DOAG: Enhancing Competitiveness of CT Specialty Crops

This article appeared in the June 26, 2013 edition of the Ag Report
 
 

Enhancing Competitiveness of CT Specialty Crops

Jaime Smith, Marketing Unit

 

Since 2006, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg) has been awarded more than $2 million from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP)-Farm Bill (FB). 

The program’s goal is to “solely enhance the competiveness of specialty crops in domestic and foreign markets.  Fifty-six projects and numerous sub-grantees have been funded through this award.  

 

DoAg is often asked two questions that are unique to the SCBGP-FB:

1.  What are specialty crops?  Specialty crops are defined by USDA as any fruit or vegetable, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops, including floriculture.  Also included is honey, maple syrup, Christmas trees, and processed foods/food products made of at least 50% specialty crops (excluding added water.)  An eligible plant must be intensively cultivated and used by people for food, medicinal purposes, and/or aesthetic gratification.  (The complete definition of specialty crops can be found at www.ams.usda.gov/scbgp.) 
 
While people in Connecticut usually do not think of these crops as “specialty” unless they are an heirloom, ethnic favorite, or similar novelty, they lack national association representation and are in fact defined nationally as “specialty.”  
 

      2.  What does “solely enhancing the competitiveness” mean?  “Solely” means funded projects focus only on specialty crops and do not benefit non-specialty crops such as dairy, livestock, or poultry, etc.  “Enhancing the competitiveness” means funded projects make the specialty crop(s) more aggressive economically or on an industry level, either locally, state-wide, regionally, nationally, and/or internationally. 

 

The SCBGP was first authorized on December 21, 2004 by Section 101 of the Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act of 2004, which authorized USDA to provide grants to states to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops.  In 2008, Section 10109 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (the Farm Bill) amended the act and established the SCBGP-FB. 

 

Each state is eligible to receive a minimum of $100,000 or one-third of one percent of the total funding available in a given fiscal year (whichever is higher).  In addition, USDA will allocate the remainder of the grant funds based on the each state’s specialty crop production value--related to the national value--using the latest available cash receipt data.  DoAg has received yearly allocations ranging from $116,864 to $442,964. 

 

USDA requires that funds benefit the industry as a whole, not a single organization, business, or commercial product.  Because USDA wants to see as many entities as possible benefit from these dollars during the three years in which the project can take place, individual farms or businesses are encouraged to apply in partnership with other eligible applicants—such as commodity groups, agricultural organizations, colleges and universities, municipalities, state agencies, and agricultural nonprofits—rather than by themselves. 

 

While there is no guarantee funding will be available, given the current status of the Farm Bill, funding is anticipated.  In addition to DoAg’s use of funds for projects that benefit the state’s specialty crop industry overall, USDA requires a competitive process take place for any sub-granted funds.  Since 2006, 105 applicants have requested a total of $3.6 million through the program. 

 

The application process begins after the first of each year, and has been streamlined through a new two-phase system that includes concept proposals followed by invitation-only full applications.  In 2013, 25 concepts proposals were received and nine were invited to submit a full application.  Those applications will be reviewed by a panel of approximately 12 industry people.  The panel evaluates each application and makes funding recommendations to the commissioner of DoAg. 

Many successful projects have produced excellent outcomes. 

 

In 2009, for example, DoAg used $45,000 to establish a USDA Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) food-safety program for Connecticut.  USDA trained and certified DoAg staff member Mark Zotti to conduct GAP audits on fruit and vegetable farms to increase wholesale market competitiveness.  Sixteen farmers became GAP certified in 2010 and 2011. 

 

Of the 16 farms, 14 also took advantage of the GAP Cost-Share Program DoAg offered (also with SCBGP funding), which covered some expenses farmers incur during certification and which made GAP certification financially feasible for some Connecticut farmers who would not have been able to pursue it otherwise. 

   

In 2010, Connecticut and the other New England states allocated $7,996 each ($47,976 total) in SCBGP-FB funds to Harvest New England, a nonprofit marketing association of the six New England state departments of agriculture, to educate Connecticut and other New England farmers about how to better market specialty crops to increase sales. 

 

The multi-day Harvest New England Agriculture Marketing Conference and Trade Show, held in 2011 and 2013, boasted two keynote speakers, 25 breakout sessions, and an industry trade show with over 100 exhibitors.  In both 2011 and 2013, 38 percent of attendees were from Connecticut.

 

The 2013 conference evaluation asked participants from both years if they had increased sales as a result of techniques learned at the conference, with 78 percent of respondents replying affirmatively—solely enhancing the competiveness of specialty crops in both Connecticut and New England. 

 

In 2011, Wholesome Wave, Inc., was awarded $75,000 in SCBGP-FB funds to provide the Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP) to recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Women, Infants, and Children and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs (FMNP).  The DVCP doubles FMNP benefits for fruits and vegetables at certified farmers’ markets. 

 

Wholesome Wave’s goal was to increase revenue to Connecticut specialty crop farmers in 14 markets by at least $80,000 ($40,000 in DVCP incentives leveraging $40,000 in federal benefit redemption). 

 

As of August 2012, $121,000 in federal benefit and DVCP redemption had been reported by 103 specialty crop farmers.  These numbers exceeded the original goals and increased revenue to specialty crop farmers by $60,500.

 

These are just a few examples of the many successful projects funded by DoAg through the SCBGP-FB.  A complete list of awards can be found at http://tinyurl.com/DoAgSCBGPAwards.  A list of projects awarded for 2013 will be available after October 1, 2013. 

 

For more information about the SCBGP-FB, visit www.ctgrown.gov/grants (click on “Specialty Crop Block Grant-FB Program”) or contact Jaime Smith at jaime.smith@ct.gov or 860-713-2559.