About a dozen interested landowners turned out on Tuesday to witness representatives of Virginia State University and officials from the George Washington Carver School in Culpeper sign a deal that will increase education options in the area for small farmers.

The memorandum of understanding between VSU and the GWC Agricultural Institute allows for the establishment of a Beginning Farmer program on the school campus south of Culpeper on U.S. Route 15.

“It gives them access to facilities, land and equipment to provide support for the small farm outreach programs,” said Senior Extension Agent Carl Stafford. “It gives us that credibility and backing when people ask who we partner with at the center.”

William Crutchfield, director of VSU’s Small Farm Outreach Program, said the first order of business for the extension agents coming from the historically black college in Petersburg will be to survey interested individuals in the area to find out what types of workshops they’d like to see.

“We just want to provide assistance for those who want to farm,” Crutchfield said. “We’ll bring those resources to them. The sky is really the limit. If we can’t accommodate them here, we’ll find a space.”

Crutchfield said the average age of farmers in Virginia is almost 60, and young farmers can need assistance to get a toe-hold in the industry.

Programs offered by VSU at the Carver facility are free to prospective or beginning farmers. The university currently employs 15 small farm agents to serve 64 counties across the state with an annual budget of $3 million, including grants from the USDA.

“We’re looking for anyone who’s interested, and particularly veterans, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged farmers in the area,” said Crutchfield, a retired USDA executive and VSU alumnus.

In fact, to participate, you don’t even have to have access to your own farm land. The university will provide incubator space on the Carver property to help prospective farmers learn and practice their interests. Equipment, too, can be procured through the program for use on a rotating basis by the small farmers.

In addition to best practices in growing, the program assists with marketing.

Workshops and one-on-one meetings with VSU extension agents will help the new farmers secure farm serial numbers, certification with the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service, which enables them to sell to individuals on the SNAP program, and more.

“Whatever topic you need, talk to us and we can put it together,” said VSU’s Hispanic outreach coordinator for the farm outreach program.

Farmers sometimes find it difficult to engage on the marketing side of their businesses, even taking their products to area farmers markets, Stafford said.

“There’s some retail money there if you’re inclined to deal with the public,” he added.

The VCU group will host seven workshops at Carver during the remainder of 2018 and then tailor future offerings based on the feedback from farmers in the area. Those include a USDA informational meeting, small engine maintenance and repair, alternative ways to improve soil health, basic computer skills and a bus tour.

The three-year lease of portions of the Carver property will include indoor office and classroom space for the VSU agents. The GWC Agriculture Institute also constructed a 24-by-48-foot “hoop house” with access to electric and water for use by the university.

In exchange, VSU will provide 10 quarterly installments of $1,250 as well as fertilizer, seeds, cost assistance, technical expertise and tools.

Supervisor Jack Frazier (Cedar Mountain District) said it was gratifying seeing programs of this type coming to the Carver building. When renovations to the school began seven years ago with a grant for asbestos abatement several members of the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors Building & Grounds Committee began discussing its future purpose.

“I realize the importance of farming,” Frazier said. “I really supported the renovation of this building but we wanted farming to be the nucleus.”

Jim Hoy, chairman of the Agriculture Institute board and Culpeper’s director of public works, called the agreement a “big deal for us, based on our strategy.”

That strategy includes providing opportunities for the next generation of farmers, entrepreneurs and innovators.

“We want to be able to encourage people to stay on the farm, be able to diversify their farms,” said Hoy. “There are so many different aspects of agriculture and things are always changing in the marketplace.”

When looking for a location for the agriculture program, Hoy said the group knew Carver was the right fit.

“I don’t like to see a legacy facility like this not be productive,” he said. “It’s been a busy 7 ½ years with everyone who’s been working to bring this to fruition.”

For information on scheduled workshops at the GWC school, contact 804/524-3292 or sign up at ext.vsu.edu.

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Marla McKenna can be reached at mmckenna@starexponent.com or 540/825-0773.

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