Groups seek specialty crop grants

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LANSING — Michigan produces the third-largest crop of apples in the nation each year, but with new federal grants to raise the competitiveness of the state’s specialty crops, apples — as well as blueberries, cherries and asparagus — may have the chance for further promotion.

The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program supports agricultural businesses for projects related to environmental conservation, innovation and promotion of good agricultural practices, said Mike DiBernardo, economic development specialist with the Department of Agriculture.

“The grants are for marketing, research, ways to promote sustainability, among many others,” DiBernardo said.

Specialty crops include fruits, vegetables and nursery products. Nonprofit organizations, government entities, for-profit organizations and universities can apply for the grants, which range from $10,000 to $75,000.

Doug Buhler, coordinator of Michigan State University’s Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs) said the grants are important because they give money for activities that don’t typically receive federal funding.

He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture also funds the new Specialty Crops Research Initiative, which provides $30 million to $50 million a year, but only for research.

The specialty crop grants pay for marketing and promotional initiatives that aren’t covered under the research initiative, Buhler said. He said the funding is especially important to the state because of the wide range of crops grown.

“Michigan has the second most diverse agricultural economy in the nation,” Buhler said. “We’re only second to California.”

Buhler said apples, blueberries and cherries make up a significant portion of the state’s specialty crop industry. Potatoes, peaches, dry beans, cucumbers and tomatoes also contribute.

Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee based in DeWitt, said the committee is applying for a grant for promotional projects. “We want to make apples more competitive,” she said.

Donohue said the money would mostly be focused on market development, education and research and pay for such activities as food sampling in stores, ads for in-store circulars and mass media opportunities.

She said the committee receives no tax money, but apple growers vote every five years on whether to tax themselves.

“We have a modest budget of our own,” she said. “The grant would allow us to go above and beyond what our regular budget allows.”

Donohue said the apple committee has used past grants for research on fresh-cut apples, apple cider and ways to improve exports to Mexico.

There are 950 apple growers in the state, and the industry provides $800 million to the Michigan economy annually, she said. Some of the biggest apple-producing counties are Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, Berrien and Oceana counties.

John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, said his organization also plans to apply for a grant for research.

Bakker said the board received a grant in 2009, which will fund an upcoming radio promotion in southeast Michigan.

He said the grant money was also used to survey asparagus farmers about the varieties they grow and conditions of their fields. “We’re evaluating the results right now,” he said.

Bakker said Michigan is the third-leading producer of asparagus, with about 75 percent of asparagus farmers in Oceana County.

“There are many specialty crop producers around the country that work very, very hard,” Bakker said. “The grants are a great investment in our future and we’re spending it wisely.”

Michigan leads the nation in blueberry, tart cherry and cucumber production and is in the top five for sweet cherries, sugar beets and Christmas trees.

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