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WASHINGTON -- Some $49 million was doled out last month for specialty crop block grants, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon be inviting applications for fiscal 2010 grants aimed at boosting the competitiveness of specialty crops.

States are rolling out the farm bill money to fund projects to support specialty crops: fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, tree nuts and nursery crops.

On Oct. 15, USDA awarded 55 grants totaling $49 million to help support the competitiveness of small producers and promote or create direct-marketing opportunities for specialty crop producers. Projects are funded from seven categories: agriculture education and outreach; international trade; market enhancement and promotions; nutrition; plant health and pest challenges; food safety; environmental concerns and conservation; and food security.

"We are pleased to be continuing this partnership in every state across the country to support their diverse efforts to promote healthy eating and grow specialty crop markets by expanding access to fresh, local foods," Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan in a press release.

The Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association is using its specialty crop block grants to hold seven listening sessions around the state in an effort to develop a produce safety standard for Ohio.

"We applaud the Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association for proposing an innovative project that will lead the industry in food safety initiatives," Ohio Agriculture Director Robert Boggs said in a Nov. 6 statement. The Ohio project looks to develop a food-safety standard for fresh produce that takes into consideration climate, commodities and cultural practices unique to Ohio's produce growers.

California led the nation in block grants with $16.3 million, followed by Florida with $4.07 million, Washington with $2.6 million, Texas with $1.75 million and Oregon with $1.66 million.

"California grows, exports and consumes more specialty crops than any other state in the nation," California Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura said in a press release. "Farmers are the original innovators, and these grant projects represent the kind of creativity and advancement that will help California agriculture remain the nation's primary source of specialty crops."

Some of California's projects focus on invasive pests such as the Asian citrus psyllid, the spreading threat of the vine mealybug and the broader threat of the diaprepes root weevil. Other projects increase the water-use efficiency for growing specialty crops in a drought environment and assure the safety of tomatoes and leafy greens. The Center for Produce Safety helped fund three projects with $700,000 raised from industry partners.

Washington state officials selected 14 projects for federal funding under the specialty crop block grant program. The Washington Apple Commission is being awarded nearly $200,000 to provide technical assistance to increase market growth in Mexico, Russia, Thailand, India, China and the Middle East.

Another $220,000 is being awarded to the Pear Bureau Northwest to conduct ad campaigns with two large retail chains to increase market growth of Washington pears, apples and cherries in Mexico.

"Texas producers have experienced fierce global competition for market access," Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said last month in announcing his state's grants. "These grants will help Texas producers increase their competitiveness while enhancing food safety, nutrition and plant health."

The Texas Department of Agriculture is funding 18 projects to improve food safety, the health-related benefits of produce consumption, consumer awareness of Texas-grown produce, and protection of Texas specialty crops from plant pests and diseases.