Progress report for SVA20-001
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech and the School of Agriculture at Virginia State University are strongly committed to the SARE Professional Development Program. Virginia Tech and Virginia State University continue to host and sponsor professional development workshops and programs each year. These workshops and programs help build interest and strengthen the implementation of sustainable methods and practices across Virginia, especially in the areas of soil health management, cover cropping, community food systems, grassland agriculture, and overall market diversification. There continue to be a strong interest in community, local and regional food systems that encourage local and regional connections and build resilience. Virginia Cooperative Extension, through the Virginia SARE Advisory Committee and our professional development programming initiatives and organizational partnerships, seeks to serve all of Virginia’s agricultural sector and fully integrate sustainable farming practices that emphasize the community, economic and ecological components of sustainability throughout the food and agricultural system. Our SARE-PDP program provides the most current and best scientific information and research to producers, food entrepreneurs, and citizens so they can meet their individual and community objectives for sustainability and resilience. Virginia’s Model State Program training topics will specifically focus on sustainable agriculture to strengthen educational outreach around soil health and water quality, farm-to-table connections in the food system value chain, enhance the capabilities of Extension and USDA personnel to highlight regenerative farming practices, support a grazing school for agricultural and conservation professionals, and increase knowledge and visibility of SARE’s grants and programs.
1) Virginia’s 2020 -2021 Model State Program funding will focus on professional development trainings and educational outreach regarding sustainable agricultural practices and Southern Region SARE programs on a statewide basis and in conjunction with other planned events and partnering agencies (i.e., NRCS, FSA, SWCD, Farm Credit) existing training programs to reach the following: at least 60 Extension Agents (VCE), 40 Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and 30 Soil and Water Conservation District personnel. Virginia’s Model State Program training topics will specifically focus on sustainable agriculture to strengthen educational outreach around soil health and water quality, farm-to-table connections in the food system value chain, enhance the capabilities of Extension and USDA personnel to highlight regenerative farming practices, support a grazing school, and increase knowledge and visibility of SARE’s grants and programs.
2) Conduct and support train-the-trainer training on a statewide basis and work in conjunction within existing annual conferences and/or field meetings (e.g., Virginia Association for Biological Farming, Virginia Small Farm Outreach Conference, Virginia Farm to Table, Virginia Urban Agriculture Summit and Certification Program, and the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council’s Grazing School for Agricultural Professionals) to reach at least 400 persons including farmer, landowners, farming associations, state government agency personnel, county government personnel, non-government organizations (NGO’s) and community-based organizations (CBOs). Outreach will include having displays and exhibits at these educational events as well.
3) Virginia SARE will work closely with VSU’s Small Farm Outreach Program to reach out to underserved and underrepresented farmers and ranchers. Additionally, VA SARE will collaborate with the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition and emerging initiatives and organizations like the Virginia Young Farmers Coalition, Common Grain Alliance, and the Virginia Soil Health Coalition to make these organizations aware of the educational and research programs of USDA-SARE.
4) Expand Virginia SARE’s communication efforts such as the weekly statewide educational calendar, Facebook page, and website presence. To expand the scope of Virginia’s outreach, a videography and filmmaking three- day short course will be offered to build Extension and USDA professionals.
Virginia SARE, with its statewide collaboration and educational network with Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, USDA agency partners, farmer mentor-leaders as advisors, is well-positioned to provide educational and professional development programming and leadership to cultivate healthier farms and resilient communities as part of an overall resilient, just, sustainable, viable farm and food system that considers the entire food value chain. Although COVID-19 curtailed the opportunity for in-person educational interactions, Virginia SARE was able to pivot to highlight online professional development programming opportunities that ranged from Virtual Virginia Farm to Table weekly offerings from Virginia Cooperative Extension to soil health webinars conducted by Virginia Association for Biological Farming to conversations with Virginia farmers about their agroecological values, ethics, and practices.
For the past several years, Virginia SARE has maintained public calendars of Virginia Cooperative Extension, USDA, and partner organizations’ educational programming. These calendars are available through Google calendar/Google drive, the Virginia SARE Facebook site, and the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture Website. The calendar is also emailed weekly to the entire College of Agriculture faculty at Virginia Tech, the Virginia State University’s Small Farm Outreach agents and staff, SARE advisory committee members, and several Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Districts’ conservationists. Virginia SARE also maintains and emails a calendar of upcoming professional development opportunities for Virginia Tech and Virginia State Cooperative Extension Faculty. This calendar and scheduling capacity helped Virginia SARE greatly in its effort to pivot and make Extension, USDA, and farmer-mentors aware of what professional development programming opportunities were available on a weekly basis.
