Schools Across Virginia Increase Focus on Fresh Produce for Lunches

RICHMOND—Updated federal guidelines are increasing the demand for fresh produce and transforming lunches in schools across the country.

The updated school lunch rules went into effect in July and are the first change in the standards in 15 years.

The guidelines increased requirements for fruits and vegetables in school lunches from the previous one-half to three-fourths of a cup of both per day to the new requirement of three-fourths to one cup of vegetables plus one-half to one cup of fruit per day. Schools must offer a variety of vegetables, including a weekly serving of dark green and red or orange vegetables and legumes.

“I hope that as many school systems as possible will utilize locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables to meet their students’ nutritional needs,” said Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “Hopefully this will create new opportunities for farmers who may want to use high tunnels to extend their fresh produce growing seasons or begin packaging and processing local produce for use outside the fresh market season.”

The new guidelines also will help support the mission of the Virginia Farm to School program and will allow greater opportunity for Virginia-grown products to take a starring role on school menus, said Leanne DuBois, state coordinator of the Virginia Farm to School program for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The program is an effort to increase the amount of fresh and nutritious Virginia products offered in schools and to promote opportunities for schools and farmers to work together.

Nov. 5-9 will be the fourth annual Virginia Farm to School Week. Schools and farmers across the commonwealth will celebrate with menu items like apples, broccoli, sweet potatoes, beef, milk and more. Some schools hold special events that include visits by farmers, farm art contests and other activities.

A recent survey of school nutrition directors throughout Virginia, sponsored by VDACS, Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Education, revealed that all participants have knowledge of the Farm to School program and 70 percent have participated in a previous Farm to School Week.

Eighty-five percent of survey respondents said they serve local food in their school divisions; 46 percent have developed a purchasing relationship with a local farmer; and 30 percent plan to develop such a relationship within the next year. As for problems in sourcing local food,

50 percent said seasonal availability of local foods within the school calendar year was their biggest challenge.

via Virginia Farm Bureau

Sorghum Eyed as a Southern Bioenergy Crop

Sweet sorghum is primarily grown in the United States as a source of sugar for syrup and molasses. But the sturdy grass has other attributes that could make it uniquely suited to production as a bioenergy crop, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) studies suggest.

Sorghum is an ideal candidate because of its drought tolerance, adaptability to diverse growing conditions, low nitrogen fertilizer requirements, and high biomass (plant material) content, according to molecular biologist Scott Sattler and collaborator Jeff Pedersen with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). It also produces soluble sugar that can be converted to biofuel. Residual fibers left over from the juice extraction process also can be burned to generate electricity.

Sattler and Pedersen’s studies of sorghum are part of a larger effort by ARS—USDA’s principal intramural scientific research agency—to answer a government mandate calling for the production of up to 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022. Approximately 15 billion gallons of that total will come from grain ethanol, with the remaining 21 billion gallons to come from other sources, or “feedstocks,” including sorghum, sugarcane, other grasses like switchgrass, and oilseed crops like rapeseed and soybean.

Sorghum and sugarcane are top candidates for production in the southeastern United States because they are complementary crops that can extend the biofuel production season and utilize the same equipment, note Sattler and Pedersen, who work at the ARS Grain, Forage and Bioenergy Research Unit in Lincoln, Neb. However, they are not the only team examining sweet sorghum’s energy potential.

At the ARS Crop Genetics and Breeding Research Unit in Tifton, Ga., geneticist William Anderson and his colleagues are working to identify desirable sweet sorghum genes and their functions so improved varieties can be developed. In studies, they selected 117 genotypes from the ARS sorghum germplasm collection at Griffin, Ga., and evaluated them for their ability to mature quickly and resist fall armyworms and the fungal disease anthracnose.

Five Virginia Farmers’ Markets Place in the Top 20 of American’s Favorite Contest

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has announced that five Virginia farmers’ markets were ranked in the Top 20 in “American’s Favorite Farmers’ Market Contest” sponsored by the American Farmland Trust (AFT). Three of the five ranked in the Top 5 Markets.

The nationwide contest pulled in thousands of votes – sometimes for a single market – from all over the country. Markets are categorized by the number of vendors at each and voters could vote for their favorite market in one of four categories: small, mid-sized, medium or large.

