California leads the nation with $16.3 million in specialty crop grants awarded recently by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As established by the 2008 farm bill, Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) grant projects were funded in seven categories -- Agriculture Education and Outreach; International Trade; Market Enhancement and Promotions; Nutrition; Plant Health and Pest Challenges; Food Safety; Environmental Concerns and Conservation; and Food Security. Projects were selected through a competitive review process.

“California grows, exports and consumes more specialty crops than any other state in the nation,” said A.G. Kawamura. “Farmers are the original innovators, and these grant projects represent the kind of creativity and advancement that will help California agriculture remain the nation’s primary source of specialty crops.”

The federal block grant program was designed to provide grants to states to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops. Specialty crops are defined as “fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).”

Abstracts of California’s 55 grant projects are available online at: http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/Specialty_Crop_Competitiveness_Grants/docs/SCBGP_Project.pdf.

The total amount of funding available nationally was $49 million. California’s $16.3 million leads all states, with Florida ($4.07 million), Washington ($2.9 million), Texas ($1.75 million) and Oregon ($1.66 million) rounding out the top five states.

California’s projects cover a broad range of issues facing the specialty crop sector and will help to insure continued growth and prosperity of the state’s largest agricultural segment. California is the nation’s largest producer of specialty crops, accounting for forty percent of United States specialty crop production.

For example, projects include dealing with invasive pests that are serious threats to specialty crop production throughout the state such as the Asian citrus psyllid, the spreading threat of the vine mealybug and the broader threat of the diaprepes root weevil. Other projects include increasing the water-use efficiency for growing specialty crops in a drought environment. Food safety issues also were funded, particularly in the areas of tomatoes and leafy greens.

In the area of nutrition, projects included linking ethnic specialty crop producers and low income consumers through marketing and nutrition education as well as a cooperative effort with the California Department of Education to increase preschoolers’ acceptance of fresh fruits and vegetables. In the area of international trade, a project was funded to conduct market research to determine India’s potential as a new market for California canned peaches. In the area of agriculture education and outreach, funding will support training to assist beekeepers in adopting best management practices for honey bee pollination of California’s specialty crops.

Although not required by USDA regulations, many grant applicants provided matching funds towards their projects. The total amount of matching funds is $8.4 million. As a result of this leverage, the total amount being invested in California’s specialty crops is $24.7 million.

CDFA partnered with the Center for Produce Safety in the evaluation and selection of food safety-related projects. Recent events highlight the importance of food safety to the specialty crop sector. These projects represent an effort to handle past events and minimize future outbreaks by proactive research. Eight food safety projects were funded for a total of $1.3 million. The Center for Produce Safety funded an additional three projects for approximately $700,000 which was raised from industry partners.

The SCBGP grants reflect the diversity of California’s crops and the geographic spread across the state. For example, major specialty crops such as almonds, pistachios, wine grapes, nursery products, pears, stone fruit, leafy greens, prunes and processed tomatoes were subjects of grant projects as well as a much smaller crops such as mint. These projects include outreach to small and minority producers and consumers. The SCBG projects will help California specialty crop producers deal with current major challenges such as drought, climate change, pests, food safety, as well as domestic and international market development. Innovations in production techniques such as conservation tillage and more efficient irrigation practices and best management practices for beekeeping are supported by this year’s grants.