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.

But the group still found shortcomings with the California program.

Among those were too much funding — more than half — went to research, with relatively little left to expand grower markets or increase access to healthful food, according to the report.

Although many grants provided support for improving environmental stewardship, few focused on reducing fossil-fuel-based inputs, and only 1% of funding went toward organic agriculture, according to the report.

Hamerschlag said the lack of organic projects could partly be blamed on a lack of good submissions. But she said changes to the block grant program should increase organic participation.

“With the new guidelines specifically calling out the goal around increased acreage in organic and sustainable ag, groups that are working towards that goal will be more inclined to apply,” she wrote. “And, thus, I anticipate more organic-oriented projects to be submitted and approved in the coming years.”

The group also noted the lack of projects geared toward grower outreach, beginning and disadvantaged growers, ethnic producers and farm labor issues, according to the report.

In addition, the group questioned continued support for international trade, since several other federal programs help fund marketing domestic agricultural products in foreign countries.

“If growers want support for international marketing, they should go to the Market Assistance Program,” Hamerschlag said. ”We monitor funds from that program and found that the specialty crop industry already gets $23 million for international trade. So let’s put the block grant program to work to increase California and domestic consumption of fruits and vegetables while providing markets for growers. That’s a win-win.”

As part of proposal evaluation, the group wanted more information made public and provided to applicants about why they were approved or rejected.

Lyle said the department in 2010 began passing along comments from the stakeholder review committee.

“The quality of the feedback depends on the quality of the comments coming from the review committee,” he said. “If there’s a reason supplied — and we encourage the committee to be as detailed as possible — we provide that feedback.”