Vilsack showcases specialty crops

by Josh Sosland
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MADISON, WIS. — Grants totaling more than $100 million to support U.S. specialty crops producers were announced Oct. 1 by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Mr. Vilsack made the announcement while in Madison, where he toured the Catholic Multicultural Center, which prepares food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, for delivery to local public schools.

Included in the grants are 56 totaling about $55 million under the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program that will fund 748 initiatives “to strengthen markets and expand economic opportunities for local and regional producers.” Another $46 million will go to support new and continuing research and extension activities of the specialty crops industry.

The block grants fund initiatives that:

• increase nutritional knowledge and specialty crop consumption;
• improve efficiency within the distribution system and reduce costs;
• promote the development of good agricultural, handling and manufacturing practices while encouraging audit fund cost-sharing for small farmers, packers and processors;
• support research through standard and green initiatives;
• enhance food safety;
• develop new/improved seed varieties and specialty crops;
• control pests and diseases;
• create organic and sustainable production practices;
• establish local and regional fresh food systems; or
• expand food access in underserved/food desert communities.

“By investing in projects that stimulate growth and development for specialty crop growers of all sizes, we’re helping American farmers establish a marketplace for new businesses opportunities in each region of the country,” Mr. Vilsack said. “These investments will support local and regional markets, and improve access to healthy food for millions of children and supply thousands of farmers markets, restaurants and other businesses with fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables. The grants also help growers solve technology needs or make better informed decisions on profitability and sustainability, leading to stronger rural American communities and businesses.”

Mr. Vilsack also highlighted $46 million in new and continuing grants through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which supports research toward developing and disseminating science-based tools to address the needs of specific specialty crops — defined in law as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.

Funding under S.C.R.I. is allowed for projects aimed at improving crop characteristics through plant breeding, genetics and genomics; addressing threats from pests and diseases; improving production efficiency, productivity and profitability; developing innovations and new technologies; and developing methods to improve food safety.

Examples offered included a $9 million grant toward the elimination of citrus greening (a serious bacterial disease) by blocking the ability of insects to move the disease from infected trees to healthy ones.

“Citrus greening threatens to destroy over 1 million commercial citrus acres that have an annual production value of approximately $3 billion across the nation,” the U.S.D.A. said. “Yearly losses could reach $10 billion if citrus greening is left unchecked.”

Another grant cited in the announcement explores the reduction of “naturally-occurring compounds” that form in potatoes during high-temperature cooking processes such as roasting and frying.

Still another seeks to “improve efficiency, productivity, and profitability for the vegetable production and processing industry based on an improved understanding of the role of consumer markets.”

The department said most S.C.R.I. projects involve public and private sector collaborations, “leading to multistate, multi-institutional or trans-disciplinary efforts.” S.C.R.I. recipients are required to provide a 100% match to qualify for the funding.

The full list of awards may be found at www.nifa.usda.gov/newsroom/news/2012news/scri_award_descriptions.html.

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