With California claiming more than a third of the total, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded $52 million in 54 block grants to U.S. states and territories.
The 2013 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program funds will support 694 initiatives nationwide designed to help producers of fresh fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops, according to a news release from the USDA.
States receive varying amounts of funds based on a formula tied to the value of each state’s specialty crop output. On the low side, Alaska received $185,000 in block grant funds for 2013. The state with the highest award is California, which was awarded $18.2 million.
“These investments will strengthen rural American communities by supporting local and regional markets and improving access to fresh, high quality fruits and vegetables for millions of Americans,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the release. “These grants also help growers make food safety enhancements, solve research needs, and make better informed decisions to increase profitability and sustainability.”
The USDA said the projects funded:
- $3.4 million for initiatives that help new and beginning farmers;
- $4.3 million for child and adult nutrition;
- $4.5 million for projects focused on good agricultural practices and good handling practices;
- $4.3 million to fund additional food safety initiatives;
- $14.3 million to support local and regional food systems;and
- $8.5 million to support sustainable agricultural practices
Specialty crop block grants have been an important part of agricultural policy since about 2001, said Kam Quarles, director of legislative affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based McDermott Will & Emery law firm. First passed as part of an emergency assistance bill in 2001, the specialty crop block grant program was eventually included in the 2008 farm bill, with mandatory funding topping out at more than $50 million per year.
Since 2006, the program has awarded more than $293 million to U.S. states and territories, according to the release.
The high number of block grant proposals from states dealing with food safety issues is notable, Quarles said. “Each individual state can create its own priorities and it is interesting how so many of those priorities fall in the food safety realm,” Quarles said. “It is just an indication how important that singular issue is to producers all the way up to consumers.”
Some grants are designed to help growers of specific crops.
For example, Michigan onion growers will receive help to fight pink root and bacterial rot, including evaluating fungicides and scouting fields for pathogens; Cornell University will receive funds to support increased production of New York mild onions with longer-storing hybrids; and a grant to the Vidal Onion Committee is for increasing consumer awareness with the Sweet Vidalia Flavors of Summer campaign.