Federal specialty crop grants a boon for California growers

WASHINGTON -- California's fruit and vegetable industry could collect upward of $20 million this year from a federal grant program whose rules became final Friday.

The money is supposed to "enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops," in the Agriculture Department's words. That might mean everything from marketing to research. And though it's a pittance compared to conventional crop subsidies, the grant program is beefier than it used to be.

"The block grants give us an opportunity to identify niches which need to be addressed, to strengthen our industry's economic base," Joel Nelsen, president of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, said Friday.

In the 2008 farm bill, lawmakers boosted the Specialty Crop Block Grant program to $49 million for this year. It will grow to $55 million next year. The money flows to states, which in turn distribute grants among individual applicants that could range from universities to farm organizations.

California receives more from the block grant program than any other state. Politically, this is no coincidence. Although every state is assured of at least $100,000, farm-bill authors wrote a California-friendly formula that benefits states with the highest specialty crop production.

In part, the lawmakers were responding to lobbying from specialty crop growers who have complained that they receive few tangible benefits from farm bills that have traditionally focused on commodities like cotton, rice and wheat.

California's expected share comes to about 40 percent of the block grant total, estimated Robert Guenther of the United Fresh Produce Association. This is roughly equal to California's overall share of specialty crop production.

Specialty crops cover fruits, nuts, vegetables and certain select commodities like turf grass.

This year, boosted by additions made in the 2008 farm bill, the Agriculture Department is slated to provide $49 million for the block grants. California could expect roughly $19.6 million, if the state receives its expected share.

"California has been a model of how to run the program," Guenther said.

Last year, for instance, University of California at Davis researchers trained dogs to detect fecal contamination in leafy greens. The Fresno-based California Table Grape Commission produced a portable pest-and-disease reference guide.

Other U.C. Davis researchers used grant funds to develop a "robotic cultivator" designed to weed lettuce and tomato fields, while California Citrus Mutual surveyed consumers about how oranges taste.

"In all honesty, we learned the consumers were fickle," Nelsen said.

The citrus trade group used its federal grant to feed different batches of oranges to consumer focus groups convened in Chicago. Researchers sought answers to questions like which maturity level made an orange most popular. Nelsen said "we're still poring over the data," but he acknowledged that no definitive solution appeared.

The new block grant rules published Friday in the Federal Register become effective Monday, setting the stage for states to start applying soon for their share of the grant funding.

Agriculture Department officials tinkered with the rules based on public comments to earlier proposals but did not always take public suggestions. Officials declined, for instance, to specify that individual grants will be allocated on a competitive basis. Officials conceded the idea "has merit" but concluded states should enjoy flexibility in how grants are distributed.