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Now That’s Special: USDA Program Fuels Economic Development

A mother and son shop for veggies and flowers—both specialty crops—at a local farmers market.  Over half the foods we eat are considered specialty crops.  Support for this vital sector of agriculture relies on the stability provided through a comprehensive Farm Bill.  Photo by Melinda Shelton.

A mother and son shop for veggies and flowers—both specialty crops—at a local farmers market. Over half the foods we eat are considered specialty crops. Support for this vital sector of agriculture relies on the stability provided through a comprehensive Farm Bill. Photo by Melinda Shelton.

“Specialty crops”—the label may sound like exotic foods or something reserved for a special occasion, but this area of agriculture represents more than half the foods we eat on a daily basis.  Defined as fruits and veggies, tree nuts, herbs, dried fruit, decorative plants and flowers, these crops are not only a key component of a healthy diet—they are also key to sustaining U.S. farms and agriculture.

In 2008, the Farm Bill helped fuel the growth of the specialty crop industry by expanding programs that supported specialty crop farmers and direct-to-consumer sales.  Over the years these investments have created opportunities for beginning farmers and fueled innovation, food safety initiatives, and research.

As announced earlier today by Secretary Vilsack, USDA continues its commitment to support specialty crops and the many foods these farmers bring to our tables.  Through the Specialty Crop Block Grant program, administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), we are funding 694 projects in 54 states and territories.  The block grant program allows states to prioritize projects, investing in programs that will best meet the needs of their communities.

In Arkansas, projects range from scientific research on how to better store foods after harvest to using technology to more easily connecting farmers and consumers more easily.  The state is also looking at ways of feeding the hungry with excess specialty crops.

California will use its block grant to support 65 different projects.  Many of them will focus on food safety research and education, with academic institutions partnering with state agencies and farmers to explore new methods of preventing foodborne illnesses.  California is also looking at ways to prevent water and field contamination.

In Michigan, the state’s 20 projects will focus on creating and sustaining business opportunities for local farmers.  They will work to build relationships between producers and buyers, create sustainable business models and help the region recover from a recent loss of crops.  Michigan will also look at how fruit producers can remain competitive by researching and testing new technologies and then sharing the results with growers across the state.

Many of this year’s Specialty Crop grants also contribute to the development of local and regional food systems and are part of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative (KYF2).  Specialty crop funding is also supporting new and beginning farmers, child and adult nutrition, and food safety activities.

We need to build on the success of the Specialty Crop Block Grant program—and others like them—to continue the growth and innovation we’ve seen in American agriculture.  Programs funded through the Farm Bill, like the Specialty Crop Block Grant program, play a vital role in supporting American farmers and in bringing safe, healthy foods to our plates.  Without a Farm Bill and the certainty it provides for American farmers, we risk losing the momentum and steady growth we have witnessed in recent years.

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