to the root stock. Researchers also will conduct long-term fertility work and establish a protective tree border of red spruce.

Understanding the Biology of the Invasive Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) and Management Strategies for Vegetables, Thomas P. Kuhar, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg - In some areas of the state, this pest caused unprecedented damage to tree fruit and vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes, beans and sweet corn. The goals of this project are to determine the role of winter climate and surrounding habitat on the population ecology of BMSB and to develop management strategies to minimize crop losses in vegetables.

Establishment of Virginia Wine Grape Vineyards Using Organic Production Methods, Michael Brandt, Virginia State University, Ettrick – This project will establish two vineyards for research purposes, one in Winchester to analyze fungal disease resistance of new varieties as well as the potential for established varieties to be managed utilizing organic fungicides and a second in Chesterfield County to conduct a general trial of new disease resistant varietals comparing standard industry practices and organic management.

Collection and Validation of Environmental Data for Grape and Apple Disease Risk Assessment System, Mizuho Nita, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg - This project is a subset of an on-going project that is to establish an online, map-based disease risk assessment system for major fungal and bacterial diseases of grapes and apples in Virginia. The objective is to evaluate the quality of data from the NOAA and to develop a model to substitute leaf wetness measurement, which is often used in plant disease models, but not available in regular weather data.
Profitable Cilantro Production in Virginia, Kevin Semones, Virginia Pumpkin Growers Association, Hillsville – Cilantro appears to have significant potential as an excellent money-making crop for Southwest Virginia producers, but there is no suitable, affordable planter available. The Association will lease a five-row vacuum machine planter for two growing seasons. If farmers are able to plant the crop properly, the Association believes that producers can see net returns in the range of $2,500 to $5,000 per acre.

Facilitating the Adoption of GAP, GHP and GMP Plans in Virginia through the Development of Planning Tools and the Coordination of Outreach Education, Kathlyn Terry, Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), Abingdon – The Appalachian Harvest (AH) enterprise, run by ASD, will obtain GMP and GHP certification with the goal of documenting processes and standard operating procedures, resulting in a manual to be used in training sessions for regional efforts to certify packing sheds and medium and large scale farms. ASD will also set up a
Post Harvest Training Site that will be used to conduct hands-on training sessions with AH and other growers in the region. Finally, ASD will provide technical support and area consultants, networking with Virginia Cooperative Extension, to assist local and regional farmers with on-farm washing and packing of local produce.

Determining the Feasibility of Designing and Operating a Multi-use Food Processing Facility in Central Virginia, Chris Cook, Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability, Richmond – The Bountiful Blue Ridge Planning Group seeks to determine the feasibility of designing, developing and operating a multi-use cannery/food processing facility in Central Virginia. This study will help determine whether a food processing center will be a valuable, sustainable infrastructure component of Central Virginia’s local food/agriculture network. The study whether a facility can become economically viable, strengthen the local food system, help address the needs of food insecure families, create jobs, inform and encourage healthier food choices and whether it can provide Virginia’s farmers with a fair, local market for specialty and other crops.

Cider Apple and Cider Production Feasibility Study, Maureen Kelley, Nelson County – This project seeks to overcome the limited availability of hard cider apples in Virginia by exploring the economics of producing hard cider and hard cider apples and assembling valuable technical information relating to producing this specialty crop. Ultimately, the project will increase acreage of specialized hard cider apple varieties grown in Virginia and increase the volume of Virginia apples used for hard cider.
Sustaining Organic Blueberry Production: Analysis of Practices and Assessing Outcomes, Roman J. Miller, Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Harrisonburg – By integrating academic discovery through collaborative research experiences of faculty and undergraduate students from EMU, this project seeks to document best organic agricultural practices that enhance sustainable profitable blueberry production. Optimal blueberry growth will be determined via foliar analyses of plant nutrients, plant vigor characteristics—growth measurements, photosynthesis and respiration, and ultimately through the quality and quantity of produced berries. An economically sustainable organic blueberry production model system will help area farmers diversify their current agricultural systems.

