The 2014 Farm Bill has already set in motion and accomplished so much for our country. With historic support for specialty crop producers across the country, the bill will touch every one of our lives through one of the most basic of human needs: food.
Specialty crops make up the bulk of what we eat—all of our fruits and vegetables, tree nuts and dried fruits—as well as things like cut flowers and nursery crops. They are half of MyPlate at every meal, and the daily source for most of our vitamins and nutrients. For many in rural America, these crops not only provide nutrition, they are also a primary source of income.
For nearly a decade, USDA supported specialty crop growers across the country through the Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG) program. These grants enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops, sustain the livelihood of American farmers, and strengthen rural economies.
Last year, the program provided $55 million for 700 state-selected projects nationwide that contributed to food safety improvements, increased access to healthy food, and provided new research to help growers increase profitability and sustainability. The new farm bill expands support through the SCBG program to more than $66 million in grants for specialty crop growers—a historic high.
With projects focusing on everything from food safety to business planning, the block grants are designed to increase the long-term success of producers and broaden the market for specialty crops. Many states select projects that dovetail with community needs, such as establishing farm to school programs, providing training in good agricultural handling practices (GAP), creating organic and sustainable production practices, and developing food hubs that will increase opportunities for small-scale growers.
In Michigan, a 2009 grant helped the state Department of Agriculture and Resource Development work with partners to increase sales opportunities for specialty crop farmers in Southeast Michigan. They were able to identify and overcome barriers that prevented schools from purchasing products directly from local farmers, and ended up increasing the sales of apples, cucumbers, peppers, red potatoes, broccoli and several other crops within their state.
Another grant in Idaho established a partnership between the state Department of Agriculture and Boise State University-Tech to provide workshops that helped improve food safety and implement sustainable production practices for onions, potatoes, apples, cherries, peas and lentils. The project resulted in higher audit scores, increased efficiency and sustainability for participating companies, which both improve consumer confidence and help producers’ bottom lines in the long run.
Our dedication to strengthening rural America and increasing opportunities for specialty crop farmers will help keep our nation’s economy—and people—healthy for years to come. This week, we made the next round of SCBG funds available so that states can begin funding projects. If you’re interested in applying, I encourage you to contact your state department of agriculture. You can find more information at www.usda.gov/farmbill.