Researchers at the University of California, Davis and Arizona State University, Tempe, picked up more than $5 million as part of the 28 specialty crop grants announced this week by Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

The grants are to solve specialty crop agriculture issues through research and Extension activities through USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

"The specialty crop industry plays an enormously important part in American agriculture and is valued at approximately $50 billion every year," said Merrigan. "These projects will help provide specialty crop producers with the information and tools they need to successfully grow, process, and market safe and high quality products."

NIFA awarded more than $46 million through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), which was established by the 2008 farm bill to support the specialty crop industry by developing and disseminating science-based tools to address the needs of specific crops. Specialty crops are defined in law as "fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture." Funded projects address five focus areas: 1) improve crop characteristics through plant breeding, genetics and genomics; 2) address threats from pests and diseases; 3) improve production efficiency, productivity and profitability; 4) develop new innovations and technologies and 5) develop methods to improve food safety.

SCRI gives priority to projects that are multistate, multi-institutional or trans-disciplinary; and include explicit mechanisms to communicate results to producers and the public. Each of the focus areas received at least 10 percent of the available funds. The majority of funded projects address two or more focus areas, and include many collaborating institutions in addition to the awardee.

The projects funded address research and extension needs for crops that span the entire spectrum of specialty crops production, from studying microbial threats to greenhouse tomatoes to assessing grower needs and market potential of berry crops. Major projects were also funded to study the genetics of lettuce breeding and to improve grape and wine quality.