VSU Makes It Easier for Urban Farmers to Get Certified

Dr. Leonard Githinji, VSU's Urban Agriculture Extension Specialist, is spearheading the new academic-based certification program to help urban farmers and educators successfully grow safe food in an urban environment, while increasing their marketability in this growing field.

Dr. Leonard Githinji, VSU’s Urban Agriculture Extension Specialist, is spearheading the new academic-based certification program to help urban farmers and educators successfully grow safe food in an urban environment, while increasing their marketability in this growing field.

Urban agriculture is hot. And for good reason. It can help alleviate urban food deserts, make our food as “local” and fresh as possible and decrease the “food miles” associated with long-distance transportation. From rooftop gardens and aquaponics centers in converted warehouses, to growing crops on abandoned properties, urban agriculture provides a wide range of community benefits, including closer neighborhood ties, reduced crime, education and job training opportunities, and healthy food access for low-income residents.

“That’s why,” say’s Dr. Leonard Githinji, Virginia State University’s Urban Agriculture Extension Specialist, “It’s no wonder we’re seeing a huge increase in the number of urban farms from Brooklyn to Boise and everywhere in between.”

But training hasn’t kept up with demand for these urban cowboys. As Githinji explains, a lot of non-profits, churches, businesses and municipalities are putting a great deal of resources into getting urban farms up and running. So much so that last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published an Urban Agriculture Toolkit to provide informational resources to these group leaders, many of whom have never farmed before or know a nematode from a horned toad. (For the record, a nematode is parasitic worm that often causes damage to garden crops like tomatoes and peppers. A horned toad is actually a desert lizard.)

But there’s a lot to learn, he explains, from business planning, legal issues and market development to soil quality, pest management and plant health. And while an online tool kit is a great resource, we need more science-based, boots-on-the-ground training for these urban pioneers.

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Building a better soybean

Soybeans are one of Virginia’s top crops, ranking sixth out of the commonwealth’s top 10 agricultural commodities.

Faculty members such as M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences (front), are making agriculture more profitable in the commonwealth by building a soybean that can be grown in Virginia and digested easily by nonruminants.

Faculty members such as M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences (front), are making agriculture more profitable in the commonwealth by building a soybean that can be grown in Virginia and digested easily by nonruminants.

The vast majority of the crop is processed as feed for farm animals — including cows, pigs, and chickens — which are also top products for the state.

Soybeans contain high levels of phytic acid, which stores phosphorous. When animals ingest soybeans, the phytate is broken down in the gut.

While ruminants such as cows can break down soybeans with ease, nonruminants like pigs and chickens have difficulty breaking down the high-phytate content in a traditional soybean. In addition, the waste produced by animals who consume soybeans is also high in phosphorous, which has far-reaching ramifications for bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay that are overburdened with phosphorous runoff.

M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, is one of several researchers in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences helping to produce new soybean varieties with lower levels of phytate, which in turn is more easily digested and produces less phosphorous.

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4-H’ers seek to nominate the Shenandoah Salamander as the state salamander

The Salamander Savers 4-H Club invites Delegate Bulova to attend Salamander Saturday. From left to right: Bela Kekesi, Jonah Kim, Delegate Bulova, Jacob Snawder, Gabriel Kim, Sam Kim, and Anna Kim

The Salamander Savers 4-H Club invites Delegate Bulova to attend Salamander Saturday. From left to right: Bela Kekesi, Jonah Kim, Delegate Bulova, Jacob Snawder, Gabriel Kim, Sam Kim, and Anna Kim

When Salamander Savers 4-H club went to the state capital last month, they had an idea. Why not use this opportunity to talk about what they love- salamanders! Four members of the group spoke to various delegates and senators trying to persuade them to help Salamander Savers nominate the Shenandoah Salamander as the state salamander.

Following the advice of Delegate Bulova, Salamander Savers will try again in October (when new legislation is considered), in hopes that a legislator will sponsor a bill in either the House or the Senate. In the meantime, the group will continue to do outreach programs, like Salamander Saturday on May 6 at Hidden Pond Nature Center (savethesalamanders.weebley.com), where they will talk to the public about what makes state-salamander2salamanders special and how anyone can help save the salamanders. If any other groups in Virginia are interested in helping the Salamander Savers advocate for the Shenandoah Salamander by passing out flyers, talking to your local legislators, or just telling friends, they would love your help. Please contact Anna Kim (puedosonar@gmail.com) for more information.

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Christmas Tree Primer: Cultural techniques and real-world experiences

Virginia Cooperative Extension will be holding a Christmas Tree Primer on March 31.christmas-tree-1828525_640

Attendees will get an overview of Christmas tree production techniques; identification and control methods for common Christmas tree pests and diseases; financing and market analysis; labor and liability issues; and grower experiences in Christmas tree production. Demonstrations and presentations will be given by industry professionals and Extension faculty.

The meeting will be held at the Warrenton-Fauquier Visitor Center located at 33 Calhoun Street, Warrenton, Virginia, from 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. The cost to attend is $15 and includes lunch and materials. Participants may register by contacting the Virginia Cooperative Extension Culpeper Office at 540- 727-3435 or ashawn6@vt.edu

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Looking for clues about disease affecting cattle and people

A Virginia Tech researcher is hoping to better understand a bacterium responsible for both spontaneous abortions in cattle and an inconsistent and sometimes fatal fever in humans.

Clay Caswell (left), assistant professor of bacteriology, seeks to better understand brucellosis with Ph.D. students James Budnick and Lauren Sheehan.

Clay Caswell (left), assistant professor of bacteriology, seeks to better understand brucellosis with Ph.D. students James Budnick and Lauren Sheehan.

Clay Caswell, assistant professor of bacteriology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and an affiliate of the Fralin Life Science Institute, has focused his attention on Brucella. While his colleagues at the veterinary college have spent years developing more-effective vaccines, Caswell is taking a different approach to better understand the molecular basis for Brucella infection.

Brucella lives inside a host immune cell called a ‘macrophage,’ “ said Caswell, who is studying how two small regulatory RNAs allow the bacterium to survive there. “The paradox is that it’s living inside the very cell that’s trying to destroy it.”

Caswell has received funding from the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station to characterize a novel genetic pathway linked to the bacterium’s virulence. He has also been awarded recent grants from the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health to develop the basic science needed to develop treatments in humans who are exposed through unpasteurized milk and other means.

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