Governor Northam Announces $1.2 Million for Virginia Specialty Crop Projects

~ Grants support 19 projects to advance specialty crop production, promote economic development ~
RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today announced the award of more than $1.2 million in United States Department of Agriculture grant funding for 19 specialty crop projects in Virginia. The project awards resulted from a competitive grant process established by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to support federally eligible specialty crops, including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and nursery crops. “Supporting research and technological advancements that enhance the competitiveness of Virginia specialty crops helps to ensure that this leading industry remains at the forefront of our economy. Furthering innovation in agriculture, the Commonwealth’s largest private industry, has positive impacts for both rural communities and consumers across Virginia,” said Governor Northam. The USDA funding, authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill ($549,487) and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (P.L. 116-260) ($731,138), provides support to activities and programs that increase demand for agricultural goods and address issues facing the specialty crop sector including food safety, plant pests and disease, research, education, and marketing and promotion. Additionally, Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 funding can be used to prioritize projects that respond to impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. “This funding furthers Governor Northam’s administration work of encouraging rural economic development and diversifying the Commonwealth’s range of agriculture products,” said Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. When considering grants for the USDA Specialty Crop Program, VDACS gave priority to projects that included the following activities:
Assisting farmers transitioning into high-value agricultural initiatives involving eligible specialty cropsIncreasing net farm income through high-value or value-added enterprisesFinding new ways to market or add value to specialty agricultural productsDeveloping pilot and demonstration programs in specialty agriculture that have the potential for transferability within rural Virginia. Grants were awarded to the following recipients and projects: 2021 Farm Bill Funding Point-of-Harvest (PoH) Continuing Education Program for Wild HarvestersAppalachian Sustainable Development, in partnership with Virginia Tech Examining the use of Biochar to Improve Lavender Disease Resistance in VirginiaVirginia Tech Establishment of a Hazelnut (Corylus avellana L.) Cultivar Trial at the Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension CenterVirginia Tech Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center in partnership with Virginia State University Improving Agronomic Traits of Edamame by Gene EditingVirginia Tech Securing Organic Vegetable Production in Virginia through Increased Disease Management KnowledgeVirginia Tech Assessing Suitable Production Techniques for Ramps in AppalachiaVirginia Tech in partnership with Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer’s Coalition, Appalachian Sustainable Development, and the U.S. Forest Service. Evaluating the Microbial Quality of High Tunnel Environments used for Produce ProductionVirginia Tech Large Scale Commercialization of Ginger Production in Virginia-Assessing its Health BenefitsVirginia Tech in partnership with Virginia State University  2021 COVID 19 Relief Funding Building a Regional Aggregation and Distribution Network in Support of Virginia Specialty Crop ProducersAppalachian Sustainable Development Improving Pest Management for Virginia Cole CropsVirginia Tech Irrigation Method Selection and Nitrogen Fertilization for Potato Production on the Eastern Shore of VirginiaVirginia Tech Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Education Center Exploring the use of Chitosan for Control of Grapevine Fungal Diseases in Virginia VineyardsWinemakers Research Exchange Utilizing Beneficial Endophytes to Promote Hydroponic Vegetable Growth and Increase ProfitabilityThe Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in partnership with Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences Making Food Safety Certification and Compliance Attainable for Virginia Farmers Facing Market and Regulatory ChangesAppalachian Sustainable Development Enhancing Public Awareness of Virginia Floriculture and the Competitiveness of Virginia Grown FlowersThe River City Flower Exchange Year of the Apple: Growing Virginia’s Hard Cider Market by Showcasing Virginia-Grown ApplesThe American Cider Association Groundwork for Development and Management of a Virginia Focused Wine Grapevine Breeding InitiativeVirginia Wineries Association Evaluation of Cellulose Nanocrystals for Frost Protection of Apple and Stone FruitsVirginia Tech Biofilm Control Strategies for Commonly Used Surfaces in Specialty Crop OperationsVirginia Tech Please see the full summary below for details Specialty Crop Block Grant Award Detail 2021 Farm Bill Funding Point-of-Harvest (PoH) Continuing Education Program for Wild HarvestersAppalachian Sustainable Development, in partnership with Virginia Tech (VT), will improve forest botanical competitiveness, sustainability, and profitability among Virginia’s wild harvesters. Partners will accomplish this by finalizing and implementing a PoH workforce development and continuing education program. Partners will certify five PoH instructors and 100 PoH wild harvesters, who will gain access to equipment