Tag Archives: sustainability

“Soil Health Champions” receive conservation awards

Extension Specialist Eric Bendfeldt (left) with Kevin Craun and Ryan Blosser

Extension Specialist Eric Bendfeldt (left) with Kevin Craun and Ryan Blosser

Harrisonburg, December 18, 2017 – Bridgewater brothers Kevin and Steve Craun and Augusta County farmer Ryan Blosser recently received the fourth annual Carl G. Luebben Soil Health and Water Quality Awards for their contributions to conservation in the commonwealth.

Sponsored by Houff Corporation, the award is named for Luebben, a former Houff salesman known for his passion for agronomy, sustainable systems, soil health research, 
and mentorship of conservation professionals.

The Craun brothers are fourth-generation dairymen who operate Hillview Farms, Inc., a 435-acre dairy with 150 milking cows, 150 replacement heifers, and 100 head of beef cattle in the southwestern corner of Rockingham County near Bridgewater, Virginia. They are true “soil health champions” who have a well-established cropping system, including alfalfa in the rotation, and take care to closely balance residue management to build organic matter. Other notable Best Management Practices include no-till planting, cover crops, manure storage, and side-dressing nitrogen. Numerous practices have also been installed on pastures to promote herd health, cow comfort, and forage production.

Kevin and Steve sell their beef and milk through local co-ops, which showcase locally grown food from farmers who cherish the land and its sustainability. They have opened their operation to numerous school groups, production tours, and conservation agencies to provide a closer look at these practices. The brothers also serve on various boards; Kevin is a former Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District director and board chairman.

Ryan Blosser is the owner-operator of the Dancing Star Farm, where he grows high-quality, chemical-free vegetables with limited tillage. Blosser plants highly diverse crops in permanent rows that are tilled while the rest of the soil remains untouched. The residue remaining on his fields increases organic matter, and crop rotation breaks up pest cycles without chemicals. His soil-health-building practices offer added benefits of increasing water-holding capacity and reducing runoff, leaching, and erosion. Blosser also uses a swale system to filter water, leaving it cleaner than when it entered the farm.

Blosser runs a very successful Community Supported Agriculture program on just 1.25 cultivated acres and focuses on giving back to the agricultural community. He is an executive director for Project Grows, a nonprofit group that hosts summer camps and field trips to teach children about gardening while providing food for the community. He is also involved with the Shenandoah Permaculture Institute, which teaches citizens about this form of intensively planned, environmentally restorative agriculture.

The Crauns and Blosser received their awards at the Virginia Farm to Table Conference, hosted by Virginia Cooperative Extension and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service at Blue Ridge Community College on Dec. 6, 2018. Carl’s son Dan was on hand to participate in the presentations. Carl Luebben, who died in October 2015, previously served on the Rockingham County Virginia Farm Bureau Board and the Shenandoah Valley Soil and Water Conservation District.

Eric Bendfeldt
540-432-6029, ext. 106


Communities working together

Communities in the Northern Neck knew they had a problem. Young people were leaving because of a lack of jobs, the current workforce needed additional education, and there were few opportunities for those who wanted to stay in the area.

Furniture-maker Andrew Pitts is a member of the Northern Neck Artisan Trail.

Furniture-maker Andrew Pitts is a member of the Northern Neck Artisan Trail.

Four years ago these communities took steps to improve the situation by participating in the Stronger Economies Together program, which has allowed them to build a blueprint for regional economic success.

Today, the Northern Neck is putting its plan into action by engaging partners and leveraging the strengths of this diverse region. Communities have come together to form the Northern Neck Artisan Trail, which highlights the creative talents, foods, and agricultural products of the region, and to participate in the emerging Virginia Oyster Trail. The new trail offers visitors a way to enjoy Virginia’s seven different oyster regions, as well as to experience the unique culture of watermen in the Chesapeake Bay.

The region has received grant support from the USDA and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to create the Northern Neck Loan Fund to help emerging entrepreneurs and small businesses gain access to capital. The USDA recognized the Northern Neck Economic Development Plan for its commitment to strengthening the area’s economies and identified it as a model plan for the program.

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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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Education is paramount for York/Poquoson Master Gardener volunteers

The York/Poquoson Master Gardeners are helping area residents take an active role in improving the region’s environment through community collaboration and educational outreach.

Master Gardener volunteers Merrilyn Dodson and Pete Peterman measure lawns for homeowners for the Healthy Virginia Lawns Program.