Virginia’s winning markets include:

  • Small, 15 vendors or fewer: Stuart Farmers’ Market, Stuart – #12 (this market ranked #14 in 2011) and Vienna Saturday Farmers’ Market, Vienna – #17
  • Mid-sized, 16 to 35 vendors: Lakeside Farmers’ Market, Richmond – #2 (Lakeside ranked #3 in 2011)
  • Medium, 35 to 55 vendors: Williamsburg Farmers’ Market, Williamsburg – #3 (it ranked #5 in 2011) and Falls Church Farmers’ Market, Falls Church – #4 (ranked #3 in 2011)

Click here for a list of the Top 20 markets is available on the American Farmland Trust website.

“We love our farmers’ markets in Virginia,” said Matthew J. Lohr, VDACS Commissioner. “We have seen tremendous growth in the number of markets, from 88 in 2005 to 227 and counting today. We also have seen dramatic growth in the number of our winter or year-round markets. A few years ago, we didn’t even count them, but last winter, we had more than 70. Some of our markets are among the oldest in the nation and some are among the newest. Because Virginia’s industry of agriculture is so diverse, so are the offerings in our farmers’ markets.”

Consumers can search for farmers’ markets by county, zip code or even products offered at VirginiaGrown.com.

Research Shows Little Evidence That Organic Foods Are Healthier

STANFORD, Calif.—Doctors at Stanford University revisited previous research comparing organic and conventionally raised foods and concluded that there is little evidence that organic is healthier.

Eating organic fruits and vegetables can lower exposure to pesticides, but the amounts measured in conventionally grown produce was within safety limits, researchers reported. And organic foods did not prove more nutritious either.

“I was absolutely surprised,” said Dr. Dena Bravata, a senior research affiliate at Stanford and longtime internist who began the analysis because many of her patients asked if it would be healthier to eat organic foods.

Bravata and her team sifted through thousands of studies and identified 237 of the most relevant to analyze. They include 17 studies of populations consuming organic and conventional diets and 223 that compared either the nutrient levels or the bacterial, fungal or pesticide content of various products grown organically and conventionally.

Individuals might choose organic over conventional because of taste preferences or environmental concerns, Bravata said, but when it comes to the healthfulness of foods “there isn’t much difference.”

People often mistakenly think organic foods are healthier for them because they are free of pesticides and bacterial contamination, or have greater nutritional value, said Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “It is very important that consumers have accurate information about their food choices, regardless of whether they prefer organic or conventionally grown foods.

“This Stanford study is the latest of many to dispel myths about organic and conventional foods,” Banks said. “We’ve known all along that farmers produce healthy food for American consumers, whether it is grown conventionally or organically.”

Organic foods account for 4.2 percent of retail food sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA certifies products as organic if they meet specific requirements, including being produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or routine use of antibiotics or hormones.

Consumers can spend more for some organic products, but demand is rising. The sale of organic products grew by 9.5 percent in 2011 and reached $31.5 billion in sales, according to findings from an Organic Trade Association survey.

Farmers Urged to Prepare for Possible Hurricane Damage

RICHMOND—With nearly 10 named storms already this season, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services urged farmers on Aug. 27 to prepare ahead of time for power outages, structural or crop damage, insurance claims and damage that can accompany a tropical storm or hurricane.

Long-range preparations can include purchasing or making rental agreements for special equipment, making adjustments to property and reviewing business arrangements. Short-range preparations should focus on immediate concerns such as turning off propane, moving livestock or equipment to safe places or updating phone numbers for emergency assistance.

Equipment needs can include a generator, fuel, a hand-operated fuel pump, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, flashlights and batteries, a weather radio and batteries, stored water and feed for humans and livestock, and a camera to document damage.

Hog and poultry farms and operations with greenhouses are especially vulnerable if electricity remains out for a lengthy period. Farmers who cannot purchase a generator should consider leasing or negotiating a rental arrangement for a back-up generator in advance. Be aware that some rental contracts are only for eight hours’ use per day.

Property preparations can include clearing debris from drainage ditches so water can run freely; checking power lines for clearance; pruning or removing trees that could fall on lines or buildings; and pounding in extra nails or tightening hurricane straps to prevent wind damage. Other precautions include clearing away all debris that could blow in high winds; securing farm signs; and photographing valuable items and storing the photos off site. Farmers and homeowners alike should store all important documents at least 2 feet off the floor.

