Two projects to promote specialty crop production funded for Painter Experiment Station

November 2, 2023
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Corn
Grants support projects that advance specialty crop production and increase economic development in Virginia 

Governor Glenn Youngkin  announced more than $550,000 in federal Specialty Crop Block Grant Program funding has been awarded to seven agricultural-related projects to help promote and enhance the competitiveness of Virginia’s specialty crops.

“This grant funding supports research and technological advancements that enhance the competitiveness of Virginia’s specialty crops while also helping to create new market opportunities for agricultural producers. I am also pleased that several of these projects will help to further position the Commonwealth as the leader in controlled environment agriculture,”said Governor Glenn Youngkin. “These grants represent over a half-million-dollar investment in Virginia’s economy, which will boost economic development and create jobs in agriculture, Virginia’s largest private industry.”

Specialty crops are defined as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture. Among this round of specialty crop grant awards are projects that advance research within controlled environment agriculture, frost damage prevention, Virginia specific disease management, evaluation of in-field water treatments, and potential economic benefits of using drones for pest management.

“These grant awards are great news for Virginia producers and further Governor Youngkin’s commitment to using agriculture as a growth engine and source of jobs in rural areas. I congratulate these educational institutions and organizations for their innovative research that will not only help Virginia growers, but also add value and enhance market opportunities across the Commonwealth,” said Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Matthew Lohr.

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During this grant round, the following recipients and projects received funding:

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Dr. Vijay Singh, Painter, Va.

Use of Drone-Spray for Weed Management in Specialty Crops

The Virginia Tech Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center weed science team will evaluate the potential economic benefits of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)/drones. Current use of UAS for pest management is mainly limited to pest mapping and classification. However, with the availability of more robust UAS carrying pesticide payloads of 20-25 L, UAS has the potential to modernize agricultural fields due to lower costs, greater coverage capacity, and flexibility (e.g., working while soil is wet or when crop plants are tall) compared to AI-based agricultural robots and tractors. Virginia Tech’s previous research on soybean and corn showed that these technologies can provide higher efficacy of the herbicides that are applied. UAS-based herbicide applications showed 30% higher efficacy of postemergence herbicides compared to backpack spray applications. This higher pesticide efficacy alone can lead to estimated savings of $10-25 per acre in the eastern shore region, apart from 80-90% herbicide saving with spot spray applications. These technologies have not been tested for specialty crops, and operational conditions of drones may change based on canopy size, crop morphology, and herbicide label. This study will provide efficacy and economic data on UAS based spray in two crops: tomatoes and Cole crop (broccoli).

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Dr. Douglas S. Higgins, Painter, Va.

Virginia Specific Disease Management Strategies to Protect Sweet Corn Seedlings

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Seed rot and seedling blight remains a constant threat for Virginia’s sweet corn producers. Stand reductions over 50% and stunted plants with low vigor are common in affected sweet corn, especially in the popular super sweet type hybrids and early plantings. Seed treatment with combinations of different fungicides are the most cost-effective means to manage these pathogens. The composition of pathogens affecting Virginia sweet corn is expected to differ from other sweet corn production regions. The objectives of this project are to identify fungicide seed treatments that are most beneficial for Virginia growers and to determine which soilborne pathogen species are most common in the state’s soils. Specific disease management recommendations for protecting sweet corn seedlings in Virginia will be disseminated to growers using written and oral extension outreach methods.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Dr. Laura Strawn, Blacksburg, Va.

Validating In-Field Water Treatments to Enhance Produce Safety

Virginia Tech will validate in-field water treatments to enhance produce safety for specialty crop farms. These findings will directly support Virginia specialty crop producers by generating data on the efficacy of in-field water treatments and how farms can monitor, verify and validate their use as a mitigation strategy to control contamination risks. Results will be communicated to stakeholders through extension activities at grower meetings, fact sheets/presentations, and Virginia-hosted Produce Safety Alliance Grower Trainings. Food safety programs, including Good Agricultural Practices and the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule, address water usage on-farm with a combination of risk assessments, standards, or metrics. Water treatment may be required at specific times or used as a mitigation when water is not safe or is not of adequate sanitary quality for intended uses. EPA chemical treatments of preharvest water will be investigated and validated for their reduction of microbial indicators (e.g., E. coli) or pathogens (e.g., Salmonella). This study will produce a generation of in-field water treatment data, which will allow growers to reduce contamination from water usage on-farm.

