More than 200 people descended on The Carver Center in Culpeper County on Wednesday, eager to learn about small-scale farming.
The center’s first-ever Virginia State University and U.S. Department of Agriculture Field Day drew a large and appreciative crowd from many Piedmont localities.
They came to connect with experts, researchers and Virginia’s agricultural leaders, and learn more about what’s available to help farmers with small acreages or who are just getting started.
To think it all began, more than a decade ago, with a bit of brainstorming.
Jewel H. Bronaugh, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, recalled that moment in her opening remarks in the center’s auditorium.
Dr. Bronaugh recalled that Carl C. Stafford, Virginia Cooperative Extension‘s senior agent in Culpeper, came to visit her when she was a brand-new dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University in Petersburg.
The idea Stafford wanted to bounce off her, as she remembered it: We have an old African-American high school in Culpeper, and the county is trying to figure out what to do with it. We’re trying to find some partners. What does VSU think about that?
He wasn’t asking for anything, but returned a year later to bring up the idea again, she said.
“I watched him not give up on this idea, and then he and others got it off the ground,” Bronaugh said. “That’s amazing. These are people who won’t let go of their vision.”
Bronaugh praised the Carver Center’s creation, and said she appreciated being in such a historic place.
“We’re going to see some history come out of here,” she said. “Built on the center’s African-American heritage, The Carver Center is going to grow a new vision of the future. And if there’s anything we can do to help, we will.”
Opened as George Washington Carver Regional High School in 1948, the brick building educated a generation of African-American students from Culpeper, Orange, Rappahannock and Madison counties in the final decades of Virginia’s segregated schools.
Culpeper County bought the building in 2005, and community partners began envisioning new uses for it in 2013. Culpeper has invested more than $1 million in buying and renovating the center, County Administrator John Egertson said as he welcomed participants to the Field Day at 8 a.m.
Within the next year, the county plans to move the Culpeper offices of the Virginia Cooperative Extension from downtown to the center, Egertson said.
Who is the person most trusted by farmers for knowledge based on sound research? “Almost 100 percent will stay it’s their county extension agent,” Bronaugh said.
She asked all the county extension agents to stand up, and she and the audience gave them a hearty round of applause.
Bronaugh said Virginia needs more places such as The Carver Center to provide a home for people trying to innovate in agriculture.
“It’s a struggle out here for farmers,” she said, citing growing seasons plagued by too much rain, tough commodities prices, and Chinese tariffs that have cost American farmers a huge chunk of their soybean sales in retaliation for U.S. duties on China’s goods.
Previously, Bronaugh directed VSU’s Center for Agriculture Research, and was the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s top Farm Service Agency administrator in Virginia, supervising 41 field offices. She was the first African-American woman in the nation to serve in such a capacity.
Inside, at tables set up in the center’s halls, state and federal experts described resources available to small farmers, from rural development loans to cover-crop advice to state agricultural data.
Outside, eight acres set aside behind the school for demonstration plots showed off the work of VSU’s Small Farm Outreach and Agriculture Research programs, the Rapidan River Master Gardeners, Black Farmers of America, state Department of Agriculture and state Department of Forestry.
The Master Gardeners demonstrated All-American seed varieties, alternate methods of supporting tomatoes, an “African keyhole” garden, different kinds of raised-bed gardens, and the use of plants that attract beneficial insects.
The local gardeners described how to build a no-big “hugelkultur” raised bed to grow vegetables. Such a mound, which can vary in height, it built from decaying wood and other compostable plant materials. Derived from the German word for a hill mound, hugelkultur beds hold moisture, build fertility, maximize soil surface volume and provide good spaces for growing fruit, vegetables and herbs.
In a small plastic greenhouse, VSU professor Reza Rafie and student Christos Galanopoulos showed how using a high tunnel, drip irrigation and pots can dramatically shorten the time to harvest for crops such blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, turmeric and ginger.
Nearby, visitors admired the rows of sweet corn being grown on a knoll by the Brandy Station chapter of the Black Farmers of America.
In a small wire pen, rabbits hopped about while extension agents explained how small farmers can raise rabbits to provide meat for restaurants, retail stores and farmers markets.
Equipment dealers demonstrated a mechanized bean picker and the latest small Kubota tractors.
And beside the old school, Culpeper’s Burnt Ends BBQ food truck kept participants happy and well fed with pork, chicken barbecue, beef brisket, and all the trimmings.