BLACKSBURG, Va. — With an eye to the future, Virginia Tech has launched the SmartFarm Innovation Network to help producers maximize efficiency while sparking a new agricultural and natural resources economy.
The university’s interdisciplinary researchers and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialists and agents will partner with farmers and the commercial sector to develop and deploy technologies to increase farms’ overall efficiency, resilience and sustainability.
“The SmartFarm Innovation Network is about more than just harnessing the latest technology available to help producers succeed in a changing world,” said Dr. Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “It’s a deliberate way to create an environment in which the commonwealth’s largest industries — agriculture and forestry — can thrive and remain global leaders for decades to come while also contributing to the economy and health of local communities.”
The SmartFarm Innovation Network is made up of about 120 interconnected locations — Virginia’ Tech’s Blacksburg campus, 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers and 108 Extension local unit offices. It leverages the university’s existing infrastructure to capitalize on its proximity to agricultural and natural resources industries, and on the state’s soil, climate and geographic diversity.
The network is being designed to capitalize on advances in science and technology. Virginia Tech recently announced it was launching an Innovation Campus in Alexandria that will have an initial focus on computer science, computer engineering and related disciplines. The SmartFarm Innovation Network will use knowledge and partnerships created in Alexandria to serve agricultural and natural resources communities.
The idea for the network came from the April 2018 Virginia Agriculture and Natural Resources Summit, which brought together stakeholders to identify resources needed to create jobs, increase value and develop a strong workforce.
Robert J. Mills Jr., who raises tobacco, beef cattle and poultry in Pittsylvania County, said the state’s farmers stand to benefit from “unlimited access to information that we may not have locally” via the network. That’s especially true, he said, of producers like himself who are not near a university or Extension facility. “I’m two-and-a-half hours’ drive” from the nearest agricultural research and extension center, he said.
Mills serves on the CALS board and the boards of Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and the Virginia Tobacco Growers Association.
While the potential benefits of the SmartFarm network are obvious, he noted, limited broadband internet access in rural areas could keep some farmers from tapping into them.
That’s not lost on state and industry officials, he said. Moving forward, “we’ve got to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place” to position farmers for success.
More information about the network is available at cals.vt.edu/research/innovation-smartfarm.html.
— Virginia Farm Bureau Federation