VIRGINIA STATE UNIVERSITY, Va. — Virginia State University (VSU) is a leader in urban agriculture in Virginia and will help the nation in addressing food insecurity with a $600,000 grant to explore micro farms as a potential solution to food deserts in urban neighborhoods.
The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) recently awarded the grant to Dr. Leonard Githinji, project director and sustainable and urban agriculture Cooperative Extension specialist at VSU.
“Micro farms are small-scale farms suitable for urban areas where agricultural land is scarce. These farms maximize the use of space and produce higher crop yields per unit area,” Githinji said.
It is estimated that 80% of the United States’ population lives in urban areas where space for farming is limited.
The funding will help build VSU’s capacity to provide comprehensive education on micro farming. “Currently there is a lack of systematic education on micro-farming at VSU,” Githinji said. “Developing a comprehensive program will help us educate others on the best practices for micro farms.”
More than 11% of the nation’s population and 10% of Virginia’s population are reported to be food insecure, a situation that is likely to worsen as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food systems continues to unfold, he added. Residents in food insecure areas, commonly known as food deserts, have little or no access to fresh, affordable and nutritious food, and often have higher instances of chronic diseases, such as obesity, due to poor diets.
“Developing sustainable micro farms in urban areas can have a profound impact on access to healthy food in food deserts,” Githinji said.
The funding will enhance VSU’s capacity to study micro farming and provide experiential learning and hands-on training to students, Extension agents, Master Gardeners and youth leaders.
The three-year study begins this month and runs through March 2024. The funds will be used to purchase a modular micro farm, known as a cropbox, that will be suitable for growing vegetables, herbs and micro greens. The study will focus on developing and optimizing environmental growing conditions so that research-based information can be disseminated on best practices for micro farming.
Githinji will collaborate on the project with VSU researchers, Dr. Zelalem Mersha and Dr. Toktam Taghavi, and Cooperative Extension specialist, Dr. Jayesh Samtani, at Virginia Tech.
The project addresses four key NIFA priority areas identified in the 2018 Farm Bill: food security, sustainable agriculture, youth development and obesity.
Githinji currently conducts a successful and popular 12-week Sustainable Urban Agriculture Certificate Program at VSU, which began in 2017.
–Lorraine Blackwell, Virginia State University