(July 14, 1:21 p.m.) Early dividends from the 2008 farm bill are due by this fall, and some of the checks will be written to help the industry advance produce safety.

Federal funds totaling $10 million are to be distributed to state departments of agriculture for the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program by the end of September, according to a July 8 notice in the Federal Register.

“It’s a reduced number for this year, but we are anxious to get it to the state and (start) developing plans and projects with the industry,” said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland.

The 2008 farm bill calls for $10 million in specialty crop block grants in fiscal 2008, $49 million for fiscal year 2009, and $55 million each year for fiscal years 2010-12. This year, the USDA has asked state departments of agriculture interested in obtaining grant program funds to submit applications to the agency by Sept. 9.

“We are certainly glad that the USDA has taken one of the cornerstone programs in the farm bill and started to implement it,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

Combined with previous fiscal year 2008 appropriations, Guenther said a total of $18 million in federal funds are scheduled to be distributed in the current fiscal year under the specialty crop block grant program. In addition, he said an announcement about grant applications for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative is also expected in July.

Under the grant program, each state and U.S. territory receives a minimum of $100,000, plus an additional amount based on the value of its specialty crop production. The funds can be applied to a wide variety of uses, including marketing and research efforts.

Stuart said a major focus of the block grants in Florida will be food safety; pest issues such as citrus greening will be addressed with funds from the Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission, said he, Ray Prewett, president of Mission-based Texas Citrus Mutual, and Todd Staples, Texas Agriculture Commissioner, met July 8 to talk about the program.

“I think (it’s) fairly obvious to us that some of the money that comes to Texas will be used to assure the safety of produce,” he said.

McClung said the Texas funds might be used both for education campaign for growers and packers and also for food safety research.