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Calif. Boosts Funding Opportunities for a New Generation of Sustainable Farmers and Local, Healthy Food

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It’s a new day for those who have felt poorly served by California’s chief food and agriculture agency.

In a significant shift, an $18 million state-managed program that supports growers of vegetables, fruit and nuts is strengthening its focus on ecologically minded farmers and local, urban and healthy food programs.

New funding guidelines announced by the California Department of Food and Agriculture mark an important break from decades of mostly serving the interests of larger, conventional growers.

While the last few years have seen increased support for local food and direct marketing projects, the state’s new guidelines for the federally-funded program reflect a much more inclusive vision that values small, mid-scale and large farms; emphasizes healthy food access and urban food production; supports local, regional and climate-friendly agriculture; and invests in organics and a new generation of more environmentally sustainable growers.

The guidelines apply to funding decisions for the Specialty Crop Block Grant program, one of the federal farm bill’s more important sources of support for growers of fruits, nuts and vegetables, known as “specialty crops.” Last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributed $55 million in these grants nationwide to increase “the competitiveness of the specialty crop sector.” More than 30 percent of it went to California, which grows nearly half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

Although the money comes from the federal budget, it’s the California Department of Food and Agriculture that sets the program’s priorities within the state and manages the grant-making process in the state.

Since taking over as Secretary of Agriculture, Karen Ross has spoken often about the need for an inclusive vision of California agriculture, one that recognizes the value of all sizes and types of agriculture, and the importance of investing in future farmers and sustainability, as outlined in the California “Ag Vision” adopted in 2010.

The grant program’s new goals and objectives embody this more integrated, inclusive and sustainable vision and embrace many of the recommendations made by the Environmental Working Group in its recent Specialty Crop Block Grant report. In line with one of EWG’s central recommendations, the department condensed its funding guidance for 2013 into a more focused set of four overarching goals and objectives that align better with the Ag Vision. The new priorities are detailed in the 2013 Notice of Funding Availability.

As EWG urged, the guidelines put much stronger emphasis on local/regional food markets, processing and distribution, set a new goal of investing in the next generation of farm operators, place a new focus on expanding organic and sustainable agriculture and on supporting climate adaptation and carbon sequestration strategies. In another positive shift, the document calls for a focus on general workforce training, skill building for young and beginning farmers and urban food production and distribution. As also recommended in EWG’s analysis, the agency de-emphasizes research funding and includes a new grower outreach requirement for all research proposals. The guidelines also eliminate general outreach/educational grants as a priority goal, which in prior years have opened the door to controversial grants highlighted in our recent blog post summarizing the highlights of EWG’s report.

However, the program’s objectives still lack any special effort to reach the state’s growing ethnic farm populations. Although this would fit under the fourth goal of “ensuring the viability of California specialty crops by investing in the next generation of operators,” a more explicit focus on disadvantaged growers would ensure that these groups get stronger support.

The other questionable component is continued support for international trade. Trade is clearly a vital economic engine for California agriculture, but the state’s specialty crop industry already receives $23 million a year in federal funding for international trade projects, more than the entire budget of the Specialty Crop Block Grant program. The specialty crop funds would be better spent on expanding local and regional markets and increasing Californians’ low consumption of healthy fruits, nuts and vegetables. Increasing consumption would deliver cost-saving positive health outcomes for the state’s residents while creating economic opportunities for growers.

Following a formal hearing earlier this month (November), the State Board of Agriculture delivered recommendations to the Ag Department that echoed some of EWG’s more general, process-oriented recommendations on transparency and outreach that had been presented at the hearing. CDFA has yet to indicate whether it will adopt those recommendations, but its progressive decisions so far may be signs that they will make the additional improvements, especially improved scoring criteria and better dissemination of project results.

The funding door is now more open for organizations with projects on local/regional food infrastructure, organic agriculture, healthy eating, young and beginning farmers, climate change adaptation/sequestration, farm labor force training, farm to school, urban food production, agrotourism, etc. The deadline for Specialty Crop Block Grant concept proposals is Friday, Dec. 7. More information can be found here.

The changes in the Specialty Crop Program come on the heels of other important developments at the California Department of Food and Agriculture that will serve the needs of smaller-scale farms and contribute to a healthier, more sustainable food system. The agency recently announced the creation of a new Farm-to-Fork program that will “promote new and innovative approaches to making it easier for institutions to purchase from local farms, while supporting nutrition for our state’s lowest income communities.”  The Department is also making progress in its efforts to engage smaller farms on a host of other issues, including direct marketing and food safety.

When the newly formed California Food Policy Council meets next month in San Diego to chart its course for the next year, participants will be encouraged to know that they have a supportive partner in Sacramento.