- (Educator and Researcher)
Virginia’s SARE’s educational approach focused on peer-to-peer learning and mentoring as much as possible with Conservationists, Extension personnel, and farmer-leaders providing leadership as part of a train-the-trainer model. Additionally, Virginia SARE encouraged sharing of expertise and experiences through storytelling and demonstration. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, face-to-face interactions were restricted and followed required social distancing protocols. Therefore, Virginia SARE outreach focused on the promotion of online webinars conducted by Extension and USDA professionals, and other partner organizations that were pertinent to sustainable agriculture research and education in 2020.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
To create more resilient, just, sustainable, and viable farming systems for agronomic, livestock, and horticultural operations across Virginia through Virginia's educational and outreach network of Extension, USDA-NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and mentor farmers knowledgeable about soil health, diverse cropping and livestock systems, regenerative grazing, community-focused regional food systems, food equity, food security, and emerging market opportunities.
Virginia’s food systems directly impact the survival and viability of farms and farmland; the economic
development of rural and urban communities; the care, restoration, and resilience of ecological resources such as local waterways; and critical health issues. Virginia SARE, with its statewide collaboration and educational network with Virginia Tech, Virginia State University, USDA agency partners, farmer mentor-leaders as advisors, is well-positioned to provide educational and professional development programming and leadership to cultivate healthier farms and resilient communities as part of an overall resilient, just, sustainable, viable farm and food system that considers the value chain from soil to soil (Lengnick, 2015).
COVID-19 demonstrated that there are gaps and barriers to a more resilient, just, sustainable, viable farm and food system that considers the value chain from soil to soil, particularly for vulnerable populations and communities of color.
Due to the COVID pandemic in 2020, in-person public educational programs were halted. Agriculture agents across Virginia began virtual instruction with producers and want-to-be producers on soil health and building a sustainable farm business. Virginia SARE supported these efforts by providing 675 SARE books and 75 SARE flash drives to Virginia Cooperative Extension agents and Virginia producers. This allowed virtual classes to be held with a SARE textbook for reference – a win-win for agents and producers!
Virginia SARE worked with colleagues of Virginia Tech’s Center for Food Systems and Community Transformations to organize and facilitate a series of conversations with twelve farmers who exemplify agroecological values in their relationship with the land. This series was part of the Soil, Conservation, and Place Project and offered participants a chance to hear live from the farmers who were interviewed through a narrative inquiry process that documented farmer agroecological knowledge so it may inform social movement networking, policy recommendations, and field-based farming strategies for sustainability, conservation, and food justice. These four webinar sessions were attended by 510 participants total:
- Economics, Justice, and Systems Thinking from the Soil Up (December 1, 2020): A conversation on soil health, economic justice, transition planning, and systems thinking with Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Robert Spiers of Spiers Farm, LLC., and Mike Phillips of Valley View Farms.
- Mentors, Markets, and Evolving Adaptation (December 3, 2020): A discussion of mentorship, business planning, finding markets, optimizing soil health volunteers, and continual adaptation with Anne Geyer of AgriBerry Farm & CSA, Danny Boyer of Four Winds Farm, and Phil Witmer of Grazeland Dairy, Inc.
- Equity, Dignity, and Health in Food and Agriculture (December 8, 2020): A session inspired by their agroecological stories, actions, and visions for community and systemic change with Renard Turner of Vanguard Ranch LTD., Jonathan McRay of Silver Run Forest Farm, and Janet Aardema of Broadfork Farm.
- Soil Farming, Pollinator Habitat, and Engaging with Community (December 11, 2020): A session based on the experiences and journeys into soil and water conservation, biodiversity, soil farming, and community outreach with Amy Hicks of Amy’s Organic Garden, CJ Isbell of Keenbell Farm and Gerald Garber of Cave View Farms.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Collaboration and coordination with partner organizations continue to be important focuses for Virginia’s professional development training opportunities so resources can be optimized and leveraged where and whenever possible. Virginia SARE is also trying to be more intentional in addressing equity, fairness, and justice in relation to sustainable agriculture and resilient food systems.
Face of SARE
Virginia’s SARE program has traditionally focused its outreach and promotional efforts to increase SARE’s public presence at events and conferences; regularly update the Southern SARE web page with content from Virginia, and increase its online and social media presence through Facebook, and contribute to an electronic newsletter developed by Extension. COVID-19 made it necessary to increase online education and promotion of SARE-related training and outreach.