Academy Helps Virginia Farmers Grow Their Business

1/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Correspondent

ROANOKE, Va. — The Fourth Growers Academy sponsored by Virginia Cooperative Extension and VT EarthWorks is gearing up for an eight-week run here.

The academy begins Jan. 24 at the VT Roanoke Center, in the Roanoke Higher Education Center.

“It is designed to help new farmers and existing farmers grow and improve their businesses,” said Josh Nease, manager of the university’s Catawba Sustainable Center.

Farming, production and business management training for land-based businesses are all part of the learning series.

Academy topics include production planning, low-input vegetable production, soils and cover crops, pest and weed management, business plan development, rotational plantings, equipment, marketing and more.

Each weekly session is presented by subject matter experts, including successful producers. Previous participants have said they value hearing from the “local speakers who actually work in the markets, restaurants, and farms.”

Participants complete the course with a preliminary business plan for their new enterprise.

Not only do participants have traditional course work, but they also get to network, work on business plans and learn from successful growers.

“Most participants come from the Roanoke, Montgomery, Giles, Craig, Botetourt and Floyd area,” Nease said. “We have had people travel every week from as far as Richmond.”

Nease estimated that half of the courses deal with growing crops, mostly with input methods, while the other half deal with business skills.

He said the crops classes deal with crop planning, the needs of specific crops, seed starting, crop rotation and development of a harvest calendar that can keep producers on track with marketable crops throughout the season.

Garden mapping and what plants benefit other plants, amending soils naturally and natural pest control are also part of the program, Nease said.

The academy draws on a large number of professionals and Virginia Cooperative Extension for instructors, Nease said.

Participants learn about the realities of farm life, including weather’s role and the most marketable products. Upon completion of the course, they are offered the opportunity of selling at a nearby farmers market.

Participants who don’t have land and still want to pursue their vegetable production dream have another opportunity. Graduates of the Growers Academy receive a preliminary membership to VT EarthWorks and are eligible to lease land through VT EarthWorks at the Catawba Sustainability Center in Catawba, Va.

The Catawba Sustainability Center is an experiential showcase on 377 acres in the Catawba Valley. It features research and demonstration projects from multiple Virginia Tech colleges.

“The center is creating a positive model for a sustainable world,” according to its website.

VT EarthWorks is a business-acceleration program for land-based businesses, including producers of local food, biomass for energy and sustainable wood products. VT EarthWorks, developed with support from the Blue Moon Fund, offers programming focused on support services for local food providers.

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