Specialty crops grown locally included in grant program

By ED MERRIMAN, Baker City Herald October 13, 2008 03:37 pm

Grants have been awarded to promote or improve three Baker County crops — potatoes, mint and grass seed.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture announced five grant awards Friday totaling $116,000 in federal funds authorizing a new specialty crops program under the 2008 Farm Bill.

The ODA received 10 applications for funding from the USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. Five applicants were given grants ranging from $14,000 to $30,000 for a total of $116,000 to help promote products or develop new processes and practices.

While most USDA funding has targeted program crops like wheat and corn for decades, Gary Roth, administrator of the ODA’s Agricultural Development and Marketing Division, said it’s a nice change that the 2008 Farm Bill included funds for some of Oregon’s numerous specialty crops.

“For years, the majority of USDA funds have gone to states with commodities that Oregon, for the most part, does not produce,” Roth said. “USDA’s Specialty Crop Grant program enables Oregon to resolve issues and address opportunities for our specialty crops that could not otherwise be done without this funding.”

Individual states received federal funds in proportion to the percentage of the specialty crops they produce. Oregon’s percentage is relatively high, so its allocated percentage was greater than most other states. Still, the $116,000 had to be focused on proposals that provide the largest possible benefit to Oregon agriculture.

Individual companies or commercial entities were not eligible for consideration and applicants were highly encouraged to provide a dollar-for-dollar cash match, according to ODA officials.

“Funded groups represent various geographic areas of Oregon and a range of specialty crops for which we are known,” says Lindsay Benson Eng, ODA Special Projects coordinator. “ODA will make all research and information developed from these projects available to the rest of the industry.”

The five applications awarded funding under the specialty crop program include:

n  The Oregon Mint Commission received $30,000 to conduct research on using microwave technology instead of a steam distillery process to extract oil from mint. Essential oil extraction by steam distillation is more than a century old and is a very energy intensive process. Resource demands and the increasing cost of petroleum have prompted the interest in finding a new method. Lab experiments and field studies funded by the mint industry show up to 60 percent less energy is required to extract essential oils through the use of solvent-free microwave extraction. The specialty crop grant will help the mint industry see if the process is feasible on a multi-ton level.

n The Oregon Potato Commission received $22,000 for a marketing and education campaign aimed at Taiwan, Oregon’s largest export market for fresh potatoes. Part of the campaign will involve using an executive chef to demonstrate uses for Oregon’s chipping potato varieties to Taiwanese restaurant representatives and food suppliers. Oregon potato export volumes to Taiwan will be monitored and evaluated to determine the success of the project.

n  The Oregon Seed Council received $30,000 to study the economics of carbon sequestration in turf grass grown for seed. With the creation of the Governor’s Commission on Global Warming and other activities to create recommendations on dealing with climate change, the research project will give policy makers data on the economics of using grass seed production as a resource for carbon sequestration. The industry would like a better idea of what financial incentives will be required to encourage farmers to change practices and techniques in order to participate in a voluntary carbon market.

Other grants went to the Oregon Wine Consortium, which received $20,000 to put together a trade mission and a series of promotional events in Japan, China, and Taiwan. The Fruit Growers League of Jackson County received $14,000 to conduct a marketing promotion of the Comice pear – a variety grown in Southern Oregon – to targeted domestic markets on the east coast and southwest, including California.

Work plans for each project have been submitted and passed along by ODA to USDA. Quarterly progress reports will also be prepared by the ODA to keep track of the progress of the projects awarded funding.

“Part of the language in the new Farm Bill directs states to focus on developing closer ties with underrepresented and underfunded sectors of agriculture that may not be aware of these grant opportunities,” said Eng. “We want to put together an outreach effort that could include a resource center on our Web site and perhaps grant writing workshops.”

Next year’s allocation to all states from the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program is set for $45 million. Given the same formula used for the current round, Oregon could get up to four times more money in 2009, which could be well over half a million dollars for eligible applicants, according to Eng.