Pawpaw, ginger, turmeric and muscadine might sound like musicians in a whimsical 1960s folk quartet, but they're part of a wide-ranging ensemble with deep roots – literally – in the Richmond region. At Virginia State University, just off Interstate 95 in Chesterfield County's Ettrick area, Randolph Farm has been a central element of the historically Black college's commitment to agriculture and education.
The school was founded in 1882, and its 416-acre farm encompasses extensive operations. Crops are tested in greenhouses and on 130 acres of irrigated cropland. Students, scientists, farmers, and ranchers have access to agricultural research, the resources to conduct it – and instruction on how to grow, raise and market farm products. “Growing things is costly. We don’t want farmers to grow things they can’t sell,” said Reza Rafie, horticulture extension specialist at VSU.
That's why niche crops such as pawpaw, the muscadine grape and their partners are put to the test at Randolph Farm. “We introduce crops based on market potential, set up a production system and learn which varieties of those crops are adaptable in Virginia,” Rafie said. “During the production process, we communicate and share the information with growers.”
The initial study is followed by test marketing. “Would ginger sell or not?” Rafie asked. “We take it to farmers markets, sell it in retail and wholesale, and then collect those market results. If it does sell, we can tell farmers how to grow it, plus the information to market it.”
The intersection of agriculture and economics is at the heart of the operation's mission for farmers. Growing a particular crop might not be complicated, but the real question is: "Can you make it a profitable business?” Rafie said. “Randolph Farm is that center to bring all the elements together.”
The market potential for each product is studied by horticulturalists on VSU’s small fruits and vegetable team. They often can be found conducting research in one of the farm’s crop laboratories: a high tunnel. “We’re continuing to build that space because we are seeing the advantages of protected culture for farmers,” said Chris Mullins, horticulture extension specialist with VSU’s greenhouse team.
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