$1.5 million and 24 projects help Oregon Ag

By Department of Agriculture,

Oregon’s specialty crop industry is receiving a $1.5 million shot in the arm as part of federal funds earmarked through the 2008 Farm Bill. The money will fund 24 projects selected by the Oregon Department of Agriculture and an industry advisory board- projects designed to help a major portion of the state’s diverse agriculture industry.

“Oregon and its Pacific Northwest neighbors make up one of the most intensive specialty crop production areas in the country, and these federal funds will ultimately help keep our producers competitive in the marketplace,” says ODA Director Katy Coba.

Specialty crops are defined as commonly recognized fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and nursery crops. Oregon ranks fifth in the nation in production of specialty crops. In past farm bills, federal appropriations targeted large program crops primarily grown in the Midwest and South, such as wheat, corn, soybeans, and cotton.

Under the US Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, each state received a base amount, but additional funds were awarded to states in proportion to the percentage of specialty crops they produce. In each of the past two years, Oregon’s share has been about $200,000.

ODA and the industry advisory board held listening sessions throughout the state earlier this year to develop a list of priorities for the 2009 funding that included market development and access, product and varietal development, value-added initiatives, innovation and productivity, consumer education, food safety and traceability, and certification. Applicants for the grants were asked to submit proposals based on the priorities. The awards have been made to projects that benefit a wide spectrum of specialty crops.

“We have some great projects on the list,” says Lindsay Benson Eng, ODA Special Projects Coordinator. “The ability for producers to have more capital for research projects will hopefully create some big benefits for Oregon agriculture. This is not necessarily traditional commodity research, but product development, value-added research, and certification-type work.”

ODA and the advisory board encouraged applicants to provide a dollar-for-dollar cash match. Those that were able to do so were rated more highly.

Of the 24 projects awarded, nine were proposed by ODA itself on behalf of the specialty crop industry. One project in particular represents a new area of development for the agency. Partnering with the Rose City Park Neighborhood Association in Portland, ODA will used more than $7,000 to establish a community garden in an economically-challenged area. The garden would allow residents to grow their own fresh produce and would help urbanites better understand agriculture.

“Community gardens have actually been shown to increase awareness of agriculture, and they can also be a stepping off point for a new set of producers from an urban community,” says Eng.

The project is not receiving one of the larger specialty crop grant allocations, but it should be one of the more publicly visible ones in Oregon.

At the other end of the allocation spectrum, $100,000 was awarded to Ecotrust, which is working with ODA and the Washington State Department of Agriculture, to create what is being called FoodHub. The funding will boost the creation of “an online directory and marketplace that makes it easy and efficient for buyers and sellers of regional food to find one another and conduct business”, according to the project proposal.

“The online database will consist of farmers and buyers, and will allow them to search for each other, search for a product, and facilitate the purchase of that product,” says Eng. “It’s a tool intended for the whole industry and was designed to accomodate multiple scales and types of production.”

Additionally, as part of a farm-to-school effort to put more nutritious, local foods into the hands of kids, FoodHub is well suited to match up school food service administrators with the products that fit their system- complete with contact information, recipes, and a way to purchase the products. Specialty crop growers are expected to be among the big winners under the FoodHub scenario.

Other proposed projects successful in the latest round of specialty crop funding range from pesticide residue testing in onions and pest control of codling moths in tree fruit to promoting potatoes in Southeast Asia and getting more Oregon berries into school lunch programs. In addition to the community garden, ODA’s projects include certification training and laboratory testing enhancements.

Reporting requirements for grantees have become more rigorous.

“We just don’t give them the money and hope they end up doing something good with it,” says Eng. “It’s all done on a reimbursement basis, and we audit the activities and all expenses. They also must submit quarterly progress reports. But we will do what we can to assist. ODA will work with each of the successful applicants in helping them be as successful as possible.”

Ultimately, all of the progress reports will end up at USDA, which remains a partner in the specialty crop grant process even as ODA acts as the local overseer.

The commitment to help specialty crop production nationwide will continue next year, when the base allocation for all states increases to $55 million under the block grant program. It’s almost certain that Oregon can expect to receive more than the $1.5 million it was given this year.

“We produce more than 225 different agricultural commodities, and many of them are considered specialty crops,” says Eng. “That’s why any increase in specialty crop funding is a good thing for Oregon.”

For more information, contact Lindsay Benson Eng at (503) 872-6600.

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