and premium-priced markets for sustainably and legally harvested forest botanicals through the Appalachian Harvest Herb Hub. Examining the use of Biochar to Improve Lavender Disease Resistance in VirginiaResearchers at VT will examine the efficacy of biochar soil treatments in promoting disease-resistance in a model specialty crop system using greenhouse and field studies. This project will develop diagnostic tools and growing recommendations for lavender farmers afflicted with Phytophthora infections. This information will be shared with lavender growers via U.S. Lavender Grower newsletters, social media, and conferences. Establishment of a Hazelnut (Corylus avellana L.) Cultivar Trial at the Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension CenterThe VT Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center (SPAREC), jointly with Virginia State University, will initiate a hazelnut (Corylus avellane L.) cultivar trial in Virginia. Hazelnut is a high value specialty crop, grown primarily in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Although conditions in Virginia are ideal for hazelnut production, there are no commercial plantings because the non-commercial American hazelnut (C. americana), which is native to the region, is a tolerant host to Anisogramma anomala, the causal agent of the eastern filbert blight, a fungal disease lethal to the commercial European hazelnut (C. avellana). Hazelnut breeding programs at Oregon State University and Rutgers University have granted priority access to their new releases for the establishment of an experimental hazelnut orchard at the SPAREC. The funding will support orchard management and data collection, including development and testing of protocols for monitoring of pest and disease interactions in the new crop. Improving Agronomic Traits of Edamame by Gene EditingEdamame, also known as vegetable soybean, is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. due to its excellent nutritional value and health benefits. Most of the edamame consumed in the U.S. is imported from overseas producers. Three major factors preventing wider adoption of edamame production in Virginia is short shelf life, plant height and a longer production cycle.To address these challenges, VT is working to develop new edamame cultivars with a reduced time to reach maturity, a reduced plant height, and an improved shelf life by integrating new technologies, including the CRISPR/Cas9 mediated gene editing tool and visible informatic intelligence approach to edamame breeding. The results will improve the sustainability of commercial edamame production and benefit producers in local and regional markets in order to further strengthen and diversify agricultural economies in Virginia. Securing Organic Vegetable Production in Virginia through Increased Disease Management KnowledgeOrganic production in Virginia has grown to include over 28,000 acres and account for over $62,800,000 in value according to the USDA 2019 Organic Survey. Diseases are one of the most important limiting factors for organic vegetable production in the state. Researchers with VT’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences will conduct research objectives to determine grower needs, evaluate commercial varieties for disease resistance/tolerance, and determine the most effective fungicide/bactericides for reducing losses to disease while improving profitability. In addition, marketable yield will be determined and cost-benefit analyses will be conducted. A goal is to produce and distribute an organic disease identification guide. Results from this research will be published in industry publications and presented at grower meetings and field days. Assessing Suitable Production Techniques for Ramps in AppalachiaVT, in partnership with Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer’s Coalition, Appalachian Sustainable Development, and U.S. Forest Service, will develop sustainable propagation and production techniques for ramps (Allium tricoccum). This effort will improve the understanding of markets for cultured ramps, comparing and conserving ramp ecotypes, improving ramp production techniques, refining a site suitability model, and disseminating results to stakeholders through field days, university media and extension publications. Evaluating the Microbial Quality of High Tunnel Environments used for Produce ProductionMore than 7,000 high tunnels, 800 in Virginia, have been built across the region, since 2010, with funding support through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program. However, soil borne diseases threaten the long-term sustainability of vegetable production in high tunnels if left unchecked. VT researchers will examine environmental conditions in high tunnels within Virginia and monitor for corresponding microorganisms. This research will secure the future and improve recommendations for safe, profitable high tunnel vegetable production in the Commonwealth. Results from this research will be published in industry publications and presented at grower meetings and field days. Large Scale Commercialization of Ginger Production in Virginia-Assessing its Health BenefitsThe Small Fruit and Vegetable Program with the Cooperative Extension in partnership with the Food Chemistry and Nutrition Science Program in the Agricultural Research Station Department at Virginia State University (VSU) will promote the commercial production of fresh ginger roots among Virginia farmers. Globally, ginger continues to be an important spice with a total worldwide production of more than three million metric tons in 2017. The U.S. imports a considerable volume of ginger from different countries. Funding will provide a large scale field commercial production of ginger in Virginia. