Making a Good Farm Bill Program Better: Specialty Crop Grants in California

Compared to the billions that the government pays to subsidize industrial-scale growers of commodity crops such as corn, rice and soybeans, federal farm bill spending to promote cultivation and marketing of healthy fruits, nuts and vegetables is tiny.  The Specialty Crop Block Grant program is one of the more important programs to support these healthy foods, known also as “specialty crops”. Last year the US Department of Agriculture distributed $55 million in these grants to increase “the competitiveness of the specialty crop sector,” more than 30 percent of it in California, the source of 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 manages the grant-making process in the state and sets the program’s priorities. California is a nationwide leader in its efforts to craft a broader state strategy that goes well beyond USDA’s minimal guidelines, focusing its funding in three broad categories: research, marketing and nutrition.

The program is extremely competitive. Grant applications in California in 2009 totaled $65 million, nearly four times the amount available. Because this is such an important source of funding for innovative food and agriculture projects, Environmental Working Group took a close look at three years of grant awards to assess whether they were in line with the state’s top priorities and strategies as defined by the California Agricultural Vision, a strategic plan adopted in 2010 in a broad process involving multiple stakeholders. 

THE VERDICT: A Promising Program with Room for Improvement

EWG’s analysis found that the program delivers good value overall for the state’s $19 billion specialty crop industry and for California residents, but we also concluded that the grants don’t always go to projects with the broadest payoff and sometimes don’t align well with policy priorities.

For example, over three years more than half of the grant funding went 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 state priorities and generate immediate and multiple economic and public health benefits.

The program’s performance improved in 2011, when the number of projects funded in these key areas nearly doubled under California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, but targeting more funding to strengthening local and regional food infrastructure would deliver even higher returns to growers while boosting public access to healthy food.

The analysis showed that the program paid for dozens of worthwhile projects that align with Ag Vision, particularly in environmental stewardship, food safety and pest prevention. But several priority areas were critically underfunded, including support for beginning and disadvantaged farmers and farm workers, grower outreach and information dissemination, improving local and regional infrastructure and adaptation to climate change. Just 1 percent of the grant funding went toward organic agriculture, a significant omission at a time when consumer demand is soaring.

Missing the Mark: Industry PR Efforts Should Be Out of Bounds

EWG’s report recommended increasing overall support for marketing but concluded that too much funding went to projects focused on broad communications and image-building efforts that have little impact on improving growers’ profitability or 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 targeting EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, as well as two 2010 grants totaling $940,000, both managed by Western Growers, that focused on social media and promotional campaigns on behalf of the California Specialty Crop Communications Alliance. These and similar grants funded in 2009 supported the public relations efforts of a broad 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 these grants funded a “Know A California Farmer” website, featuring a blog that focuses much more on rice growers, dairy farmers and other farm sectors than on 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 industry groups outside of the specialty crop sector have contributed resources to the site, it is unclear to what extent the specialty crop program is underwriting the broader communication effort, which is managed by Adfarm, a Canadian PR firm.

Making a Good Program Even Better

Early this month (Oct. 2), I presented the findings of the report to the California State Board of Agriculture, recommending improvements that can be made with no change in federal policy. These include:

  • Establishing guidelines for allocating funding more equitably among grant categories and reducing support for research and international trade projects that could be funded by other farm bill sources;
  • Eliminating broad communications/marketing grants that are more appropriately funded through private grower associations;
  • Requiring research proposals to include a grower outreach and/or information dissemination component;
  • Expanding support for grower outreach and beginning and disadvantaged farmers;
  • Giving priority to projects that address multiple natural resource concerns;
  • Giving priority to projects that promote consumption of and access to healthy food while creating direct benefits and linkages for growers;
  • Aligning scoring criteria with the Ag Vision priorities and increasing transparency by publishing timely, detailed information on approved, denied and completed grants;
  • Expanding outreach to organic, beginning and disadvantaged farmers and farm worker communities.

The EWG report also recommended broadening the federal mandate so as to boost consumption and increase availability of locally and regionally grown fruits and vegetables.

In many respects, California’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program is a model for other states, but it can do even better. EWG will continue to advocate more federal dollars for this important program. In the meantime, we hope that the State Board of Agriculture and the Department of Food and Agriculture will make improvements to ensure that the grants deliver even greater value to growers and consumers in California.

Originally published on AgMag

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