Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

Fields of the Future: VSU Showcases Agriculture at Randolph Farm
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Aug 31, 2012, 15:54

photo by Sarah Steele Wilson

The Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University invited members of the Commonwealth’s agricultural community and Tri-Cities residents to Randolph Farm in Ettrick on Tuesday for the 27th Annual Agriculture Field Day.

“This is an event that not only addresses some of the latest research and educational issues related to agriculture and related sciences, but it’s really a community event to bring people out to Virginia State University and to Randolph Farm,” said Dr. Jewel Hairston, dean of VSU’s School of Agriculture and 1890 program administrator.

For the community, the event featured displays focused on consumer issues, such as healthy diets, along with bounce houses, pony rides, music and entertainment from jump roping and martial arts groups.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson

For agricultural professionals, the 416-acre education and research focused farm was home not just to neat rows of crops and grazing goats, but also to informative exhibits focused on this year’s “Practical Tools and Solutions for Virginia Land Owners” theme.

“... We’re looking at some of the current issues that agricultural producers face and we’re trying to give them the latest in technology related to agriculture, connections with food safety, connections with processing, food and nutrition in order to educate them so they can get their products to the consumer more effectively,” Hairston said.
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson

As one of Virginia’s two land grant universities, VSU has a long history as an agricultural leader. The first wave of land grant universities was established in 1862 when President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, to establish a network of universities dedicated to the teaching of practical agriculture. In 1890, a second Morrill Act was passed, to establish African-American land grant universities, such as VSU. Now, the school is focused on a future that will contain agriculture.

“We don’t even know how we’re going to feed all of the people in this world in the next 50 years, really in the next 20 years,” Hairston said. “Populations are growing, not only in the U.S., but globally. We’re worried about our sources of water. And it’s agriculture that provides us solutions to those real issues.”

The event drew professional farmers, amateur gardeners and the simply curious.

Jim Gehlsen, who owns a farm in Prince William County, said he learns something new every time he visits VSU and that schools that focus on agricultural research continue to provide useful information to farmers.

“I’m going to be putting up a high tunnel this winter, so I’m interested in those,” Gehlsen said.

Although the prospect of growing soybeans, the focus of one of Tuesday’s exhibits, did not interest him, Gehlsen said he always likes to learn about potential alternate crops.

“It’s always nice to look at it,” he said. You never know when something might catch you.”

Suffolk resident Joe Barlow said that he is retired from farming, but still likes to keep up to date on agricultural developments and finds the annual Field Day event to be interesting.

“I’ve been coming every year for the experience,” he said. “They do entirely different research from what I use, but we have gone into it some, looking for alternatives. I always like to stay up on what alternatives are available.”
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson

Barlow said he has been farming all his life and was struck by the changes he has seen in the field, which were on display at VSU on Tuesday. While many exhibits focused on future strategies, there was also a demonstration using harnessed horses to plow a field.

“I used to do that,” Barlow said. “I could harness them.”

As a gardener rather than a farmer, Lillian Williams was looking for ideas on a smaller scale.

“I was interested in trellised fruits and vegetables, what to do with them,” she said, noting that station had been her first stop on the tour. “That’s what got me out here today.”

Williams said she and her husband also maintain a large vegetable garden, which they share with their neighbors, who know they can stop in any time to pick up fresh tomatoes and cucumbers.

Gardens like Williams’s tie in with another aspect of agriculture Hairston said is becoming a focus of the University.

“VSU is really interested in trying to help with what we call food deserts in the state of Virginia. There are communities all over the states that don’t have healthy foods anywhere near them, all they have is convenience stores,” she explained. “Our nation is becoming overweight but nutritionally poor. So, we want to really help produce foods that people can grow locally, through their own gardens. We can teach them not only how to grow it, but how to fix it, feed their families, that’s a big emphasis for us this year.”

She said VSU is working with local churches to help them establish food producing gardens for members of their congregations.

Graduates of VSU’s agriculture program, who are now pursuing advanced degrees in the field or working in agriculture related jobs were also on hand for the event.

“I love to eat, so I said why not major in agriculture and try to find out where food comes from,” said Maurice Smith, who is pursuing masters degree in agricultural and life sciences at Virginia Tech.

He said that the agriculture program at VSU had opened his eyes to the variety of careers available within the field of agriculture.

“The administrative leadership provided opportunities, grants and funding, to send students to conferences to try to get exposure so you can know exactly what you want to do when you graduate,” he said. “I think that’s an awesome opportunity.”

Smith likes the educational component of agriculture, and hopes to work in that field after getting a Ph.D.

Brittany A. Council, who now works as an extension agent in the Greensville and Emporia area, graduated from VSU in 2010 with a degree in Animal Science.

She said that many people don’t realize how diverse the field of agriculture is.

“I feel like a lot of kids, and a lot of people in general, don’t realize that agriculture is not just about barns and horse buggies,” she said. “It’s so much more. Kids need to realize the pencils that they use, erasers, the shoes on their feet, the clothes on their backs, all that is linked to agriculture.”

Hairston said demonstrating the diversity that exists within the field of agriculture, and the different careers that relate to it, is part of what VSU hopes to show at Field Day.

“Really agriculture is a science and a business, so many of our students will graduate and not only will they go to work for USDA agencies, but they’ll work for private industry,” she said.

VSU agriculture students secure jobs doing,”everything that is involved, from production all the way to the table,” she said.

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