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a tropical plant and it grows under hot and humid conditions and requires a ten- to eleven-month growing season before it is fully mature and harvested for the market. Fully mature ginger is what is usually found in many supermarkets and specialty food stores. The Small Fruits and Vegetable Program at VSU has researched ginger production for the last 10 years and promoted the production and marketing of immature ginger, locally called ‘Baby-Ginger.’ Since the growing season in Virginia is only seven to eight months (April-November), it is not possible for the ginger plant to fully mature in the field. Preliminary results from a series of 2019 experiments, show that it is possible to harvest immature baby-ginger in October and store it under special conditions to allow the baby-ginger to physiologically reach full maturity, which extends its shelf life up to an additional eight months. This funding allows collaboration with a select number of Virginia farmers to implement the results from the 2019 studies at a larger scale, and to evaluate the commercial market potential. VSU will partner with I Love Produce, a large size produce wholesaler, and a major ginger importer and distributor to assist farmers with the test marketing of Virginia-grown mature ginger. 2021 COVID 19 Relief Funding Building a Regional Aggregation and Distribution Network in Support of Virginia Specialty Crop ProducersAppalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) will enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops by improving efficiency and reducing costs of distribution systems. ASD will develop aggregation sites and distribution routes that connect farmers to buyers. The system will also ensure product flow to and from aggregation sites and that buyers along distribution routes are able to purchase more local and regional produce.  Improving Pest Management for Virginia Cole CropsDiamondback Moth (DBM) and Cabbage Maggot (CM) are major pests that attack cole crops in Virginia. Managing these two destructive pests represents a significant cost for growers every season. This project will monitor different DBM populations for the presence of individuals with tolerance or resistance to current applied insecticides. This monitoring program will identify which insecticides are not providing the expected control in the field and also testing alternative control tactics for both DBM and CM, to include the use of mating disruption for DBM management and different insecticide active ingredients to replace the use of chlorpyrifos for CM. Irrigation Method Selection and Nitrogen Fertilization for Potato Production on the Eastern Shore of VirginiaThe VT Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Education Center (AREC) will evaluate drip irrigation and soil moisture water sensors as alternative irrigation methods for potato production with a goal of improving water and nitrogen efficiencies. This research will also identify potential interactions between nitrogen rates, irrigation system (overhead versus drip), and irrigation determination method (single crop coefficient versus soil moisture water sensors). Crop performance will be evaluated in terms of yield, tuber quality, plant nutritional status, crop reflectance, and net treatment economic returns. Results from this project will be disseminated to stakeholders through field days, peer-reviewed publications, incorporation into vegetable production guides, and outreach education materials available to the public through the Virginia Cooperative Extension website. Information learned and education materials developed will benefit all vegetable growers with improved irrigation and nitrogen application methodologies. 
Exploring the use of Chitosan for Control of Grapevine Fungal Diseases in Virginia VineyardsThe Winemakers Research Exchange, in collaboration with commercial wine grape growers, will test the use of chitosan for the mitigation of fungal diseases in Virginia vineyards. The study will determine if this non-toxic biopolymer application has impacts on vine health, incidence of fungal disease, grape quality, and yield. Studies will be conducted at multiple sites over two vintages. If found effective, chitosan use could lead to a decrease in the use of fungicidal sprays, improving vine and soil health as well as grape quality, leading to more sustainable and resilient farming approaches. Findings will be shared with grape growers at regional meetings and through newsletter distribution. Utilizing Beneficial Endophytes to Promote Hydroponic Vegetable Growth and Increase ProfitabilityThe Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR), in partnership with VT’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences (SPES), have established a Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) Innovation Center at IALR’s campus. This project will combine the unique skillsets of SPES and IALR to improve yield in hydroponic vegetable production by utilizing IALR’s collection of beneficial bacterial endophytes. Generally, endophytes promote plant growth, increase stress tolerance as well as fight against diseases, all of which will increase the profitability of hydroponics by increasing yield. Yields and diseases are two major challenges in hydroponic industries. During this two-year project, researchers will pragmatically test endophytes from IALR’s collection in a hydroponic system on vegetable crops, such as lettuce and spinach, in the CEA Innovation Center. The best combination of growth-promoting