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The Texas Department of Agriculture recently announced $1.8 million worth of federal grants that will fund 17 projects that promote and develop Texas- grown specialty crops, including projects that will further food-safety efforts in the state and assist burgeoning industries.

Funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, the grants are an investment in Texas agriculture and will help grow the industry, according to Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples.

"Specialty crops play a vital role in the diversity of our agricultural economy," Mr. Staples said. “The Texas Department of Agriculture is using these federal grants to fund projects that will give consumers increased access to locally grown Texas crops. These grants will also help producers improve their products while increasing competitiveness.”

The 17 projects funded by the grants address improved food safety, increased development of the specialty crops industry, increased marketing and promotion of Texas-grown produce, increased promotion and consumer awareness of the nutritional benefits of produce consumption, and increased protection of Texas specialty crops from plant pests and diseases.

Grant recipients and their projects include:

• Texas Pecan Growers Association, which will educate growers on good agricultural practices for marketing safe products.

• High Plains Food Bank, which will provide adult and child education about eating habits, with a focus on locally grown and ethnically valued specialty crops.

• Texas Tech University, in conjunction with the Texas Olive Oil Council, which will identify best management practices in irrigation and plant physiology, effect of temperature and humidity on bloom and fruit set, nutrient management, and weed control in orchards for olive production in Texas.

• Texas A&M University, which will establish methods to enhance killing effectiveness of e-beam treatment in order to address the effectiveness of irradiation protocols in reducing contamination risks and improving consumer food safety of fresh leafy vegetables.

• San Antonio Herb Market, which will promote the use of fresh herbs and provide nutritional information to the community via multiple avenues of education.

• TexaSweet, which will increase awareness and consumption of Texas Rio Star Grapefruit by conducting mass-media outreach via television, a media tour and a series of in-store sampling demonstrations.

• Texas Certified Farmers' Markets Corp., which will promote public awareness of fresh fruits and vegetables sold at local member markets through the use of local and area media advertising.

• Texas Watermelon Association, which will conduct in-store demonstrations to increase consumer awareness and sales of Texas watermelons.

• Texas Vegetable Association, which will increase awareness of Texas vegetables through in-store demonstrations, supporting local produce consumption in restaurants and touting health benefits. A separate grant will allow the association to conduct a statewide conference on food-safety issues and a regional traceability conference targeting specialty crop producers of horticultural produce, including vegetables, citrus, pecans, peaches and berries.

• Texas AgriLife Research, which will seek to add value to stone fruits and pecans by promoting specific health benefits related to a variety of medical conditions, including chronic inflammation and metabolic syndrome.

• West Texas Pistachio Growers Cooperative, which will provide pistachio farmers in west Texas a central location for processing marketable pistachios and reduce costs incurred for processing out of state.

• Texas Fruit Growers Association, which will develop a model high-tunnel system for peaches by exploring different structural options and tree spacings.

The department will utilize some of the federal money internally to create informational and media events; plan and conduct Market to Menu events to showcase fresh produce for use in Texas restaurants; create informational literature on Texas Superstar plants, Earth-Kind Roses and Texas herbs and produce availability listings; and advertise to increase consumer awareness and sales of specialty crops.

The department will also create educational events, including the development of culinary workshops to train chefs on the use of fresh Texas produce; train producers and educate growers on marketing opportunities; perform in-store demonstrations to help educate consumers on how to use fresh produce in the kitchen; set up informational produce kiosks at the state fair; train school foodservice employees on the use of local produce; and create child nutrition information to distribute during Fruit & Vegetable Month.

The department will also use some of the funds to help Texas specialty crop producers participate in good agricultural practices training by assisting them with the cost of completing and passing the GAP food-safety third-party audit.