Agricultural innovation is sweeping the state, giving rise to new food sources and offering a boost to Virginia’s specialty crops such as wine grapes, herbs, berries and chestnuts.
Helping to advance the innovation are Specialty Crop Block Grants, which were awarded to 16 of the state’s agriculture-related projects in 2014. Funded by the USDA, the grants – totaling more than $560,000, with each awarded applicant receiving between $20,000 and $50,000 – were dispersed by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services with the goal of increasing the competitiveness of the state’s specialty crops and creating more economic opportunities for Virginia producers.
Specialty Crop Block Grants
Located near Farmville, Virginia Food Works (VFW) is a nonprofit organization that supports the state’s value-added food producers, those who add value to basic commodities as in making ice cream from fluid milk. In addition to helping producers understand the regulations and requirements that go along with creating and distributing value-added foods such as jams and jellies, VFW also offers supervision and assistance at the Prince Edward County Cannery and Commercial Kitchen. The facility includes bulk processing equipment, label applicators and other tools to help commercial food producers efficiently generate and package their products.
“We’re there in the kitchen, rolling up our sleeves to help these food producers get going,” says Allie Hill, VFW project director. While some producers have their own recipes, others need guidance, and that’s where VFW’s grant for the Development of Commercial Shelf-Stable Recipes for Specialty Crops comes in.
“The Specialty Crop Block Grant has been a wonderful addition to our operation,” Hill says. “We applied for funding to develop 10 new recipes to have on-site at the cannery, with the primary benefactors being farmers who want to find new business opportunities instead of just selling their fresh produce; they want to branch out into value-added food sales.”
Thanks to the grant, VFW has created recipes for tomato salsa, marina sauce, hot pepper jelly and seven other products – recipes for fruit vinaigrette, peach salsa, pickled vegetables, relish, grape jam with and without wine flavoring and chutney – are in various stages of completion. Before receiving the grant, the facility’s recipe arsenal included options for applesauce, fruit jams and jellies, fruit syrups and peaches in light syrups. Each of those recipes is still available.
Developing New Products
Funded by an $18,534 grant from the Virginia Agricultural Council, Virginia State University professor Dr. Vitalis W. Temu is conducting a two-year study on Eragrostis tef, commonly known as grain teff. Temu’s goal is to establish whether the crop can successfully grow in Virginia and be profitable commercially.
“My major focus is investigating how differences in planting dates may affect its performance with respect to the challenges that come with weeds and harvesting as well as whether the differences in the soil-iron content will affect the quality of the grain you end up getting,” Temu says.
Grain teff, originating from Ethiopia, thrives in warm weather and is drought-tolerant. Teff is also a gluten-free grain, rich in iron, calcium, dietary fiber and protein, which Temu says is unusual for most grains, and it contains a complete assortment of essential amino acids. While teff is typically used to make flour, its vegetative parts also make a high-quality forage for livestock.
“If grain teff could be produced in Virginia, the money that is currently going out of the state for importing the grain could benefit our farmers,” Temu says.
Another food that may be generating a profit in the state is tree bark, due to the efforts of a team of Virginia Tech researchers. The team has recently discovered a way to convert the bark’s cellulose into a starch known as amylase, which has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity.