The Environmental Working Group said the California Department of Food and Agriculture is on the right track with the recent changes made to requisites for specialty crop block grants.
But the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group said it believes more can be done to focus on projects that help local or regional production and markets, organic production and ethnic growers. In addition, the group suggested the state adopt a more open grant award process.
These are but a few of the recommendations contained in the group’s 41-page analysis of California’s specialty crop block grant program released in October.
The group presented the report to the California State Board of Food and Agriculture at its regular meeting Oct. 2.
Steve Lyle, CDFA public affairs director, said the department continually reviews the grant program and makes necessary improvements.
“The objective has always been to make it reflective of stakeholder evaluations and not just CDFA’s evaluations,” he said, citing a stakeholder committee that also reviews specialty crop grant proposals. “We believe this is a very transparent process, and that’s why it was established — to introduce transparency into the process.”
The specialty crop block grant program, which provides funding to state departments of agriculture to enhance specialty crops, is the result of the 2008 farm bill.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $55 million in specialty crop block grants, with California receiving about $17 million, or about 30%.
CDFA issued an annual request for proposals earlier this fall, with a Dec. 7 deadline for submitting initial concepts.
Final proposals are due March 22. After state and federal review, grants of between $50,000 and $400,000 are expected to be awarded in October 2013.
The EWG report praised state agriculture secretary Karen Ross for changes she’s made to the block grant process since Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her in January 2011.
They included condensing grant priorities into four topics more aligned with strategies contained in California Agricultural Vision 2030, the state’s long-range plan first released in December 2010.
The four topics addressed enhancing specialty crop marketability and competitiveness, expanding consumer access to California-grown specialty crops, boosting stewardship and conservation practices, and ensuring the viability of specialty crops by investing in the next generation of producers.
“The secretary and her colleagues were very interested in our findings and clearly agreed with many of our recommendations, based on their revised guidelines,” Kari Hamerschlag, EWG senior food and agriculture analyst in Oakland and report author, wrote in an e-mail.