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WASHINGTON -- A day after the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference wrapped up, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced the award of $55 million in specialty block grants, a 10 percent increase over last year.

"We are pleased to support diverse efforts to help specialty crop growers market their products in a global marketplace and encourage all Americans to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption," Ms. Merrigan said Sept. 17. "These grants are instrumental in helping specialty crop growers tackle the issues they are facing today."

The $55 million will fund 827 projects in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The grants are helpful to producers because they can funnel money to meet state and local needs in a very direct way and in a flexible manner, according to Robert Guenther, United's senior vice president for public policy. The $55 million also represents a step up from last year's level, a requirement under the 2008 farm bill, which calls for USDA to dole out $55 million for fiscal 2010 until fiscal 2012.

California, the nation's largest producer of specialty crops, received the lion's share of the block grants at $17.2 million. Florida ($4.7 million), Washington ($3.7 million), Texas ($1.7 million) and Oregon ($1.7 million) followed as top block grant recipients.

"This money will be put to good use by many deserving recipients -- all looking for ways to enrich the role agriculture plays in our lives," California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura said in a Sept. 17 statement. Some of the projects are management of Asian citrus pysllid in organic citrus, analysis of global opportunities for specialty commodities, development of market- based best practices for California kiwifruit and tests on strategies to improve microbial safety in composting process control.

Specialty crop producers in Florida also welcomed the news.

"The need for funding for marketing programs as well as research to fight invasive plant pests and diseases in Florida only continues to grow, so this is welcome news for Florida specialty crop producers," said Lisa Lochridge, public affairs director at the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. "We see a new pest come into our state on average of once a month, and four to six new diseases are detected each year." The block grants can help growers remain competitive.

For Texas producers, the block grant awards are important because very few companies and associations have the resources to set aside substantial sums for special projects or research, according to John McClung, president and chief executive officer of the Texas Produce Association.

"This past year, my association received a $20,000 block grant through the Texas Department of Agriculture to multiply the educational value of our convention through a package of publications, mailings, digital service kits and pre- and post-convention surveys," he said. "Without the grant, we could not have funded the outreach efforts, and our ability to educate the Texas industry would have been reduced."