bacteria and biocontrol bacteria will be tested using the randomized block design. The overall outcome for the project is to increase hydroponic vegetable yield by 10-20%. If achieved, it will contribute to making year-round hydroponic production more profitable. Making Food Safety Certification and Compliance Attainable for Virginia Farmers Facing Market and Regulatory ChangesAppalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) and its partners will work collectively to heighten the competitiveness of specialty crop producers by providing food safety classroom training, one on one technical assistance and mock audits to farmers across Virginia. ASD will work with its partners to enhance and incorporate the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule requirements with the addition of three lead trainers. One hundred producers will be prepared to obtain certification should their markets shift to stricter standards and/or certifications. Sixty of these farmers will receive USDA GAP, HGAP, HGAP Plus, Primus or other food safety certification. Farmers will participate in mock audits with experts conducting 20 site visits to prepare for certification. Training materials and classroom training will also include a cross-reference checklist of current SOP’s and FDA guidelines that should be followed in the event of severe health crises such as COVID-19. Enhancing Public Awareness of Virginia Floriculture and the Competitiveness of Virginia Grown FlowersThe River City Flower Exchange will increase public awareness of Virginia floriculture and enhance the competitiveness of Virginia-grown flowers by developing and hosting educational workshops and events. The program will also develop and disseminate marketing collateral to promote Virginia-grown flowers. Year of the Apple: Growing Virginia’s Hard Cider Market by Showcasing Virginia-Grown ApplesThe American Cider Association, in partnership with VDACS, will execute and lead a strategic marketing and promotions project to grow sales of Virginia hard cider made with Virginia apples. Cider is a value-added specialty crop product made from fermented apples. Nielsen reports that cider’s retail market share is equivalent to two percent of Virginia’s beer industry, despite being home to 48 cider producers and the sixth largest state for apple production in the U.S. This project will enhance the competitiveness of ciders made with Virginia-grown apples through a “cider week” promotion, cider education and orchard tours targeting culinary professionals, and a consumer-facing year-long cider festival and punch card promotion. Groundwork for Development and Management of a Virginia Focused Wine Grapevine Breeding InitiativeThe Virginia Wineries Association will contract with the Winevine Breeding Initiative to research the steps needed to build an initiative to utilize next generation genome tools to breed new varieties that are adapted to Virginia’s growing conditions and commercial needs. In addition, the project will set up the infrastructure and partners needed to execute the initiative’s goal of breeding new varieties for Virginia and the mid-Atlantic, establish the path forward and pursue outside funding opportunities.  Evaluation of Cellulose Nanocrystals for Frost Protection of Apple and Stone FruitsSpring freezes chronically imperil the sustainable annual production of tree fruits and grapes in Virginia. Economic losses caused by frost damage can be enormous, and the risk of frost damage is projected to rise due to global climate change. In recent years, a renewable nanomaterial called cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) has emerged as an innovative tool that holds the potential to protect fruit trees from frost damages, with minimum environmental impact. However, studies on its effectiveness and suitability are scarce, especially with regards to apples and peaches. VT will comprehensively evaluate multiple aspects of using CNCs on tree fruits and pave the way for its commercial use in the coming years. CNCs are expected to increase the cold hardiness of tree buds and flowers by 2-6 °C, depending on the concentration and developmental stage. Such improvements will provide significant cold protection against spring frosts and widely benefit Virginia’s fruit growers and stakeholders.  Biofilm Control Strategies for Commonly Used Surfaces in Specialty Crop OperationsVT will develop surface specific sanitation protocols to reduce biofilms in specialty crop operations, such as operations that handle/pack apple, peach, cucumber, cantaloupe, tomato, leafy green, and berry. The research focuses on how to prevent and reduce biofilms on different surface materials commonly used in specialty crop operations, such as stainless steel, hard plastic, wood, rubber, foam, and fabric, by employing different commercial cleaning and sanitizing regimens. The ultimate outcome is development of targeted sanitation protocols for different surface types for specialty crop operations to minimize biofilms and reduce the likelihood of contamination events. Research findings will directly support the Virginia specialty crop industries by providing a better understanding of biofilm formation and prevention on a variety of surfaces used during operations. Results will be communicated to stakeholders through Produce Safety Alliance Grower Trainings and extension forums including Virginia’s Annual Tree Fruit School, grower association meetings, and Virginia Cooperative Extension fact-sheets/presentations. For more information on Virginia’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, contact VDACS’ Division of Marketing and Development at (804) 786-5448.