River City Flower Exchange Cooperative Inc., Justine McFarland, Richmond, Va.

Increasing Sustainability and Competitiveness of Virginia’s Floriculture Industry by Improving Efficiency and Reducing Distribution Costs

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The River City Flower Exchange Cooperative (RCFEC) will continue to increase public awareness and enhance the competitiveness of Virginia’s floriculture industry through increased access to sustainably grown flowers by developing an efficient and cost-effective delivery and outpost model. RCFEC has demonstrated success in the Richmond area for locally grown flowers and there is demand in the Tidewater, Northern and Central Virginia areas for locally grown flowers that the current farm members of RCFEC cannot meet. The value of collaboration and aggregation is demonstrated with RCFEC’s current collective model. RCFEC will extend the efficiencies of distribution through centralized regional locations to flower farming groups such as the Central Virginia Flower Collective and the Blue Ridge Flower Exchange, and to individual flower farms looking to streamline their offerings and reduce their distribution costs. This effort would greatly increase the competitiveness of Virginia’s floriculture industry.

Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, Dr. B. Sajeewa Amaradasa, Danville, Va.

Increase Yield in Greenhouse Soilless Strawberry Using Growth Promoting Bacteria

The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR), in partnership with Virginia Cooperative Extension, industry leaders, and growers, will contribute to increasing greenhouse soilless strawberry yield by utilizing growth promoting bacteria. IALR will specifically use beneficial bacterial endophytes, which live inside plants and help plants grow better, tolerate stress conditions, and fight diseases. IALR will use different strawberry cultivars and promising bacterial endophytes in a controlled environment agriculture facility to decipher which cultivar and endophyte combinations give better yield. This research outcome would help growers increase profits in hydroponically grown strawberry by using growth promoting bacteria. Results will be disseminated by organizing grower tours at the institute and using Virginia Tech extension specialists.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Dr. Kaylee South, Danville, Va.

Next-Generation Biofungicides for Application in Controlled Environment Agriculture

Virginia Tech researchers will develop and evaluate the use of biofungicides for the control of common diseases of food crops produced in controlled environment agriculture, which is limited in the number of pesticides that can be utilized. This goal will be fulfilled by developing and evaluating RNAi-based biofungicides targeting grey mold in strawberry production and downy mildew in spinach production. Results of this project will be disseminated to stakeholders through publications and presentations.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Dr. Sherif M. Sherif, Winchester, Va.

Preserving Apples in the Face of Frost: Evaluating the Efficacy of Cryoprotectants

Spring frost represents a formidable abiotic stressor that poses a significant economic threat to fruit production worldwide. The annual cost of spring frost and freeze damage reaches millions of dollars, and climate change is projected to exacerbate the situation. Agrochemical companies have developed cryoprotectants that are believed to help prevent frost damage by increasing solute concentration and lowering the freezing point of intracellular fluids. There is limited scientific evidence of their effectiveness in fruit crops, particularly apple trees in the Mid-Atlantic region. Virginia Tech will investigate the impact of cryoprotectants on apple trees in the Mid-Atlantic region to advance the development of more practical and cost-effective strategies for reducing the adverse effects of spring frosts on apple production. The deployment of frost protectants is expected to augment the cold tolerance of buds, providing significant benefits to horticulture industry stakeholders.

Specialty Crop Block Grant program funding is authorized annually by the 2018 Farm Bill. Fiscal year 2023 funding is awarded for a three-year period beginning Sept. 30, 2023. The awards resulted from a competitive grant process established by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) for funding provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. As grants for the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant program were considered, VDACS gave priority to projects that included the following activities:

  • Assist farmers transitioning into specialty, high-value agricultural initiatives that address the eligible specialty crops.
  • Increase net farm income through high-value or value-added enterprises.
  • Find new ways to market or add value to specialty agricultural products.
  • Develop pilot and demonstration programs in specialty agriculture that have the potential for transferability within rural Virginia.

For more information, please visit the Virginia’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program website or contact [email protected].

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