Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture is addressing diverse agricultural challenges with innovative approaches to farming and environmental sustainability. With a focus on thinking globally and acting locally, 11 Virginia State agriculture and hospitality management students traveled across the world to Costa Rica, China and Morocco beginning in 2012 and ending in 2015, all ranging from seven- to 12-day-long trips. The opportunity was made possible through the United States Department of Agriculture Capacity Building Grant, which totaled $149,985. Over this three year period students spent time immersing themselves in a global cultural experience, gaining cultural awareness and technical skills aimed at giving them a competitive edge within the growing field of agriculture.
During each trip, special attention was placed on exploring sustainable agricultural tourism. Often referred to as agritourism, this industry attracts tourists to agricultural businesses such as ranches, farms, plantations, and even bed and breakfast establishments. Benefits of this growing field are preservation of agricultural businesses in the community and increased revenue for the rural farming industry. In fact, the state of Virginia is greatly affected by the large decline in the presence of small farms, with a loss of approximately 225 farms each year.
Hospitality management professor and grant coordinator Dr. Yan “Grace” Zhong is a strong advocate for the growing agritourism industry. “The importance of creating linkages between agriculture and tourism, and the hospitality industry as a whole is receiving growing recognition and has considerable potential to increase revenue to the rural farming industry,” she said. “This project bridges the gaps between the farm operation and table service; enhances students’ educational experiences in agritourism and hospitality management; and enriches entrepreneurship with a strong global perspective.”
Zhong sees the importance in readily equipping students at institutions such as Virginia State to think as global leaders in an effort to help improve the state of the agricultural industry in Virginia. “With the increasing concerns in environmental sustainability and competitiveness of the global marketplace, producing a new generation of leaders with strong cultural awareness and technical competency is essential.” said Zhong.
When they weren’t taking in the sights and attractions of the foreign lands, students spent time working with the most popular crops and agricultural products in each region. From learning the secrets of making the finest Chinese silks and teas to visiting strawberry and pineapple plantations, the wealth of knowledge gained over the course of the grant project was described by many students as invaluable. In addition to visiting popular agricultural sites, students were able to put their culinary skills to the test with personal cooking classes in Morocco and Costa Rica.
The grant provided experiences that made big impacts on participating students like Caleb Ugworgi, Sharon Smith and Ivanha Evans. For Caleb and Sharon, who have aspirations to work as restaurant owners and operators, this was an opportunity to travel abroad that couldn’t be passed up. “Studying abroad opens up opportunity for students to globalize their mindset,” Caleb said. “It gives all college students the opportunity to grow.”
Hospitality management major Sharon agrees, adding that after visiting other countries through this grant she felt inspired to live a healthier lifestyle for herself while inspiring others to do the same. After her visit to Morocco, Sharon plans to implement the farm-to-table concept into her own future business practices. “It’s amazing how much healthier the world eats,” Sharon said, “We need to model those eating habits here in America.”
By combining her new global knowledge with visits to local farmers markets and community co-ops in Petersburg, Sharon feels confident that the Virginia State University College of Agriculture is preparing her for success in the agricultural field. “We are helping humanity and helping ourselves. I’m happy I joined this program.”
For agriculture majors like Ivanha, study abroad experiences make a big difference in shaping a global perspective of agriculture. When asked what her favorite part about her study abroad experience was, she discussed the unique hands on approach used for teaching. “It’s one thing to learn in the class, but to actually see what really goes on and where things come from, it really opens up your eyes. Seeing everything in Costa Rica helped me put things into perspective.”
Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture offers a wide range of courses in agriculture, agribusiness, agritourism, and hospitality management that will continue to train tomorrow’s leaders in agricultural innovation.
The USDA Capacity Building Grant is used to strengthen and increase food and agricultural sciences through the integration of education, research and extension. All grant recipients must address needs in the areas of sustainable bioenergy, food security, childhood obesity prevention, climate change, or food safety. The United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture awards up to $600,000 per institution.
This work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.