TALLAHASSEE- Florida Agriculture Commission Adam H. Putnam has announced that 28 projects will receive $4.1 million in USDA specialty crop block grants this year.
Eight organizations are responsible for the various programs that will get money. The primary beneficiaries are the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation and University of Florida. UF will receive $1.69 million for 12 projects. FSCF will get $1.3 million for eight projects.
Other recipients are University of South Florida, Florida International University, Florida A&M University, Florida Tomato Committee, Florida Sweet Corn Exchange, Florida Strawberry Growers Association, and Urban Growers Community Economic Development Corporation.
The new grants support initiatives ranging from critical research on citrus greening -- an existential threat to Florida's $9 billion citrus industry -- to improved detection of the laurel wilt pathogen to increasing a school gardening program and developing pomegranate and blackberry crops in the state.
"These grants will fund innovative projects that increase the sale of Florida products, help us fight invasive pests, and bring nutritious food to communities that need it most," Putnam said. "We are proud to partner with USDA, state universities and community organizations to support the state's $100 billion agriculture industry."
The Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services received more proposals for grants this year than before, said marketing representative Josh Johnson, administrator of the program. "The number of proposals was up by about 25 per cent, to 101," he said. "So this year was definitely more competitive."
One of the key reasons for the increase in interest from universities, agricultural groups and nonprofit organizations, Johnson said, was the failure of Congress to pass a new farm bill.
As a result, some key programs, such as the specialty crop research initiative and the organic cost-share program, expired with the old farm bill. In turn, the expiration of those critical programs exacerbated the need for funding that supported specialty crop research and marketing.
Another trend in this year's process, Johnson said, was more diversity among applicants.
"In the past, we were basically only getting proposals from universities and a few producer groups," he said. "But now, for example, we're getting them from a couple dozen small nonprofit organizations. And we were able to fund a couple of those this year. And we also had more universities apply this year, so we were also able to fund more of them."
The fact that the pool of applicants is growing larger and more diverse bodes well for the effectiveness of the block grant program, Johnson said.
"We're also getting better at identifying good projects and directing funding toward high-impact proposals and projects," he said.
Because specialty crops play such a major role in the Florida agricultural economy, the USDA grants are particularly important to the state as they fund essential programs that support research, pest and disease control , and marketing, Johnson said.
"We grow more fruits, vegetables and tree nuts than we do field crops like corn or wheat," he said. "And since a disproportionate amount of total funding from USDA does go toward crops like corn, rice and wheat, the block grant program is of special importance to the state."
It is also of special importance to the organizations that receive funding.
"The grants have given a phenomenal boost to our program and the interest in school gardens," said Lisa Gaskalla, executive director of Gainesville-based Florida Agriculture in the Classroom Inc., which has received USDA funding since 2009 and was awarded $59,850 this year to support its "Gardening for Grades" program, which encourages and supports school gardens.
"If it had not been for these specialty block grant funds, we would not have been able to expand our school garden outreach program. We just would not have enough money," she said.
Florida Agriculture in the Classroom is primarily supported by funds allocated from the state's agriculture specialty license plates, known as "ag tags"
The organization has provided grants to teachers for almost a decade. Now, as a result of block grant funding, it has expanded the program to include grants for the development of school garden projects and a supporting educational curriculum.
The amount of USDA funding awarded to the program has increased each year for the past five years, Gaskalla said.
She is now administering funds from the grant received last year and giving out 200 $500 school garden mini-grants and 50 $1,000 team school garden grants.
The school garden program is especially appropriate for Florida, Gaskalla said, because the state's long growing season perfectly mirrors the school year.
"And that means that in addition to being able to grow crops throughout the year, the students also face the same pest and disease issues that farmers face," she said. "That makes it an important part of the learning process, because it shows students just how tough it is to grow food and the obstacles that Florida farmers face."
The good news for the future, Johnson said, is that block grant funding is expected to be increased by Congress when a new farm bill is finally passed.
Applications are due to FDACS each year by early April. Grant recipients are announced in September.