RAPIDAN — The aptly-named Carver-Piedmont Agricultural Institute continues to take root in the fertile red dirt surrounding a formerly segregated school in southern Culpeper County.
Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe on Wednesday morning announced a $63,000 grant in support of the ongoing regional initiative awarded through the state's Building Collaborative Communities program. The money will be used by the Rappahannock-Rapidan Commission to identify agricultural assets and develop an asset-based economic development strategy for Culpeper, and surrounding counties.
"This is one of my truly favorite parts of Virginia so it's really my honor to be here with you today," McAuliffe said in a speech inside the previously named George Washington Carver Regional High School. "This is an important and exciting day and the beginning of something great."
The project at Carver-Piedmont will focus on horticulture, grains and forage, and hands-on agricultural training and education for students of all ages. Longer-term, with ample support from the private sector, the former regional high school could become a multi-use cannery and food processing facility complete with a commercial kitchen, McAuliffe said.
"Re-purposing this building that way — it's just a beautiful story," the governor's wi fe said. "The project will determine how the center can become economically viable, strengthen the local food system, help address the needs of food insecure families, create jobs, provide training for the agricultural work force, inform and encourage healthier food choices and especially provide Virginia farmers with a fair, local market for specialty and other crops.
"You all are going to be busy," McAuliffe said.
Culpeper Extension Agent Carl Stafford has been a major driver of the project that is incorporating the history of the building and its namesake.
"If this wasn't the George Washington Carver School I wouldn't be nearly as interested in it," Stafford said. "His ideals and interest in agriculture kept my curiosity ... He wanted to mentor children, he wanted to impact, improve, research and change things around him, and he did. This gentleman, George Washington Carver, is the centerpiece for what we want to do now."
Born a slave in Missouri, Carver is one of the nation's most famous agricultural scientists and inventors with thousands of patents in his name, including hundreds involving peanut products.
Local parents selected his name for the segregated school operating from 1948 to 1968, said Samuel Glasker, president of the GWC Alumni Association and a member of the board of Carver-Piedmont Agricultural Institute . A retired colonel in the U.S. Army, Glasker, a Rappahannock County native, graduated from GWC in 1952 with the first class that spent four years at the school.
The connection between Carver and the burgeoning agricultural center is critical and crucial because of the gravity of his accomplishments, said Glasker.
"He educated himself essentially — his master taught him to read — but beyond that, Dr. Carver spent very few days in a public education institution until he went to college at Iowa State," he said. "All of his work was improving the lives of human beings. When you think in terms of his creations ... like my mom and dad used to say, here's a person who has touched the lives of everybody."
Glasker said the alumni association approved of the reuse of the school as a center for agricultural research and education, and that Carver would have approved.
"He would appreciate the emphasis in terms of education of people by doing, and also education ... to make a contribution to humanity," he said.
The nonprofit board of directors was formed in 2013 to oversee the new initiative at the old Carver school, and according to Stafford, work is already underway — the first two research plots on surrounding grounds involve long-term experimental trials of a herbicide and fungicide in cooperation with a Virgina Tech scientist.
The Carver-Piedmont Agricultural Institute also seeks to form partnerships with Virginia State University, Germanna Community College and schools in the surrounding counties.
For Stafford, it's about tactile education.
"I would really like to see teenagers have a chance to learn through doing — when you put your hands on something, when you smell it, when you touch it, when you hear it, when you feel it, soon — you learn better," he said.
Making the project possible is support from the school's adjoining landowners at Battle Park Farms, Stafford said.
Culpeper Public Works Director Jim Hoy is chairman of the board of directors .
"The center began with a simple idea: how to transform and re-purpose a former segregated regional high school into a center for helping farmers and agribusinesses test and develop new products grown in Virginia's northern Piedmont," he said.
Hoy said he hoped the project would provide numerous opportunities for a next generation of farmers, entrepreneurs and innovators to engage in creating and pioneering leading-edge agriculture throughout the region.
"Dr. Carver honed this approach by saying, 'Since new developments are the product of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible.' Simply, put Dr. Carver believed that people can learn by doing. That is exactly what we are hoping to achieve and sustain here," Hoy said.
Virginia Secretary of Commerce & Trade Maurice Jones attended Wednesday's grant award ceremony in Culpeper.
" I want to recognize the significance of the building in which we are gathered today," Jones said. "I want to thank Mr. Glasker and all of the alumni, because frankly it's alumni like you who have made it possible for me to be here, and every day I am grateful to you and others."
Jones further emphasized that the key to helping grow economies is teamwork, local leadership and strategic planning.
Madison County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Doris Lackey remarked that the budding initiative fit the goals of her elected body in working to make the region the breadbasket of Virginia.
"The land here is just ripe for that kind of development," she said.
For more information on the Carver-Piedmont Agricultural Institute, contact Hoy at (540) 825-0285 or Stafford, vice chairman of the board, at (540) 727-3435 ext. 351. Tax deductible donations can be mailed to GWCARC P.O. Box 2018 Culpeper, Va. 22701.