Cherry tomatoes. Courtesy of Luc Viatour,

More $614,000 in U.S. Department of Agriculture grants were awarded for eight specialty crop projects in Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has announced. Seven of the eight projects involve Virginia Tech.

The project awards resulted from a competitive grant process established by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) to support specialty crops, including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and nursery crops.

The funding for the grants is authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill and this particular funding is awarded for a three-year period beginning September 30, 2022.

Here are the eight projects as described by the governor’s office:

Evaluate Plant Activators and Enzymes in Control of Fire Blight Inoculum Using Droplet Digital PCR

Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia will optimize viability droplet digital Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a diagnostic method that quantifies Erwinia amylovora (Ea) in cankers, and use it to evaluate effectiveness of Plant Growth Regulators (PGR), Plant Resistance Activators (PRA) and Anti-Biofilm Enzymes (ABE) in killing Ea populations from fire blight cankers. This will expand PGR and PRA uses and be the first step in commercialization of ABEs in the future. These materials are expected to decrease Ea populations in cankers or their emergence. New spray programs with these materials will provide critically needed control options for Ea inoculum and widely benefit Virginia’s fruit growers and stakeholders.

Evaluating Specialty Pumpkin Production and Postharvest Treatments for Shelf-Life Extension in Virginia

Virginia Tech researchers, in cooperation with Virginia Cooperative Extension, will conduct research on increasing the shelf-life for pumpkins by reducing postharvest diseases and exploring specialty pumpkins suitable for production in Virginia. These two objectives were identified as the most critical for market sustainability and growth during the winter 2021-2022 grower production meetings. Results will be conveyed to growers, industry personnel and other stakeholders through field days, social media, extension publications and grower meetings.

Developing Aromatic Snacking Pepper Cultivars Suitable for Vertical Agriculture

Virginia Tech will evaluate the agronomic performance of 56 pepper cultivars grown in hydroponics under LED lights in a controlled environment. The researchers will also develop a protocol for measuring the aromatic flavor of pepper fruits and establish a breeding population to select new snacking pepper cultivars with compact plant size, early flowering, and improved fruit flavor. Developing snacking pepper cultivars suitable for vertical farming will help make the snacking pepper a new cash crop and create new job opportunities in Virginia.

Field Pea Production for Virginia: An Emerging Market?

The legumes that are currently being utilized as cover crops in Virginia are often hosts to nematodes that are detrimental to cash crops. The yellow field pea, however, is a legume that is not a nematode host. This makes the yellow field pea an ideal rotation host for crops that have high cyst nematode pressure (i.e., potato, soybean, etc.). A non-nematode host also doubles as a soil protectant, offers the soil living roots over an otherwise fallow winter season, and provides nitrogen fixation. The Virginia Tech Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center will work with farmers, Extension agents, and industry to validate the utility of growing yellow field pea in Virginia. Researchers will develop production recommendations for vegetable production guides, field days, and grower meetings.

A New Way of Growing and Utilizing Blackberry: from Farms to Bottles

Virginia Tech Flavor Lab, within the Department of Food Science and Technology, in partnership with Small Fruit Research and Extension Program at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center, proposes to coalesce traditional trellis practices for growing blackberries. The new trellis system will maintain yield and fruit quality, and sustainably utilizing U.S. Grade B or U.S. Choice quality fruits for value-added products.

The research has three primary objectives:

  1. Develop a new trellis system for blackberry production suitable for small-sized farms and evaluate the fruit yield, quality, and chemical composition;
  2. Create straight- forward training flyers for this new growing method and distribute to regional producers through extension efforts; and
  3. Develop blackberry-based beverages from quality-compromised fruits using easy recipes.

Investigating Adjacent Land-use Risks to Improve Good Agricultural Practices

Virginia Tech will investigate the recovery and transfer of aerosolized microorganisms to improve Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) in specialty crop operations that reduce contamination risks associated with adjacent land-use. These findings will directly support the Virginia specialty crop industries by generating data on adjacent land-use and how operations can develop strategies to control potential risks.

Results will be communicated to stakeholders through extension activities at grower meetings including Northern Neck Vegetable Growers Association and Local Food Hub, Virginia Cooperative Extension factsheets/presentations, and Virginia-hosted Produce Safety Alliance Grower Trainings.

A Flavor and Shelf-life Focused Study of Virginia Cherry Tomatoes from Field and Indoor Facilities

Virginia Tech Flavor Science Lab, within the Department of Food Science and Technology, in partnership with Virginia State University and Virginia Tech Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR), will seek to enhance the competitiveness of Virginia cherry tomatoes by comparing the flavor, nutrition and shelf-life qualities of produce from conventional fields and an indoor hydroponic system. Findings from this study will provide information on the effect of pre-harvest growing conditions on postharvest quality and create a platform for marketing the two types of produce by highlighting their merits in terms of flavor, nutrition, and storability. This research will directly support the competitiveness of the Virginia cherry tomato industry and other specialty crops.

Increasing Market Access for Virginia Growers: Grower/Buyer Opportunities and Food Safety Recordkeeping App

Local Food Hub will introduce and reintroduce approaches to working with specialty crop growers to increase market access and food safety. A first of its kind record keeping app will greatly enhance growers’ ability to comply with food safety regulations. The Virginia Black Farmer Directory will build new bridges to market access for underserved farms. The Grower/Buyer Expo will help farmers and purchasers return to building face-to-face connections.