Master Gardener volunteers Merrilyn Dodson and Pete Peterman measure lawns for homeowners for the Healthy Virginia Lawns Program.

“The Master Gardener Program brings scientific-based education to the public to help improve lives through citizen outreach. Our program focuses on the needs of citizens in York and Poquoson based on resident input, environmental assessments, and innovation,” said Megan Tierney, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agriculture and natural resources agent.

For the York/Poquoson Master Gardener Program, community education is key to sustaining environmental responsibility. The program hosts several events throughout the year at which guest speakers and Master Gardener volunteers educate homeowners on topics including landscaping, pruning, beekeeping, lawn care, and native plant care.

Gwen Harris, who has been a Master Gardener in the community since 2012, explained that each program’s responsibilities and educational efforts differ depending on the region they serve.

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7 tips to keep pests – and pesticides – out of your garden

By Amer Fayad and Allen Straw

Amer Fayad is the associate director of the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab at Virginia Tech. Allen Straw is a specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension focused on horticulture, small fruit, and specialty crops.


artwork of insectsMaybe you’re one of those backyard gardeners who can’t wait to get dirt under their fingernails.

With the last-freeze date approaching in May, your motivation should be high!

Maybe this year you’ll consider doing something different – taking a step in the direction of a garden that is less toxic and more natural.

Virginia Tech experts can help you get there. The university’s agriculture scientists work overseas to prevent millions of dollars in crop damage – all by teaching practices known as integrated pest management. Closer to home, agents at Virginia Cooperative Extension work with commercial growers as well as backyard gardeners to spread some of the same seeds of knowledge.

Based on our work in Asia, Africa and Latin America – as well as the commonwealth – we’ve come up with seven top tips.

Insects are your friends. So-called beneficial insects eat the pesky six-legged creatures that feast on your veggies and fruits. Familiarize yourself with the shape and color of the garden-friendly lady beetle, lacewing larva, praying mantis, ground beetle, robber fly, assassin bug and others so that you don’t kill them by mistake. (To that end, don’t indiscriminately spread poisons around, either.) Spiders are also excellent at keeping unwanted insects at bay.

You have a lot at stake when you plant a garden, so don’t forget the stakes. Trellises, cages and stakes are great ways to keep plants and leaves from trailing on the ground, where they become vulnerable to diseases and insects. Mulch is another practical aid to keep soil off your plants. Dirt isn’t a dirty word, but keep soil in its place!

Mimic nature’s timing – water your plants in the early morning. Dew clings to plants in the morning, so that’s when they’re accustomed to being wet. If you get the watering out of the way early, your plants won’t be drenched later in the day, when they’re sunning themselves. Practice drip-irrigation if you can.

Try a beneficial fungus called Trichoderma. In the United States, this unsung microbial agent is underutilized. But overseas, Virginia Tech scientists unleash this tiny hero as a parasite to scarf up other fungi before they can attack and destroy crops. Using Trichoderma as a soil amendment reduces harmful microorganisms and can give roots a boost, leading to more bountiful harvests.

Invest in floating row covers. In our international work, we often use netting. More common in the United States: employing fabric as an insect barrier. Floating row covers are often used to protect warm-weather plants from the first fall frosts. But they can also discourage marauding insects and even small rabbits or chipmunks. The lightweight fabric is placed directly over plants, protecting them from cucumber beetles and other pests for at least the first three or four weeks or until flowering. No need for a hoop or a tunnel. Simply anchor the fabric against the wind. Short hoops can be used when netting or other covering is employed to protect transplants such as tomatoes and peppers.

Practice interplanting. Instead of grouping plants together, vary the rows. This should slow the spread of insects or disease. You can also throw in some marigolds as well, which attract beneficial insects, though don’t expect miracles.

Don’t underestimate the power of your two hands. Wrap plant stems with aluminum foil near the soil line – this can shield tomatoes and peppers from cutworms. Pick off insects by hand. Set traps for slugs. If you see an infected leaf, remove it and dispose of it outside the garden. Clear out any vegetative refuse at the end of your gardening session.

At this point it may be time to stop reading and start weeding. If you’ve had your fill, get out and till. Just remember: On any continent, “prevention” is often a key word. It’s easier to deal with unwanted problems by heading them off rather than waiting until after they’ve wormed their way into your precious patch of earth.

Beneficial insects? Photos from VCE: http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/2909/2909-1414/beneficial-insects/index.html

Integrated Pest Management for Vegetable Gardens: http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-708/426-708.html