Grants come from the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Several recently awarded grants are positioning the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) and the Virginia Tech (VT)-IALR CEA Innovation Center to increase support for agribusinesses in Southern Virginia and conduct critical research in the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) sector. These funds will allow the development of a food system initiative, the offering of affordable testing services for the CEA industry, and research into the impact of beneficial bacteria in CEA environments.
IALR was awarded two grants totaling approximately $250,000 from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRRC) along with $100,000 from an anonymous donor that will allow the creation of two new positions and the development and implementation of new services. A Specialty Crop Block Grant from VDACS revolves around the use of technology and biostimulants to enhance and promote Virginia’s specialty crops.
“This funding will position IALR to conduct more innovative research, empower regional producers to distribute their products, and provide critical testing services for the CEA industry. Each of these initiatives, which are only possible due to dynamic partnerships and intentional support from organizations like VDACS and the Tobacco Commission, directly relate to our mission of driving economic transformation.” — IALR President Telly Tucker
“Supporting the agricultural economy of Southern and Southwest Virginia has always been a top priority for the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission since it was first created nearly 25 years ago. Like many industries, agriculture is becoming increasingly advanced and so the Commission is proud to partner with IALR to ensure that Virginia farmers can meet the challenges, and reap the rewards, of advancements in fields like controlled environment agriculture and more. At the end of the day, the Commission is committed to creating new revenue streams and increasing incomes for our farmers and producers. These projects will do just that and I am pleased that the Commission chose to support them.” — Tobacco Commission Acting Executive Director James E. Campos
CEA Testing and Outreach
To address common issues CEA producers face, the Virginia Tech-IALR CEA Innovation Center will establish third-party product/method evaluation and testing services for CEA companies. Additionally, staff will expand outreach efforts by providing educational materials to growers. This project will provide assistance and information to benefit small, medium and large CEA producers and suppliers.
“Part of our mission at the CEA Innovation Center is to build partnerships with industry to advance CEA in VA. Through conversations with industry members, the need for a testing service was identified. This grant will allow us to meet that need by working with industry to evaluate products and ideas under greenhouse and vertical farm conditions.” — Dr. Kaylee South, Assistant Professor of Controlled Environment Agriculture, Virginia Tech School of Plant and Environmental Sciences
IALR will hire a research technician to manage these testing services. The TRRC granted $145,841 towards this initiative. Virginia Tech is also providing funds to install a Postdoctoral research position.
Value Chain Coordination
To help diversify agribusiness and increase net farm output in Southern Virginia, IALR will establish a robust local food system that connects producers and farmers with institutional buyers, food hubs and other purchasers.
Many farmers lack the time and resources to promote their goods to potential customers. Simultaneously, many large institutional buyers would like to offer local produce, meat and dairy to their employees and visitors, but they would prefer not to interact with each farmer individually. This food system will facilitate those interactions.
“An overarching focus of Applied Research at IALR is to help diversify agribusiness in Southern Virginia and increase net farm income, profitability and opportunity for new and existing farms of all sizes. This grant will allow us to meet that goal with the addition of a value chain coordinator to help create a robust local food system where farmers’ price points are met while local consumers gain greater access to their products. This will be a unique, impactful program that fits squarely into IALR’s mission of economic transformation for Southern Virginia.” — Dr. Scott Lowman, Vice President, Applied Research IALR
IALR will hire a Value Chain Coordinator to manage the implementation of this food hub. TRRC awarded $104,452 toward this initiative. An anonymous donation of $100,000 will also support this initiative.
Specialty Crop Block Grants
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin announced $550,000 in Specialty Crop Block Grant Funding at the end of October, and two of those grants were for research happening at IALR. Dr. Sajeewa Amaradasa, Senior Scientist at IALR, and Dr. Kaylee South, an Assistant Professor of CEA within Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences who works with the CEA Innovation Center, received the grants.
Dr. Amaradasa will be researching the use of endophytes – beneficial bacteria that live inside plants and help plants grow better and tolerate stress – in the growth of strawberries in soilless systems. This research outcome would help growers increase profits in hydroponically grown strawberries by using growth-promoting bacteria.
Dr. South, Dr. Michael Evans, and other Virginia Tech researchers will develop and evaluate the use of biofungicides for the control of common diseases in CEA production. This goal will be fulfilled by developing and assessing RNAi-based biofungicides targeting grey mold in strawberry production and downy mildew in spinach production.
Specialty Crop Block Grant program funding is authorized annually by the 2018 Farm Bill. 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.
The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research serves Virginia as a regional catalyst for economic transformation with applied research, advanced learning, advanced manufacturing, conference center services and economic development efforts. IALR’s primary footprint focuses within Southern Virginia, including the counties of Patrick, Henry, Franklin, Pittsylvania, Halifax and Mecklenburg along with the cities of Martinsville and Danville.
About the Tobacco Commission Revitalization Commission
The Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission is a 28-member body created by the 1999 General Assembly. Its mission is the promotion of economic growth and development in formerly tobacco-dependent communities, using proceeds of the national tobacco settlement. To date, the Commission has created tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in Southern and Southwest Virginia.