A final long-range preventive measure is reviewing business affairs, including insurance policies, debt level and finances.

Farmers should develop an emergency plan for their families and employees and establish a meeting place where everyone can gather after a disaster. They also need to assign and prioritize preparation and recovery duties.

Short-range preparations include monitoring local weather reports; charging batteries on cell phones and cameras; checking generators and purchasing sufficient amounts of fuel; and checking feed inventory and ordering extra if needed.

Mark animals with an identifier so they can be returned if lost—ear tags, brands, paint markings on hoovesor coat, or clipped initials in the hair. Horse owners should plan for the possibility of evacuation and identify nearby facilities that are willing to take horses in an emergency. Find out what their requirements are for vaccinations or tests.

VDACS recommends pumping and storing at least a 36-hour supply of drinking water for humans and animals and topping off all gas, propane and other fuel tanks, including family vehicles. The department also recommends coordinating with neighbors beforehand to discuss what resources can be shared in the event of power outages or flooding.

 

Honey Bee Colonies See Best Winter in Years

WASHINGTON—Total losses of managed honeybee colonies from all causes were 21.9 percent nationwide for the 2011/2012 winter, according to an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Bee Informed Partnership and the Apiary Inspectors of America.

That represents a substantial drop compared to the previous five years, for which previous surveys found total colony losses of 29 percent to 34 percent.

Unusually mild weather could be a possible contributing factor, although no direct scientific investigation of the weather connection has been conducted. January 2012 ranks as the fourth-warmest January in U.S. history.

“A warm winter means less stress on bee colonies and may help them be more resistant to pathogens, parasites and other problems,” said Dr. Jeffery Pettis, co-leader of the survey and research leader of the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Bee Research Laboratory.

About 5,500 beekeepers, who manage nearly 15 percent of the country’s estimated 2.49 million colonies, responded to the survey.

Among those who reported losing any colonies for any reason, 37 percent said they lost at least some of their colonies without finding any dead bees. The absence of dead bees is a defining symptom of colony collapse disorder, a serious problem that beekeepers began facing in 2006. Because the survey was interview-based, it was not possible to confirm that the colonies in question had CCD or whether the losses were the result of other causes.

Almost half of responding beekeepers reported losses greater than 13.6 percent, the level of loss that beekeepers have stated would be acceptable for their operations. Continued losses above that level threaten the economic sustainability of commercial beekeeping.

Via Virginia Farm Bureau

Farm Bureau and Universal Fairs Partner to Preserve State Fair of Virginia

To help preserve the tradition of the State Fair of Virginia, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation has entered into a formal partnership with Universal Fairs LLC of Cordova, Tenn.

The Richmond-based nonprofit agricultural organization will be involved in developing the agricultural component of the fair, which Universal Fairs purchased at auction in May. The fair’s former operators declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy earlier in the spring.

Called Commonwealth Fairs and Events LLC, the new partnership will run the state fair as well as other shows and events at the 331-acre property in Caroline County. The first order of business will be to hold an exciting new state fair this fall from Sept. 28 through Oct. 7.

“Virginia Farm Bureau Federation and Universal Fairs have put together a partnership that we feel will help retain and grow the agricultural component of the fair,” explained VFBF President Wayne F. Pryor. “Universal Fairs has a proven track record of putting on successful fairs in several locations around the country. We are very excited and look forward to working with them for many years.” UF’s events include large fairs in Tennessee, Georgia and Washington state, a festival in Arizona and a variety of shows and expos throughout the United States.

“Universal Fairs has extensive experience in running family-friendly, entertaining fairs, and Virginia Farm Bureau brings an exciting agricultural component to the mix,” said UF President Mark Lovell. “We are new to Virginia, but we know how to run a fair. With Virginia Farm Bureau, a trusted organization that has been around for more than 85 years, we will be able to bring together the best of both worlds. I think that by working together we can help strengthen Virginia’s agricultural stature and visibility through various shows, events and exhibits.”

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell extended congratulations to Farm Bureau on the partnership, which he said “will further enrich the commonwealth’s long-standing tradition that is the State Fair of Virginia. For more than 100 years, the state fair has educated and entertained millions of Virginians. Today’s announcement helps to ensure that future generations of Virginians will continue to experience the best of what the fair has to offer. In addition, the Farm Bureau’s investment will guarantee that agriculture, Virginia’s largest industry, will be featured prominently—as it should be—at the fair for years to come.”

