USDA Awards Specialty Products Block Grants

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson 

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has announced $55 million in Specialty Crops Block Grants to support 827 projects in the specialty crop industry – people who produce fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops, including flowers. Block grants go to states to fund projects proposed by local entities – towns and organizations, for the most part.

This is not one of those USDA subsidy programs designed to make rich agriculture barons richer. This one’s for the rest of us.

I’ve been through a couple of Community Development Block Grant cycles. People who hate the idea of government helping ordinary people often single out the CDBG program for special scorn, but I’m here to tell you that this program is about as close as you can get to grassroots participation in how tax money will be spent.

I only know about how it works in a chunk of Massachusetts, and I’m sure somebody somewhere has figured out how to job the system, but here I’ve seen residents sitting down to talk about things they’d like to see done in their community, agreeing on priorities, and sending their ideas off to a state agency, which in turn sends them off to the Fed. And here it all seems to happen with a minimum of wasted effort and paperwork.

I don’t have similar experience with the USDA block grant program, but it can’t be all that much different. Quite a few Farm to School projects have been funded in this Specialty Crops cycle.

The program is authorized by the Farm Bill of 2008. Every state agriculture department, plus the District of Columbia and the territories of Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands submitted applications this time. The law requires that entities that meet the application requirements receive at least $100,000, or one-third of 1 percent of the total amount of funding available for the entire program for that fiscal year. The rest of the funds are then allocated to states based on the proportion of the value of specialty crop production in the state in relation to the national value of specialty crop production.

Grants to states this year ranged from $17,281,158.92 for California to $197,258.55 for Alaska. USDA kept some 17% for its own projects and activities.

Types of project grants break down this way:

  • Education 148; 18%
  • Food Safety 34; 4%
  • Marketing & Promotion 316; 38%
  • Other 43; 5%
  • Pest & Plant Health 98; 12%
  • Production 79; 10%
  • Research 109; 13%

Here are a few of the projects, randomly chosen from the full list.

  • Alaska: Enhance producer contact and communication and identify potential Alaskan market outlets for rhubarb
  • Arizona: Provide cost share reimbursement assistance to fresh fruit and vegetable producers, growers, distributors, wholesalers, and handlers that become Good Agricultural Practices/Good Handling Practices certified
  • Arkansas: Increase awareness of the “Arkansas Brand” through the use of decorative sacks that promote specialty crops as a point of sale promotional item at locally grown markets, on-farm stands, and U-pick operations
  • California: Engage social media to raise consumer awareness on California specialty crops and the farmers who grow our food
  • Colorado: Partner with the Center for Systems Integration to develop a model for a cohesive statewide Farm to School program where schools purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables

The application process for the 2011 fiscal year has already begun. In some states, it’s already closed. To find out whether it’s still possible to apply, you can call your state department of agriculture.

Funding for 2011 and 2012 will hold steady at $55 million.

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