Valuable Farm Bill Program for Fruits and Vegetables Needs Better Focus
Analysis of California’s specialty crop grants finds successes but also shortcomings
OAKLAND, Calif. – An important farm bill program that provides valuable support for California’s growers and consumers of healthy fruits, vegetables and nuts would deliver greater all-around benefits if state officials address shortcomings in the process of awarding the federally-funded grants, an analysis by the Environmental Working Group shows.
The Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG) program, one of state’s most important sources of federal funding to expand and promote this $19 billion sector of California agriculture, delivers good value overall, EWG’s analysis found, but it falls short of its potential because grant awards don’t always target projects with the broadest payoff and sometimes don’t align with the state’s top policy priorities.
For example, more than half of the program’s funding is dedicated to research, leaving much less available to expand local and regional markets for growers or to increase access to and consumption of safe and healthy food. Both are key priorities for the state and generate immediate economic and public health benefits. The number of projects funded in these areas nearly doubled in 2011 under California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Secretary Karen Ross, but EWG concluded that targeting more funding to developing local and regional food markets would deliver even higher returns to growers while boosting public access to healthy food.
“In an era of tight budgets, it is critical that we get this right,” said Kari Hamerschlag, EWG’s senior food policy expert and author of the report. “Spending more money on projects that can deliver direct economic benefits to growers, while improving the health of Californians, is a great way to achieve two important goals at the same time.”
EWG reviewed the program’s track record over a three-year period to assess whether its funding projects were in line with the top 12 priorities outlined in “Ag Vision,” a strategic plan adopted in 2010 by the CDFA. The analysis showed that the specialty crop grants paid for dozens of worthwhile projects that did align with Ag Vision, particularly in environmental stewardship, food safety and pest prevention. But it also pointed out that several priorities were critically underfunded, including support for beginning and disadvantaged farmers, farm workers, outreach and information dissemination to growers, improving local and regional infrastructure and adaptation to climate change. Just 1 percent of the funding went towards organic agriculture, missing an important opportunity to help growers meet soaring consumer demand.
The report recommends increasing overall support for marketing but concludes that too much funding went to projects focused on image-building efforts that will have little impact on growers’ profitability or on improving Americans’ diets. The findings highlighted a number of questionable projects funded in 2009 and 2010, before Secretary Ross took office. These included a $180,000 grant to the Alliance for Food and Farming to support a controversial campaign that targeted EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, as well as two 2010 grants totaling $940,000, both managed by Western Growers on behalf of the California Specialty Crop Communications Alliance, that focused on social media and promotional campaigns. These and similar grants funded in 2009 supported the public relations efforts of a much broader agriculture industry coalition, the California Agriculture Communications Alliance, which is trying to promote a positive image to consumers increasingly concerned about agriculture’s negative impact on health and the environment.
One grant funds a “Know your California Farmer” website and blog that largely advances the interests of rice growers, dairy farmers and other farm and policy agendas – rather than specialty crop growers. EWG’s review found that over a five-month period only nine of 150 blog postings on the site focused on specialty crops, while a number extolled rice subsidies – hardly an appropriate investment for the specialty crop grants.
The $54 million SCBG program is funded under the federal farm bill to increase “the competitiveness of the specialty crop sector” and is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, CDFA manages the grant-making process and defines priorities for the state program, which gets about one-third of the total federal funding. From 2009 to 2011, 51 percent of the $52 million in California block grants funded research, while 35 percent went to marketing and just 14 percent supported nutrition projects.
“The program is getting better every year and should be expanded under the farm bill,” said Hamerschlag. “But we need to close the funding gaps and make sure that it provides balanced funding for California’s competing food and agricultural priorities. The agency can make these improvements with no change in federal policy.”
Specifically, the state agency should:
Establish guidelines for allocating funding more equitably among grant categories, reducing support for research and international trade projects that could be funded by other sources.
Eliminate broad communications/marketing grants that are more appropriately funded through private grower associations.
Require research proposals to include a grower outreach and/or information dissemination component.
Expand support for grower outreach and beginning and disadvantaged farmers.
Give priority to addressing multiple natural resource concerns, especially reducing chemical fertilizer and pesticide use; enhancing water quality and conservation; and climate protection and adaptation.
Give priority to projects that promote consumption of and access to healthy food while creating direct benefits and linkages for growers.
Increase transparency by clarifying how final grant decisions are determined and by publishing timely, detailed information on approved, denied and completed grants.
Expand outreach to organic, beginning and disadvantaged farmers and farm worker communities.
Reject proposals that undermine or conflict with the “Ag Vision” goals.
The EWG report also recommends broadening the federal mandate to increase availability of locally and regionally produced fruits and vegetables, ensure that state agencies make available more information on the grant-making process and revise USDA’s rules to give priority to grants that deliver ecological, health and economic benefits.
Tomorrow (Oct. 2), Hamerschlag will present her findings to a meeting of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture to review the SCGB program.