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Research, extension center aids state farmers

Professor Greg Peck, of the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester, stands beside cherry plants grown on the center's property. Cherries do not usually grow well in Virginia, but researchers are hoping the tent hanging over the plants will make them a profitable option for farmers. Jeb Inge/Daily

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These apples at the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center are grown on dwarf trees, using the support of wires. They are part of an attempt to grow the trees on smaller acreages while also making the plants shorter in order to reduce labor when harvesting. Jeb Inge/Daily

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By Katie Demeria

WINCHESTER -- Professors Greg Peck and Keith Yoder are seeking solutions.

So is the rest of the staff at Virginia Tech's Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

"We're really trying to find solutions to the issues that commercial fruit growers in the state are facing," Peck said.

The center will be holding an open house on Aug. 16. Peck said this is the first time in many years that the event has taken place, and is meant to allow the public the opportunity to learn about what the center does, and how it helps farmers.

Yoder is addressing tree fruit disease management. Due to Virginia's geographic location, farmers have to deal with both northern and southern diseases -- and Yoder tests possible treatments for both.

When those diseases set in, Yoder pointed out, farmers can face serious economic loss.

"Even 10 percent of certain diseases would basically take what's left of their product," he said.

Peck said the staff is also seeking ways in which to encourage Virginians to grow grapes. While many wineries in the state want to use Virginia grapes, they have limited options. The grape acreage has not grown proportionately with the number of wineries.

"They're a complicated crop to grow, they're challenging to grow," Peck said. "And it takes a fair amount of capital investment to plant a new vineyard, so there has been a lag."

But the center is trying to encourage farmers to plant grapes, and Virginia Tech is providing assistance to those growers, according to Peck.

The root of many research projects has to do with increasing production in the state, Peck pointed out. Right now, what looks like a large, white tent covers the center's cherry trees.

The tent could potentially allow Virginia growers to produce cherries.

"There's not much cherry production here because the rain causes the fruit to crack close to harvest," Peck said.

The tent is designed to hang over the plants and prevent rain from hitting the fruit. Rather, precipitation falls into the middle of the rows, reaching only the roots. The work was funded by the Virginia Agriculture Council, according to Peck.

"They've done really well," Peck said.

No farmers have adopted the systems so far, but in the future it could be a potential for increasing cherry production in the state.

Both Peck and Yoder have been looking into solutions for farmers looking to grow organically, as well. Virginia's climate makes organic farming very difficult, they said -- diseases do well in the rain, necessitating the use of pesticides.

Right now, most organic produce in Virginia comes from places like Washington and South American countries like Chile, Peck said.

But the market for organic produce is strong, he added, and the center is hoping Virginia farmers can tap into that.

"We would like to see more local produce being consumed overall, whether it's organic or not," Peck said. "We want to see more apples, more grapes, more wine, from Virginia being bought and consumed in the state."

The open house will take place from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at 595 Laurel Grove Road. To find out more, visit http://blogs.ext.vt.edu/tree-fruit-horticulture

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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