DOAG: Enhancing the Competitiveness of Connecticut Specialty Crops through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program

This article appeared in the February 12, 2014 edition of the Ag Report.

 

 

Enhancing the Competitiveness of Connecticut Specialty Crops through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program

Jaime Smith, Bureau of Agricultural Development and Resource Preservation

 

The beginning of the year brings many new things.  One is the Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg)’s request for concept papers for the 2014 program year of the Specialty Crop Block Grant-Farm Bill.

 

The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program was first authorized on December 21, 2004, by Section 101 of the Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act of 2004.  The act authorized the United States Department of Agriculture (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, which established the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program-Farm Bill (SCBGP-FB). 

 

The minimum base grant each state is eligible to receive is equal to the higher of $100,000 or one-third of one percent of the total funding available in a given fiscal year.  In addition, USDA will allocate the remainder of the grant funds based on the value of specialty crop production in each state in relation to the national value of specialty crop production using the latest available cash receipt data.  As a result, and due to the varying production from year to year, the DoAg has received a yearly allocation ranging from as low as $116,864 to as high as $442,964.  The 2014 allocation has yet to be determined.

 

The goal of the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program is to “solely enhance the competiveness of specialty crops in domestic and foreign markets.”  This language elicits many questions each year. 

 

The most popular question is about the term “specialty crops.” 

USDA defines “specialty crops” as any fruit or vegetable, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, or nursery crops, including floriculture.  Also included are 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 to be considered a specialty crop.  The complete definition of specialty crops can be found on the USDA’s website at www.ams.usda.gov/scbgp. 

 

While Connecticut producers and consumers typically do not categorize these products as “specialty crops” unless they are an heirloom variety, ethnic crop, or have some unique characteristics, they are in fact classified as such by USDA.  In broader terms, “specialty crops” are those commodities without national association representation. 

 

“Solely enhancing the competitiveness is a phrase that brings additional questions.  USDA is emphasizing two things with this terminology:

1. Only (solely) specialty crop producers can benefit from these funds.

2. A project should make the focused specialty crop(s) more aggressive in an economic or industry-related way on a local, state-wide, regional, national, or international level (enhance their competitiveness). 

 

Eligible applicants include commodity groups, agricultural organizations, colleges and universities, municipalities, state agencies, and agricultural nonprofits. 

 

USDA requires funds to benefit the industry as a whole, not a single organization, business, or commercial product, thus helping as many entities as possible during project’s duration.

 

As a result, individual farms or businesses are encouraged to partner with other eligible applicants, rather than apply themselves. 

 

USDA requires a competitive process for sub-granted projects.  In addition to meeting the program’s goal of solely enhancing the competitiveness of specialty crops and benefiting the industry as a whole, projects must be completed in no more than three years. 

 

While there is no guarantee funding will be available this year, it is anticipated.  With the fate of the 2013 Farm Bill uncertain as of writing of this article, proposed changes to the program are uncertain but likely.  These proposed changes include the following:

1. Reauthorization and increase of funding.

2. A funding formula that takes into account the average of both the value of specialty crop production and the acres of specialty crops planted in a state.

3. A portion of funding allocated to multistate projects.

4. A reduction in the amount allowed for state and sub-grant administrative costs.

 

Since 2006, 105 entities have applied, requesting a total of $3.7 million.  The maximum award is $75,000.  USDA has awarded nearly $3 million in program funding during that time to DoAg, which has funded 63 projects, many proposed and conducted by sub-grantees.

 

The application process begins early each year.  To streamline the process, a two-phase system was implemented in 2013, which includes concept proposals followed by invitation-only full applications.  Full applications are reviewed by an industry review panel. 

 

In 2013, DoAg received a total of 25 concepts proposals and invited nine applicants to submit full applications.  Five projects were recommended to DoAg Commissioner Reviczky for funding. 

 

A number of projects, both completed and ongoing, have had success and progress towards solely enhancing the competitiveness of Connecticut specialty crops.  Several examples follow.

 

The Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut was awarded $28,800 in 2010 for a project focused on three areas: (1) opening more forests to maple farming; (2) increasing sap flow per tap through the use of tubing vacuum systems and check-valve spout; and (3) showing greater evaporator productivity through the application of steam-away, max-flue, and reverse-osmosis units.

 

The most noteworthy of the goals was the one opening more land to state forests.  The first-ever, five-year lease agreement between the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and a Connecticut maple producer was established, and an additional 650 taps installed in a state forest in Glastonbury. 

 

A sizeable portion of the grant was allocated to installation of a vacuum-assisted tubing collection system at that location, on which another 150 taps will be added in 2015 for a total of 800 taps. 

 

Another producer, encouraged by the Glastonbury success, gained a yearly renewable lease on six acres of state land in Harwinton on which 300 taps were installed in 2012.  An additional 460 taps, with vacuum assisted tubing, were added on two private land parcels in Litchfield. 

In total, taps in Connecticut increased 10 percent during the grant period, from 70,000 in 2010 to 78,000 in 2013.

 

Another successful project was Getting it On the Air: Promoting the availability of Connecticut specialty crops to Connecticut radio listeners.  DoAg used $20,000 for radio promotions in late 2013 focusing on five Connecticut specialty crops:  apples in September, mums and pumpkins in October, wine in November, and Christmas trees in December.  The promotion included 75 sponsor identifications, 225 promotional spots, 160 marketing spots (15-seconds), and banner placement on WNPR’s website and in the station’s print and email blasts. 

 

The campaign encouraged listeners to visit www.CTGrown.gov  to find information about Connecticut specialty crop farms and products.  Website visits by consumers looking to purchase Connecticut Grown specialty crops increased a total of 56 percent during the project duration. 

 

During the summer of 2012, DoAg printed and distributed to eligible clients enrolled in Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) program 20,000 bilingual English/Spanish cookbooks with a $3 voucher inside.  The cookbook and voucher encouraged clients to increase their consumption of specialty crops, using them in new and different ways.

 

At the project’s conclusion, $26,049 in specialty crops had been purchased by WIC clients with these vouchers, equating to an overall redemption rate of 35 percent and an increase in specialty crop consumption by WIC clients of 5 percent.

 

Another noteworthy project involves an ongoing project in partnership with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection.  Grant funds were used to conduct a course, Better Process Control School for Acidified Foods, in December 2013, which 27 specialty crop farmers attended.  Participants took exams at the end of the course to measure knowledge and earn a passing grade.

 

The course was administered by the Better Process Control School at the University of Massachusetts.  The school was a direct response to the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act pursuant to Section 21a-115-59, Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies.  The training met the criteria established in Connecticut Public Act 10-103, “An Act Concerning Farms, Food and Jobs,” for certain exempt retail processors.  This legislation’s purpose is to encourage job growth and expansion through production and sale of value-added products by Connecticut farms.

 

These are just a few of the many successful Connecticut projects funded through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program-Farm Bill.  For more information about the program or for a concept proposal application form, visit www.ctgrown.gov/grants (click on “Specialty Crop Block Grant Program”) or contact Jaime Smith at 860-713-2559 or jaime.smith@ct.gov.