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Chesterfield's VSU invites Va. farmers to learn new techniques

In a steamy greenhouse, surrounded by exotic fruit, Reza Rafie tried selling the virtues of growing papaya, guava and figs, among other fruits, as cash crops in central Virginia.

A few feet away, Josh Greenwood, a Petersburg resident who owns a tree farm in Costa Rica, asked out loud if that was a viable pursuit.

“I don’t know if it is yet,” said Rafie, an extension agent at Virginia State University. “But if you’re the only one at a farmers market with papaya, they’ll buy your peppers, too.”

That comment elicited a few chuckles from the crowd, but most of the attendees offered knowing nods and jotted notes.

The day was part of Virginia State’s annual series of open houses during which it invites farmers from across the state to see new crops, or new approaches to old crops, in an effort to help them stay economically viable. The Thursday field day also included a cooking competition featuring all VSU-grown ingredients and an afternoon of lectures from academic and industry experts.

The Randolph Farm portion of this year’s field day was heavy on the new and different. The outdoor crops grown by VSU's department of agriculture included “yummy peppers,” a colorful snack variety of pepper, and the indoor offerings included plenty of tropical plants.

Sallie-Rives McCrea, a master gardener from Chesterfield County, spent the morning jotting field notes as she looked at bitter melons, long beans and the peppers.

“Being a master gardener isn’t just about revitalizing gardens,” she said. “You have to stay on top of the research.”

Linda Marshall, a master gardener from Henrico County, was looking for new ideas for her big project: the city block-encompassing floral and vegetable garden of 31st Street Baptist Church in the East End of Richmond.

“We’d like to do more fruit,” she said. “There are some things here we might try.”

A few miles away, back on campus, there was plenty of culinary inspiration in VSU’s new dining hall, where four chefs set up stations and showed off their skills with fresh foods.

“It’s good to get everyone together,” said Scott Williamson, a caterer, farmer and cosmetologist who helped put together the competition. “I know it sounds funny,” he said, “but it’s all art.”

He said there’s often a great disconnect between the farmers who grow food and local chefs who want to cook it.

“If (farmers) know what we’re doing, they’ll better be able to market their goods,” he said.

They’d get plenty of help from the likes of Sebastian and Heather Carosi, a clean-living, fresh food-cooking couple who recently moved from Maine to Sperryville to open Café Indigo.

“Fresh food tastes better, and I can see where and how it’s grown,” Sebastian said. “People used to eat indigenous food all the time. It was what my grandmother used to call ‘food.’ ”

Heather said it was an easy decision to bypass the seeming ease of mass-produced goods.

“I know where that stuff comes from,” she said. “I’ll stick with local.”

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