Throughout the year, Virginia Cooperative Extension invites the public to Field Days to learn from the state’s agricultural experts. At Virginia State University’s Randolph Farm in Petersburg, gardeners and small farmers alike are discovering new growing and marketing techniques. From Petersburg, Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Learn More: Find out more about the August 28th VSU Field Day and other public agricultural trainings and events. For information about volunteering on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Randolph Farm, contact VSU College of Agriculture at 804-524-5493.
Third generation farmer Clif Slade stands before four trays of soil each demonstrating various stages of health.
Slade: It’s a sandy loam, it came from right back here.
A vegetable and produce specialist for Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture, Slade is one of several experts sharing knowledge and answering questions as Field Day participants explore Randolph Farm.
Slade: This one with the larger boulders is a sign of compacted soil and it’s not as healthy.
Mushroom compost and pelletized poultry manure will build healthy soil, says Slade, who’s also author of the 43,560 initiative.
Slade: We try to show farmers how to grow a head, pound or bunch of something in every square foot of their land.
There are 43,560 square feet in an acre, and Slade’s method is to get at least a dollar in profits per square foot. At today’s Field Day, he’s demonstrating a new sweet potato population study that fits into this model.
Slade: The first one over to the left, the first bed, there’s a plant every square foot; the next bed beside it, there’s one plant per foot in the row; and the bed beside that two plants per bed. When we harvest we’ll see which one will give us the most profit. We choose sweet potatoes because it has a long shelf life and some of our small farmers, we don’t have to worry about refrigeration and those types of things.
Standing nearby is Alvin Cheatham, a long-time gardener from Surry County who sells some of what he grows.
Cheatham: Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, butter beans, string beans, peppers, basil.
And for the first time he’s growing sweet potatoes, using plants sold by Clif Slade.
Cheatham: Sweet potatoes are much more nutritious. My wife has learned to make sweet potato french fries and I’m trying to get her to make sweet potato chips. And we make sweet potato pies, sweet potato puddings, just sweet potatoes.
Cheatham’s been to past field days where he learned about High Tunnels and discovered a USDA program that helps pay for them.
Now the Cheathams have their own high tunnel, 24 feet wide by 72 feet long.
Cheatham: But it still involves work. Good vegetables take a lot of hand work.
So what is a High Tunnel?
Malcolm Galloway: It’s a passively heated greenhouse basically with no glass, just the plastic exterior with sides that roll up and down to give you the ventilation throughout the tunnel.
Malcolm Galloway is a student at VSU’s College of Agriculture. He’s here demonstrating the Farm’s High Tunnels, which are used to extend the growing season for vegetables and small fruit.
This High Tunnel is 28 feet wide by 200 feet long and full of tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, tomatillos and basil. The plants are directly in the ground, some growing vertically on a trellis net.
Galloway: We use the sides of the High Tunnel, the curvature of the sides to really give us a structural element that we can put the trellis up.
Earlier in the year, they grew kale, collards, romaine…
Galloway: Black-seeded Simpson lettuce, arugula, cilantro all of the salad herbs that you would normally think of that people would want at a farmers market.
While the tunnels get hot in the summer, making many plants bolt, Galloway says they’ll replant Fall crops soon.
Galloway: We’re going to do a lot of the greens again this Fall because the greens will last from September in the tunnel to November and even some could last throughout December and into the Winter very easily.
Today’s Field Day is also focusing on production of berries and other niche crops that can be grown in High Tunnels. VSU Professor Dr. Reza Rafie says in addition to growing techniques, they also emphasize marketing.
Reza Rafie: The life expectancy of the niche crops are very limited because the idea is for farmers to be able to make money. So if you started niche crops, let’s say ginger and Virginia farmers are able to grow ginger now and they’re selling at really premium prices at market and they’re making quite a bit of money.
After more producers start growing ginger, the price will drop, says Dr. Rafie.
Reza Rafie: We help farmers to understand that in order to be successful in growing niche crops, you’re continuously looking for new niche, and new niche and new niche as you go on.
Field Days also attract budding farmers, like internal medicine physician Victoria Grady Crumpton, who lives in Spotsylvania.
Victoria Grady Crumpton: My husband and I have a little over 100 acres, right now we have nine horses and he does horse training, and I want to raise goats and coming to this, I’m thinking about doing some crops.
She said she was considering growing grapes, but today’s Field Day has put her on a different path.
Grady Crumpton: We’re two people who didn’t grow up on farms, so I didn’t know to buy a farm, we bought acreage, so we have woods. So what I learned today is I I have to think hard and heavy about deforesting and putting in grapes, they’re probably not going to survive that. So instead of growing grapes and selling to the local wineries I’m probably going to do better with berries and other vegetables and things.
VSU’s next Field Day focuses on goats, bees, cover crops and specialty crop research. The School of Agriculture also hosts various trainings and conferences throughout the year and offers weekly volunteer opportunities at Randolph Farm. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.