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Urban Ag Center in Petersburg is Committed to Food Security

The city of Petersburg Economic Development team is making great use of some of its city owned properties and in particular that of the Harding Street Recreation Center. The space at 453 Harding Street in Petersburg is being leased by Virginia State University and will soon transition to the non-profit Harding Street Urban Agriculture Center Community Development Corp. The Ag Center is headed by Dr. Marcus Comer, Professor of Agriculture at Virginia State University (VSU).

This venture was started by VSU’s Cooperative Extension with funding from USDA. Cooperative Extension is a partnership between Virginia’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and VSU, to solve problems facing Virginians every day. Agents and specialists form a network of educators whose classrooms are the communities, homes, and businesses across Virginia.

Dr. Marcus Comer, professor of agriculture at Virginia State University

The building has been repurposed with solar panels so that it not only saves money on electricity bills but receives credits back for selling its excess to the power grid. According to Dr. Comer, “The primary purpose of the Ag center is increase access to healthy food, improving public health and poverty mitigation. Through business development and education. We have received help from the Cameron Foundation here in Petersburg; Dominion Power, Altria and Capital One, but we are always looking for additional ongoing support.”

Bringing Fresh and Affordable Food to Petersburg

“Being connected to the community is vital for our organization,” says Dr. Comer. To accomplish the mission of increasing access to healthy food the center works with other non-profit and grass root organizations in the city such as PHOPS (Petersburg Healthy Options), HCAT, River Street Market just to name a few. In addition, the center works with producers in a radius of approximately 50 miles to bring fresh affordable food to Petersburg. The Center’s production facility currently provides leafy greens to the local market and will soon be able to offer, microgreens, eggs, and fish. A distinct advantage of growing these foods indoors is that it can be done year-round. Which is a great economic advantage for producers, consumers, and the city. For example, there is a huge market for microgreens and now that the pandemic is coming to an end, the organization plans to sell microgreens to local restaurants and those prices can be as high as $100 per tray depending on the product and the varieties being produced.

The Ag center utilizes multiple soilless media methods to produce food. One of which is aquaponics, tilapia are used as both fertilizer and an end product. Effluent (waste) from fish tanks feed plants while naturally removing toxins from the water and recirculating it back through the system. The center has the capacity to raise 400 fish but currently is running at half capacity with room for growth. The center recently launched an agribusiness incubator program, as the program grows, there will be more locally grown products available for the markets in Petersburg.

Committed to Community Education

Education will continue to be a major component of the Ag Center. The community can learn how to setup small scale indoor ag as well as traditional urban farms utilizing the latest technical tools that not only increase production but positively impact natural resources by tracking water and CO2 levels, increasing greenspace and implementing sustainable practices.

The economic development team is working with the Crater Workforce Development Team to enhance STEM type learning in both the Petersburg High School System and the city Workforce Development Program. Public awareness of programs such as PHOPs are vital to developing a workforce of future scientists from within the Petersburg community. City Councilman Howard Myers, who represents this ward where the Harding Street Recreation Center is located adds, “Our city’s future will come from students and kids like those Dr. Comer will inspire. It is imperative that our city government and economic development team continue to support and promote projects like PHOPs and the Ag center.”

The star of this program is Dr. Marcus Comer who graduated high school in Tennessee; received a BS from Tennessee State University in Agribusiness; MS from Tennessee State University in Agricultural Education; PhD from University of Missouri-Columbia, MO with a concentration in Agricultural Education.

Dr. Comer has received awards/honors from Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute, University of Virginia; Virginia Department of Education Health and Medical Sciences Award of Merit; Webb-Godfrey-Hill Award-The American Distance Education Consortium and many others.

The list of professional affiliations and professional services spans the last 20 years and is too long to list in this publication. Suffice it to say, Dr. Comer is a dedicated individual and serves his community with a distinguished career. He is affable and loves to parlay his vast knowledge of agriculture to anyone who visits the center. The city of Petersburg is fortunate to have him involved with many of the community organizations like PHOPs that are making a difference to improve the health of our citizens.

Petersburg and Economic Development

One of the most obvious necessities of organizations like the Harding Street Urban Ag Center is that of developing talent from within the city for any of the three new bioscience companies located in the city’s technology zone. The three companies, AMPAC Fine Chemicals (AFC), Phlow, and Civica Rx will require a workforce of approximately 600 highly skilled scientists. AFC will supply chemicals to the pharmaceutical company Phlow, which will in turn supply medicines to Civica Rx which will deliver those medicines to every hospital in the United States. The city of Petersburg will become a supply chain for pharmaceuticals and medicines for the entire country and perhaps the world.

According to Mayor Samuel Parham, “Our city is on the brink of transformation technically. Our partnerships and our support of non-profit organizations like PHOPs and the AG Center CDC will help us further develop a workforce that is derived right here from Petersburg.”

The Petersburg economic development team contains a wide assortment of backgrounds. Those include Masters in Business Administration; Masters in Public Administration; Masters in Public Affairs; Vast experience in Advertising and Public Relations as well as the author of this publication who has a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry as well as 30 years in marketing. Our goal is to create a bright future for our fellow citizens and develop relationships with programs like PHOPs. One goal of this writing is to help further financial support for Dr. Comer and his program.

Learn more about this program and meet Dr. Comer at this link from PBS/VPM.

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