News Release

Virginia Tech, Virginia Cooperative Extension receive USDA funding to advance specialty crops

Nearly $550,000 in federal Specialty Crop Block Grants will help enhance the competitiveness of Virginia agriculture.

Grant and Award Announcement

Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech and Extension


Virginia Tech and Extension’s projects address a wide range of concerns, including water treatment of crops, using drones for pest management, increasing greenhouse strawberry health, and disease and frost damage prevention.

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Credit: Photo courtesy of Sam Dean Photography.

Six Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension projects that help advance the competitiveness of specialty crops grown in the commonwealth have been awarded nearly $550,000 through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Specialty Crop Block Grants program. The projects are aimed at assisting Virginia farmers in making specialty crop production a driver of economic development.

Specialty crops are defined as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture. Virginia Tech and Extension’s projects address a wide range of concerns, including water treatment of crops, using drones for pest management, increasing greenhouse strawberry health, and disease and frost damage prevention.

The following projects received funding through the Specialty Crop Block Grants program:

  • Validating in-field water treatments to enhance produce safety: Led by Associate Professor Laura Strawn in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Food, Science, and Technology, researchers will evaluate how well different chemical treatments work to reduce on-farm water contamination to specialty crops. The findings will help Virginia growers identify Environmental Protection Agency-approved sanitizers to treat water used in the field and create best practices for water treatment to reduce contamination.
  • Use of drone-spray for weed management in specialty crops: This project, led by Vijay Singh, assistant professor of weed science and Extension specialist at the Virginia Tech Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center, will evaluate the economic benefits of using drones to apply herbicides that inhibit weed growth in specialty crops. Previous studies using drones to spray soybeans and corn have shown higher efficacy and better cost savings than backpack spray applications. This will be the first test of drone-applied herbicides on specialty crops, specifically tomatoes and broccoli.
  • Increasing yield in greenhouse soilless strawberries using growth-promoting bacteria: This study aims to promote the growth and yield of greenhouse soilless strawberries by using beneficial microorganisms called bacterial endophytes. These growth-promoting bacteria live inside plants and help them grow better, tolerate stress, and fight diseases. Lead researcher B. Sajeewa Amaradasa of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research will partner with Extension, industry leaders, and growers to study how different strawberry cultivars and bacterial endophytes produce better yield in a controlled environment agriculture facility. 
  • Virginia-specific disease management strategies to protect sweet corn seedlings: Seed rot and seedling blight remain a constant threat for Virginia’s sweet corn producers. This project will identify fungicide seed treatments that are most beneficial for Virginia growers and determine which soilborne pathogens are most common in the state’s soils. Led by Douglas Higgins, assistant professor of plant pathology and Extension specialist at the Virginia Tech Eastern Shore Agriculture Research and Extension Center, this project will produce specific disease management recommendations for protecting sweet corn seedlings in Virginia.
  • Applying next-generation biofungicides in controlled environment agriculture: Led by Kaylee South, assistant professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture, this project will develop and evaluate the use of beneficial microorganisms called biofungicides for the control of common diseases of food crops produced in controlled environment agriculture. Researchers will develop and evaluate biofungicides targeting grey mold in strawberry production and downy mildew in spinach production. 
  • Preserving apples in the face of frost: Evaluating the efficacy of cryoprotectants: Spring frost represents a significant economic threat to fruit production worldwide, with the annual cost of spring frost and freeze damage reaching millions of dollars. Climate change is projected to exacerbate the situation. Cryoprotectants – chemical compounds developed by agrochemical companies to prevent damage from freezing – have not yet been thoroughly tested in fruit crops. Associate Professor Sherif Sherif at the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center will lead a study examining the impact of cryoprotectants on apple trees in the mid-Atlantic region. The project aims to help develop more practical and cost-effective strategies for reducing the impact of spring frosts on apple production. 

Specialty Crop Block Grant program funding is authorized annually by the 2018 Farm Bill and awarded through a competitive grant process established by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for funding provided by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service Specialty Crop Block Grant program. Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services gave priority to projects that assist farmers transitioning into specialty, high-value agricultural initiatives that address the eligible specialty crop; increase net farm income through high-value or value-added enterprises; find new ways to market or add value to specialty agricultural products; and develop pilot and demonstration programs in specialty agriculture that have the potential for use within rural Virginia.

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