US (VA): Virginia Tech researchers receive National Science Foundation award to secure vegetable production in a changing environment

Virginia Tech researchers in the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture (CAIA) and the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation (VT-ARC) were awarded a $750,000 grant by the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator program to enhance vegetable production and food security in the commonwealth.

Currently, vegetable production uses a significant amount of water, making yield especially susceptible to environmental changes caused by climate change-induced severe weather events such as extended wet and dry periods.

Shifting growing environments also foster disease in vegetables, which increases chemical use, can reduce crop yield by over 20 percent, and lowers vegetable nutritional value. There is an urgent need to address vegetable production yield and capacity issues by accelerating technical, workforce, and economic efficiencies for vegetable producers in the commonwealth and throughout the United States.

The research team is developing climate-smart, economically efficient, and environmentally sustainable precision agricultural practices that enable more effective and adaptive decision-making as part of our nation’s agricultural priorities.

“This user-inspired, practical project is getting industry, producers, and stakeholders involved in a collaborative manner that pushes everyone forward,” said Kang Xia, co-principal investigator, professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, and interim director of the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture. “The project epitomizes the purpose of the center: scientific discovery and the application of technology-driven innovative solutions for the agricultural challenges of tomorrow.”

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences created the Center for Advanced Innovation in Agriculture to spearhead work on a changing agricultural landscape and the needed modifications in agriculture production through informed scientific discovery and technology-driven innovation to develop solutions.

Some of the existing expertise and platforms CAIA utilizes include the SmartFarm Innovation Network, cyber-biosecurity and biosecurity in agriculture and life sciences, data analytics and decisions, and machine learning for food, agriculture, communities, and health systems.

Leveraging CAIA’s expertise, the team will deliver sensor platforms, predictive analytic applications, and training programs that achieve broader impacts, such as adaptable and transferrable precision agriculture and adopt-into-practice strategies for other agricultural sectors. For example, fruit production, cyber biosecurity awareness and training, agricultural technology venture creation, and workforce development for underrepresented and underserved rural populations will all be positively impacted by the research.

The 12-month award is the first of a two-phase program. In the first phase, the National Science Foundation will steer the research team through an innovative curriculum designed to quickly mature basic research into applied research capabilities with the potential to impact communities and society. Projects that are selected for the phase two award will receive up to $5 million in funding to further refine their capabilities and move them to the marketplace to achieve their intended impacts.

“The work we are doing is directed at making an impact on not only the commonwealth but the nation and beyond as we face growing agricultural challenges,” said Matt Wolfe, VT-ARC’s vice president of technology and the principal investigator of the project. “This multidisciplinary collaboration leverages a team-based approach harnessing the strengths of each partner. We’re proud to be working so closely with Virginia Tech on this important project.”

The research team is composed of researchers and thought leaders from academia, industry, government, and nonprofits with expertise in precision agriculture, environmental science, artificial intelligence, data analytics, cyber biosecurity, community education and engagement, economic development, and policy to collectively build capacity and economic security for underserved, rural small-to-moderate-sized vegetable producers.

The VT-ARC-led team will integrate precision agricultural practices and technologies, artificial intelligence/machine learning-based analysis strategies, education and workforce training, and economically driven production and sustainability decision-making into a cohesive program seeking to increase vegetable production capacity and resilience throughout the U.S.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Agricultural Research and Extension Centers are great test beds for growing these crops, Wolfe said, because the centers can employ many of the precision agriculture technologies, inform the development of training curricula, and facilitate engagements with producers.


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