2010-11-24 / Front Page

Virginia raspberries in December?

VSU research may help that become a reality
By Katherine Houstoun

Editor’s note: This is part 1 of a two-part series on research projects under way at Virginia State University’s Randolph Farm. See next week’s edition for part 2. 

Dr. Reza Rafie holds raspberries that were grown in high-tunnel greenhouses at VSU’s Randolph Farm. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Dr. Reza Rafie holds raspberries that were grown in high-tunnel greenhouses at VSU’s Randolph Farm. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer If the idea of eating fresh, homegrown Virginia raspberries in December seems nearly impossible, prepare to be amazed. In just a few years, you may be able to incorporate the tart fruit into your holiday menu, thanks to research by Dr. Reza Rafie, a horticulture extension specialist at Virginia State University (VSU) in Ettrick. Rafie is one of a handful of VSU staffers who are hard at work exploring unique crops and growing mechanisms that can help sustain local family farms – and enhance our culinary palette at the same time.

Many VSU research projects like Rafie’s are funded by competitive state and national grants, whether awarded directly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), handed down as block grants from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) or bestowed by special committees, like the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which aims to revitalize tobacco-dependent communities in Southside Virginia.

These high-tunnel greenhouses at Randolph Farm keep the temperature consistent, allowing farmers to grow out-of-season crops even during the winter. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer These high-tunnel greenhouses at Randolph Farm keep the temperature consistent, allowing farmers to grow out-of-season crops even during the winter. Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer The USDA recently awarded nearly $1.4 million in grants to four VSU employees to conduct research projects aimed at enhancing profits for farmers, improving quality of life for citizens and protecting the environment. In addition to funding Rafie’s raspberry research, the grants also support research on stinging nettles, ramps, black cohosh and fruit pomace, and provide funding to create a Center for Water Programs.

“The federal government establishes broad priorities,” like bioenergy and climate, “and whatever we do has to fit within those,” explained Dr. Wondi Mersie, associate dean and research director of VSU’s agriculture school.

VSU, which was established as a land-grant university in 1882 to support Virginia’s African-American population, submitted around 15 grant applications this year, according to Mersie. Nationally, about one in five research projects ultimately gets approved for USDA funding.

New technology

Rafie received a three-year $179,167 grant to help pioneer berry production research in Virginia, in which farmers use simple structures called high-tunnel greenhouses that can maintain a 65-degree temperature in December, thereby extending the growing season. He has already spent several years conducting the pilot program at Randolph Farm, the 416-acre agricultural learning center at VSU.

“The bottom line is: How can we help farmers make more money?” said Rafie. “By mid-October, the raspberries are gone from the market, but we will just be getting started. We can take them to market outside of the high season and get premium prices.”

The grant will allow 10 producers, representing different areas of the state, to establish raspberry high-tunnel research demonstration sites, free of charge. “We’ll provide the structure, the technology, the materials, the plants, everything,” said Rafie. “It covers the A-to-Z of production.”

Once established, the sites will be used to educate other growers about the alternative enterprise opportunity. According to Rafie, consumption of raspberries increased 60 percent from 1996 to 2001, making it a desirable product for farmers. Buying and erecting each greenhouse costs about $7,000, an amount Rafie estimates would pay off in three years. He hopes to have 20 to 25 producers undertaking the high-tunnel project by the end of the three-year grant.

There’s more to Rafie than raspberries, however. He also has ongoing projects studying subtropical fruits like green papaya, lychee, mango, starfruit, guava and lemongrass in high-tunnel structures. “The essence of the business is diversity,” he said. “Everybody has tomatoes, cukes, peppers. If you are a farmer going to market with papayas, you are the only one.”

Rafie recently was awarded a grant from VDACS to study the production and marketing of high-tunnel grown ginger roots, another pet project.

“We know the future is [hightunnel greenhouses] rather than fields,” he said. “Outside you have rain that causes mold, [and] there are diseases, wind, insects. These structures provide protection from all those things.”

New crops, new uses

Dr. Laban Rutto, VSU agronomist and lead scientist, is researching plants that may not be as familiar as raspberries and ginger. Awarded a two-year $48,000 grant under the auspices of USDA’s Forest Service, Rutto will partner with the National Agroforestry Center in Blacksburg to study ramps, a wild relative of onions and garlic that can be found in gourmet restaurants, and black cohosh, a medicinal plant historically used by Native Americans.

“They are both plants that grow in the understory of the Appalachian forest,” explained Rutto. “We’ll be studying their life cycle, growth patterns and soil conditions and generate information on how the plants can be cultivated outside of the forest.”

Rutto also received a three-year, $299,000 USDA grant to fund his research on stinging nettle, a native Virginia plant with possible uses as medicine, food and fiber. Rutto will study the plant’s potential to act as a shoreline buffer to filter pollutants before they enter the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the feasibility of using the plant as small ruminants’ feed.

Across campus, Dr. John Parry, assistant professor, is studying fruit pomace, a pulpy byproduct of winemaking and juice production. Awarded a three-year $287,415 USDA grant, Parry will examine the product’s blood glucose-lowering properties for its potential to reduce the onset and control of type 2 diabetes, and possibly decrease insulin requirements for type 1 diabetics. As a professor in the Food Chemistry and Nutrition program, Parry focuses his research on byproducts of food production, including fruit and vegetable seed, skin and pomace, which are generally treated as waste, hoping to pinpoint value-adding components and properties that may be useful for improving human nutrition and overall human health.

“His preliminary research shows promise,” said Mersie, the dean of the agriculture school.

New communication

The results of other USDA-funded projects at VSU may not end up on your plate anytime soon. Dr. Asmare Atalay, professor and research soil scientist, received a three-year $564,000 USDA grant to establish a Center for Water Programs, a web-based entity through which all 18 of the 1890 land-grant universities will collect and present their work relative to water quality and quantity. The grant includes funds to develop and maintain a publicly accessible website that posts system-wide center-funded research and information.

“Right now up to this point, all the 1890 universities that have water programs have their own little grants that they may be getting from different places; they’re doing their work and publishing it,” said Atalay, who will serve as the center’s director. “There is no unified center to really display what work they have done. The impetus for this project was to have a collective resource that will serve as a first stop for information related to water research, education and extension – all three components of the land grant system.”

After covering VSU’s overhead for the website, the center will use the remaining funds to disburse mini-grants for projects that fall in line with the goals and objectives of the program. All of the land-grant universities will be eligible for the mini-grants, which will fund one-year projects.

Atalay hopes to have a skeletal format of the website established by early next year.

“It’s a very big project,” he said. “Hopefully we will have the center to continue after the three years [covered in the grant].”

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