Crop grants: Specialty crop production encouraged through grantsWritten by Natasha Wheeler
As part of the USDA Specialty Crops Block Grant, the state of Wyoming awards grants each year to fund projects that enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops in Wyoming by increasing the production and consumption of fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, honey, horticulture and floriculture.
“We receive funds from the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, and we develop a state plan. Part of that state plan is providing sub-grants to various institutions, non-profits and producers who will carry out the projects that will enhance specialty crops,” explains Ted Craig, agriculture grants manager at the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA).
The grant program began in 2008, and nearly 75 awards have been given to projects throughout the state. About 10 additional grants are expected to be awarded this year.
“We typically receive between 20 and 30 applications, so chances of being successful are pretty good for those who have a good project and write a good grant,” notes Craig. “Depending on the year, there is a 30 to 50 percent chance of receiving a grant, which, in the grant world, is very favorable.”
Those who are interested in applying can find this year’s application and a grant manual at the WDA website. Craig suggests going through the manual first to make sure that a proposed project meets all of the eligibility criteria.
“There are specific outcomes and indicators defined by USDA, as to what they want to see in a grant application,” he says.
Once applications are received, a WDA review committee evaluates the proposed projects. The committee is made up of a wide range of experts from agricultural, business and grant management backgrounds.
“Each project should have a hook or a reason why our reviewers might want to fund them. It’s a competitive grant program, so applicants also have to have a project that will enhance specialty crops. It’s not for somebody wanting a grant to start or expand a business,” Craig comments.
He also recommends speaking with an experienced grant writer, such as a researcher from a university, college or non-profit, who knows how to present information in a persuasive and cohesive way.
“An applicant should not just say they are going to do their project and the outcome is to make more money and feed their family. That’s not what it’s all about. There have to be multiple impacts that somehow benefit other producers or consumers,” he comments.
Once accepted, a project has up to three years to be completed. Recipients are required to submit simple quarterly reports, detailed annual reports and a final report describing the project’s outcomes and benefits.
The Wyoming Community Network is one non-profit that has submitted several successful grant applications. They used the money to provide small grants up to $3,500 to schools, non-profits and producers for building high tunnels throughout Wyoming.
“That program, along with a high tunnel workshop, was responsible for over 100 high tunnels being built in the state. Those high tunnels are being used as outdoor classrooms in schools and at after school programs for 4-H and Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as for Master Gardeners and community gardens,” Craig explains.
Many other projects are also happening, including research that is evaluating goji berries as potential high-value crops for Wyoming, increasing pollinator habitat and developing a resource guide for specialty crop producers.
One project is investigating good handling practices for raw honey, which crystalizes easily and can burn if it is heated too quickly.
“They are looking at a low and slow honey liquefaction in the packaging of raw honey, with the focus on preserving quality, nutrition and flavor,” Craig says.
The viability of high-altitude hazelnuts is being studied with funds from a specialty crops grant, and a group in Albany County is using funds to create a specialty crop garden to increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to help food-insecure families.
At the Sinks Canyon Lodge near Lander, a group is saving apple trees that were planted nearly 100 years ago on the old University of Wyoming (UW) research station. They are taking cuttings from remaining trees and grafting them to new rootstock.
“The project is trying to make sure we don’t lose the old varieties that survived there after research at the station was discontinued. They also plan on adding some other apple tree varieties, grafted from heirloom varieties found in orchards around the state,” he explains.
In a separate project, UW’s Steve Miller is collecting information and scion woodcuttings to preserve apple genetics from around Wyoming.
“If we grow an apple tree from seed, it’s unique in its characteristics from every other apple tree. There are only a few types of apples available in the grocery store of the 2,500 varieties growing in the U.S. Many of these can be found in old orchards and on pioneer homesteads,” remarks Craig.
Colorado State University developed a nitrogen bio-fertilizer using cyanobacteria, and a group in Wyoming is using grant money to investigate the success of that bio-fertilizer production system. Scientists hope that it can be used in organic production where fish emulsion or blood meal are used for nitrogen.
“There are also some Farm-to-School mini grants from funds we awarded last year to the Department of Education. They turn around and give mini grants to schools to purchase vertical tower growing kits or build small school gardens,” he adds.
Research on fenugreek, which can increase lactation in livestock and humans, hops variety trials in the Big Horn Basin and the Junior Master Gardeners program are additional projects benefiting from specialty crop funds.
“It’s been a very successful program in terms of promoting specialty crops in Wyoming. We’re seeing more specialty crop producers. Many of them are small, concentrating on crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and salad greens sold directly to the consumer, but we have other specialty crops like dry beans, sweet corn, chickpeas, confectionary sunflowers and potatoes that are grown on a larger scale,” he comments.
The deadline for this year’s applications is May 2.