Va. Tech's Steger Reflects on Ag College

4/8/2014 6:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Virginia Correspondent

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech’s outgoing President Charles W. Steger feels an obligation to prepare students at his university, including the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to meet the challenges of the future.

Steger reviewed his 14 years as president of Virginia’s largest land-grant university immediately after presiding at the grand opening of the new Human Agricultural Biosciences Building.

The 93,860-square-foot building is the first of four buildings planned for the Bioscience Precinct on the Virginia Tech campus.

Steger pointed to the new building as one of many changes and advancements made in the college of agriculture to better serve the agricultural industry.

The turnaround of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, moving the Virginia Tech Dairy Complex from campus to Kentland Farm, growing no-till farming, encouraging intensive pest management, or IPM, programs, increasing research that benefits animals, plant production and humans, and the two-year Ag Tech Program are some of the accomplishments Steger and Larry Hincker, associate vice president of university relations, touched on in the half-hour interview.

Steger seemed genuinely surprised that some of the farmers and agricultural leaders in the state feel that Virginia Tech no longer wants to be known as a farmer’s school. He addressed the issue by pointing to what is happening on campus and in the industry.

Citing the projected global population of 9 billion by the year 2050, Steger said the university has an obligation to prepare students to meet the challenges of the future.

He pointed out that Virginia Tech is one of the top 10 research universities in the nation and that much of that research is in agriculture. He said the university has one of the best agricultural economics programs in the nation.

He noted that agriculture in Virginia is a $52 billion per year industry and that it did $2.8 billion in exports last year, an 8 percent increase over the previous year. Steger said that agriculture, the economy and Virginia’s global exports are changing.

“We are not the place we were 30 years ago,” he said.

He said that the traditional farming programs of years past are not adequate anymore. A more interdisciplinary approach at the university is now being taken.

Steger believes the agriculture and forestry industry is a major component of Virginia’s economy and that it’s necessary to maintain the sustainability and vitality of the rural economy in the state.

Steger led the charge when the Virginia General Assembly became a battleground in 2010 over the future of the Extension service. A proposed restructuring plan came under fire as the public and lawmakers debated which offices to cut and how scarce resources should be allocated, according to an article in the fall edition of the Virginia Tech Magazine.

According to the article, Steger, in consultation with legislators and constituents, decided to withdraw the initial plan and go back to the drawing board. A new Extension director was hired and funding was restored by the General Assembly.

There are currently 231 Extension agents located in 107 offices across the commonwealth. In addition, there are 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers spread across the state from the Eastern Shore to southwest Virginia, and from Northern Virginia to Southside Virginia.

Steger, himself a horse lover, is especially proud of the Marion du Pont Scott Center in Middleburg, also known as MARE, which is devoted to research in equine nutrition. He said there are about 150 horses located at the center, calling it “a vital tool in supporting racing.”

One of the new developments in the state is the growth of vineyards, he said. He’s pretty sure that these vineyards have been helped by university and Extension people.

The move of the Dairy Complex is a work in progress, with construction underway on a 35-acre site at the school’s premier research farm about eight miles from campus.

The $14 million project will be able to accommodate a fully functioning herd of 230 cows, the university says. The ability to grow feed and allow grazing nearby is a plus, too.

Relocating the center makes expansion of the local airport possible and is necessary because of a Virginia Department of Transportation construction of a new interchange at the intersection of Route 460 and Southgate Drive.

The General Assembly has approved plans for the next phase of construction, which includes a teaching facility near campus and a research barn at Kentland Farm.

Steger points to the new Agricultural Technology Program, more often called Ag Tech, as an achievement of his administration. The two-year program offers an associate degree to students seeking careers in the agriculture or green industries. Students in Ag Tech can choose a specialty in applied agricultural management or landscape and turf management.

Steger reports 100 percent employment for those completing the Ag Tech program, which offers 110 majors.

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute is another source of pride to Steger. Virginia Tech has shifted toward cross-cutting initiatives using a business model that invests in large research institutes.

Steger also takes pride that the university is now involved in the development of 33 countries around the world.

Responding to the new demand for organic and locally grown foods has been another priority for the college of agriculture, with projects that provide university-grown foods that are used on campus and provide learning opportunities for students at the same time.

As Steger leaves office and Dr. Timothy Sands takes the reins as the 16th president of Virginia Tech, Steger’s interest in agriculture will remain. He is also a farmer, and his farm is on the James River.

He rents it out as a cattle and hay operation.

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