Developing, Teaching and Promoting Sustainable and Organic Growing Practices at Maple Hill Educational Farm, Marisa Vrooman, Local Food Hub, Inc., Charlottesville – Local Food Hub will maintain a SPIN (“Small Plot Intensive”) plot to demonstrate how to yield a large volume of organically grown produce on very little land. They will offer hands-on workshops on sustainable crop planning, organic pest management and season extension. Finally, they will refine their Farm Site Visit Program, through which they provide partnering farmers with personalized consultations about growing, conservation and business practices. These programs will help Specialty Crop Producers implement organic and sustainable farming practices and increase production of specialty crops, thereby becoming more profitable and competitive. Local Food Hub will also develop the next generation of Specialty Crop Producers through apprenticeships and internships.

Commercial Greens Production in Underused Industrial Sites in Martinsville, Jeffery Fields, Patrick Henry Community College, Martinsville – The primary goal of this study is to develop a sustainable system in existing vacated buildings that is capable of producing a product that meets consumer demands of a high quality fresh vegetable to be marketed into a local food network of markets and restaurants. The result of this study may provide an industry evolution using agriculture production to provide employment for growers, packers, salespersons and distributors from a population with an extremely high unemployment rate.

Ensuring Future Farm Profits with Innovative Specialty Crop Education Opportunities, Kelly J. Liddington, Northern Neck Vegetable Growers Association (NNVGA), Warsaw - This project proposes a two-pronged approach to continuing education and networking for NNVGA producer members to increase future profitability through a keen understanding of buyers’ needs and wants. The Produce Marketing Association convention in Atlanta will provide a forum for members to make important business contacts with potential buyers. They also will be able to participate in the educational programs that will help bring them up to par with producers from other regions. The second prong of the educational effort will bring in product development and value-added specialists for the NNVGA’s annual meeting. These educational and networking opportunities will boost producer confidence to grow and market new specialty crops.
Promoting Specialty Crops in Virginia, Elizabeth Borst, The Farmers Market Quin Rivers, Inc., New Kent – This project’s goal is to increase sales of fresh, local specialty crops to low-income populations, improving food access to undeserved communities. It will promote the competitiveness of specialty crops sold at the Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and King George Farmers Markets and benefit 65 specialty crop producers. Objectives include creating a targeted, multilingual community marketing plan and materials to increase awareness and consumption of specialty crops by SNAP clients; providing on-site staff resources and program oversight for SNAP redemption at three Farmers Markets and demonstrating the effectiveness of matching incentives or bonus tokens at driving SNAP shoppers to use the famers markets.

Phase II, Marketing Expansion Initiative Promoting Virginia Grown Christmas Trees, Jeff B. Miller, Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association, Waynesboro – This project will develop supporting activities that will expand the relationships between growers and buyers, further educate both groups and promote the sales of Christmas trees and other Virginia grown and/or produced specialty products. The Association will add a winter meeting to its annual calendar in order to share marketing experiences from the most recent holiday season in a more timely manner. They also will update and upgrade the Association website and will purchase banners and static displays that identify and promote Virginia grown products at expos, annual meetings and points of sale.

Buying Virginia Grown Produce: Workshops for Private Schools, Senior Centers and other Community Institutions, Douglas C. Larson, Piedmont Environmental Council, Warrenton – There is growing momentum among both producers and buyers to incorporate Virginia grown specialty crops into meals offered by private schools, senior nutrition centers, independent living communities, food service contractors and others. PEC will host a series of four workshops that will help participants identify opportunities to incorporate Virginia grown fruits and vegetables. They will survey participants twice after the workshop series to determine if purchases of local fruits and vegetables are increasing. PEC will also share the curriculum with other organizations that want to purchase more Virginia Grown specialty crops.

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