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USDA awards specialty block grants worth $55 million

by Tim Linden | October 05, 2011

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded 55 specialty crop block grants that will fund 740 initiatives across the United States and its territories, Kathleen Merrigan, deputy agriculture secretary, announced in an Oct. 5 conference call.

The total dollar amount of these grants is about $55 million, with California receiving the largest share at $18.6 million. Funds will be used by all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The grants, which were funded by the passage of the 2008 farm bill, are given to the states for the funding of specific projects. California, for example, will fund 72 projects ranging from efforts to help small specialty produce growers market their crops to an international trade project to gauge the impact of European Union trade and support policies on the competitiveness of the California olive industry.

Ms. Merrigan said that the projects all across the United States are diverse and support various initiatives. She noted that there are many projects that help the locally grown movement, but said that pest control, farm-to-school sales and promotion of specialty crops sales are equally important.

"Agriculture plays a vital role in the health and strength of our economy, and by investing in specialty crop growers and producers across the country, we can help spark new markets and job creation, while expanding production of healthy, safe and affordable food," she said.

In a press release on the same subject, Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food & Agriculture, said that in her state the projects picked are designed to improve the prospects of California's specialty crop farmers.

"This block grant program provides an opportunity for researchers, educators and other innovators in the agricultural community to pursue a wide variety of projects designed to make our crops safer, more competitive and more accessible," she said in the press release.

As envisioned in the 2008 farm bill, the federal block grant program provides grants to states to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops. Specialty crops are defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.

Ms. Merrigan said that the grants are designed "to further the cause," articulated by the USDA dietary guidelines, which call for all Americans to "eat half a plate" of fruits and vegetables at every meal. She called the grants "really important" to achieve this goal.

During a conference call announcing the awards, Ms. Merrigan singled out a promotion program touting fruit and vegetable consumption in Massachusetts, a farm-to-school program in Oklahoma and a communication effort in South Dakota to connect local growers with buyers.

Also on the conference call was Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association, who discussed a food-safety training effort in Washington state that was funded both last year and this year. He said that the grant helped the group develop a food-safety guidance manual and conduct a training program for growers.

Mr. Grim said that more than 450 growers were able to become "audit ready" last year, and he anticipates enrolling at least that many growers again this year in the program.