New agriculture-related events being planned include a 5-kilometer race sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom, which strives to improve the farm literacy of schoolchildren, as well as the Real Virginia Virtual Farm Tour. The tour will engage families at the fair and at home with a live online discussion about farming practices. Viewers will have their questions answered by a panel of farm experts and will “tour” a half-dozen Virginia farms via video. At each farm, the owners will be on camera to describe their operations.

“Being the state’s largest farm organization, and having as part of our mission the preservation of agriculture, we felt it was paramount to step up to the plate and assist with the fair,” Pryor said. “It is a vital tool for helping the public understand the importance of the agriculture industry. We plan to carry this out through teaching exhibits, shows and competitive events that include livestock, poultry, fiber and produce.

“Equally important to us is retaining the scholarship programs for youth who compete in livestock and equine shows through the FFA and 4-H organizations,” Pryor added. “We also plan to continue competitions in photography, arts and crafts and other disciplines.”

Caroline County Board of Supervisors Chairman Wayne Acors said the county “is gratified that its months-long recruitment of the Farm Bureau to participate in the State Fair of Virginia has resulted in the announced partnership. The Farm Bureau is the premier agricultural organization in the commonwealth and brings with it stability, integrity and a large membership that will be welcome in Caroline County at the state fair and at many other events. The State Fair of Virginia will be better than ever at The Meadow Event Park.”

via Virginia Farm Bureau

Quarantine for Emerald Ash Borer Expanded

Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services  recently signed orders that expanded the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) quarantine to include the counties of Charlotte, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, and Pittsylvania and the city of Danville. This action was taken because of the detection of EAB in or near these localities. Localities that were previously quarantined include Arlington, Clarke, Fairfax, Fauquier, Frederick, Loudoun and Prince William counties and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas, Manassas Park and Winchester.

The quarantine restricts the movement of regulated articles from quarantined localities to non-quarantined localities. The regulated articles, which include ash trees, green (non-heat treated) ash lumber and ash wood products, as well as hardwood firewood, pose a significant risk of transporting EAB. These regulated articles may move freely within the quarantined areas.

EAB is a highly destructive, invasive beetle that has already killed millions of ash trees in the U.S. and Canada. The adult emerald ash borer is metallic green in color and about one-half inch long and one-eighth inch wide. The adult female deposits eggs on the bark of ash trees. The EAB eggs hatch into larvae which chew their way into the soft layer of wood beneath the bark, disrupting the trees’ vascular system and cutting off the flow of water and nutrients. EAB in the larval stage are difficult to detect as they feed under the tree bark which enables EAB to hitch a ride to new areas when people transport firewood or other infested wood products.

“The Emerald Ash Borer is a serious threat to ash trees in Virginia,” said Commissioner Lohr. “VDACS and our partners are doing everything we can to limit the spread within Virginia and to surrounding states. I urge Virginians to keep EAB from spreading by not moving firewood and other regulated articles out of the quarantined area.”

Virginia Observes Pollinator Week

Because pollinator species such as honey bees, other insects and birds are essential partners of farmers in producing much of our food supply, the Commonwealth has declared June 18 – 24, 2012, as Virginia Pollinator Week. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) encourages all Virginians to do something during Pollinator Week to attract, protect or increase the state’s pollinator species.

“Pollinators are essential for the development of bountiful fruit and vegetable crops. To develop properly, crops need more than fertile soil, water and sunshine; they may also need bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and other insects and animals for pollination,” said Matthew J. Lohr, VDACS Commissioner. According to Keith Tignor, Virginia State Apiarist at VDACS, the numbers of pollinators are diminishing in Virginia, particularly among honey bees, a prime pollinator. “We are losing bees at an alarming rate,” Tignor said. “Recognition through the Virginia Pollinator Week will help to highlight the importance of honey bees and other pollinators to food production and the environment.”

Pollination occurs when animals, wind or water transfer pollen from the anther of one plant or flower to the stigma of another to initiate the process of fertilization. Once fertilized, a plant’s ovary swells and eventually ripens into fruit for seeds to develop. In most plants, pollination is necessary for the plant to produce fruit, whether it’s a grain of wheat or a watermelon.

Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry, with a $55 billion annual economic impact. Without adequate pollination services, Virginia could experience a significant reduction in its harvest of apples, alfalfa, berries, cucumbers, melons, peaches, squash, tomatoes and pumpkins. Experts estimate that insect-pollinated plants are the direct or indirect source of approximately one-third of the human diet.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 80 percent of insect crop pollination is accomplished by honey bees. In the U.S, honey bees pollinate more than $20 billion worth of crops annually. They are an excellent choice because as pollinators, honey bees are manageable, moveable, adaptable and won’t harm the plants in the pollination process. To pollinate their crops, U.S. growers rent approximately 2.5 million colonies of bees each year. Commercial beekeepers, those who manage more than 300 colonies of bees, number more than 1,500 in the U.S. In Virginia, honey bee pollination contributes more than $110 million to the state’s economy.

In Virginia, the number of bees available for pollination has been reduced to a third the number available just 30 years ago. Virginia had 98,000 bees in the mid-70s but only 35,000 today. The annual winter hive loss is 30 percent.

To attract pollinators to yards and gardens, VDACS offers the following suggestions:

  1. Plant a variety of flowers that bloom at different times of the year. A greater variety of plants available will attract more pollinators to a garden or landscape. Providing pollen and nectar sources throughout the year offers a food source to increase their numbers and activity.
  2. Plant flowers in clumps rather than singly or in rows. The fragrance from the flowers can attract pollinators from a great distance. Clumping flowers in groups increases the intensity of the fragrance and a pollinator’s ability to locate its origin, including those that only come out at night, such as moths and bats.
  3. Select plants that are known to attract pollinators in your area. Many of these will be native plants. To determine which plants are best for attracting pollinators in your region, go to pollinator.org/guides.htm and enter your zip code for an area-specific Guide.
  4. Choose flowers with a variety of colors. The color of a flower often alerts pollinators to good nectar and pollen sources. For example, butterflies are attracted to red, orange and yellow while hummingbirds prefer purple, red and fuchsia colors.
  5. Choose flowers with a variety of shapes. Butterflies and honey bees need to land before feeding and usually prefer flat, open flowers. Tubular flowers help lure pollinators with long beaks and tongues, such as hummingbirds.  NAPPC has guidelines on the types of flowers that appeal to the different pollinators at pollinator.org/Resources/Pollinator_Syndromes.pdf.
  6. Plant non-hybrid flowers. Many hybrid flowers have had their pollen, nectar or fragrance bred out of them. Non-hybrid flowers are often more attractive to pollinators.
  7. Provide or build nesting structures for pollinators. Bird and bat houses, shrubbery, compost and piles of fallen branches and brush provide harborage for many pollinators. Plans and tips for these structures are available through Virginia Cooperative Extension at http://www.ext.vt.edu/.
  8. Never use pesticides or herbicides when pollinators are present or around a pollinator garden. Even organic pesticides can be potentially harmful to pollinators. Herbicides can actually wipe out some of the most important food plants for pollinators. Some pesticides that are less harmful to pollinators can become more lethal when used with an herbicide or fungicide.

Virginia Farmers Encouraged to Participate in the 2012 Census of Agriculture

Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) is encouraging all Virginia farmers to participate in the 2012 Census of Agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will mail the census form to millions of U.S. farmers and ranchers nationwide in late December. This includes the people who own and operate Virginia’s 47,000 farms.

The Census of Agriculture, conducted every five years by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), is a complete count of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. The initial survey was sent in February 2012.

“This initial survey asks everyone who receives it to respond even if they are not farming,” said Lohr. “This is how the USDA builds the most accurate and comprehensive mailing list to account for all of U.S. agriculture in the Census.”

The Census is the leading source of facts about American agriculture and the only source of agricultural statistics that is comparable for each county in the nation. Farm organizations, businesses, government decision-makers, commodity market analysts, news media, researchers and others use Census data to make informed decisions.

Commissioner Lohr and other federal and state agricultural leaders are using video Public Service Announcements to remind producers not to miss their opportunity to be counted by signing up for the Census before July 1. The Virginia PSA is available on VDACS’ website.

“Local and national leaders use the Census to make decisions that directly impact your business, your community and your industry,” said Lohr. “Whether you’re farming four thousand acres or just four, it’s important to be counted. Every voice counts.”