California receives $54.4 million in specialty crop funding

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By Vicky Boyd

California recently received $54.5 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant program, including $31.6 million in stimulus funding to address impacts of COVID-19 and promote economic recovery.

In the state, the California Department of Food and Agriculture administers the funds, doling out grants of $50,000 to $5 million for 65 recently selected programs.

They cover a broad variety of topics, ranging from workplace safety for nut hulling and processing to promoting California-grown blueberries in Southeast Asia and balancing deficit irrigation of processing tomatoes with productivity and water conservation.

Paul Sanguinetti, who grows walnuts, processing tomatoes and other crops near Stockton, said this type of funding is important to support research for minor crops that are often overlooked.

“Some of these crops don’t have a big enough acreage to warrant a lot of money being spent on them, or growers don’t have experience with what’s being done,” said Sanguinetti, a San Joaquin Farm Bureau director and California Farm Bureau District 12 director.

Funding sought for AgVenture

In the past, San Joaquin County’s AgVenture Program, which provides education about agriculture and nutrition to about 10,000 county third-graders annually, was a grant recipient.

The program had again applied for a Specialty Crop Block Grant this year, but it recently received notice it was not a recipient, said Krista McCoon, AgVenture coordinator. Their request had made it through two rounds of screening but wasn’t one of the final 65 awardees.

Nevertheless, she said she remains optimistic because they are resubmitting their grant request to a portion of the specialty crop grant program that received COVID-19 stimulus funding. McCoon said she expects to hear the results by January.

Should their request be approved, it would provide three more years of funding to AgVenture, covering most of the program’s expenses through December 2024. The remainder is raised through contributions and from other grants.

“(The specialty crop grants) are pretty significant,” said San Joaquin County Agriculture Commissioner Tim Pelican. “They cover about 60% of the costs to our program.”

The county was successful in obtaining specialty crop block grants in 2015 and 2018 to fund AgVenture for three years, receiving $178,000 and $192,639, respectively, according to CDFA.

Even if AgVenture does not receive grant funding through the COVID stimulus program, McCoon said it would continue.

“We’ve done a very good job of saving and not being frivolous with the funds we raise, so we do have a little bit of support to fall back on other than the grant opportunity,” she said.

Pelican agreed. “We do have a trust fund that we do have funds from different donations that we have received. The positive part is Krista’s salary is covered by the county. So I think there’s enough to carry on the program for at least another two to three years.”

Purpose of block grants

The block grants are designed to increase sales and consumption of specialty crops, provide nutritional education to consumers, and train growers to address future challenges, according to CDFA information. The grants also help fund research into conservation, the environment, pest control, and organic and sustainable production practices.

This go-round, CDFA focused on providing technical assistance and grants to organizations that support beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and on promoting increased access or nutritional education in underserved communities. The department also continued its partnership with the Center for Produce Safety in evaluating and recommended food safety-related projects.

California received a total of $54.5 million out of approximately $169.9 million awarded nationwide. Of that, more than $72 million came from the 2018 Farm Bill, while $97 million in stimulus funding was from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.