California specialty crop farmers are expanding export markets, improving food safety and providing school children better access to fresh fruits and vegetables thanks to a federal block grant program.
The grants are part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program that pumped $19.8 million into California this year. Nationwide, the USDA funneled $66 million to specialty crop growers of fresh fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and nursery crops.
The Farm Bill earmarked $72.5 million for 2015 grants. To help the agriculture industry get ready for applying, a series of four workshops and webinars will be held around Northern California in November, including Nov. 4 in Fresno.
Workshops will feature an overview of the program, how to use the online application system, a description of requirements for grant recipients and grant writing tips.
The USDA funded 60 projects in California this year, including promoting international trade, drought-related research, creating new opportunities for small farmers, improving the access to food and training the next generation of farmers.
Central San Joaquin Valley farmers stand to benefit from several funded grants to grow new markets for California olive oil, fight grape pests and attract foreign buyers.
Alicia Rios, director of the Fresno-based California Centers for International Trade Development, was awarded a grant of nearly $300,000 for a program that brought in buyers from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and India to meet with farmers and food producers.
Several major crops in the Valley, including almonds, citrus and dairy, depend on export markets for their growing industries.
“Our overall mission is to expand into foreign markets and if our producers can do that then they, too, will grow and create more jobs,” Rios said. “And all of that helps our economy.”
Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association in Fresno, said the block grants are an effective way for specialty crop growers to strengthen their industries, create more jobs and contribute to the overall economy.
“This is not frivolous spending,” Bedwell said. “These grants are focused and well spent.”
State agriculture officials said California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross will appoint a committee to review the grant requests. The committee reports back to Ross, who then passes along recommendations to the USDA for a final decision. Grant award winners will be announced in October.