Of Wine and Watermelons: USDA Touts the $55M Spent to Benefit ‘Specialty Crops’

Patrick Burke | October 3, 2012 | 11:29am EDT
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A vineyard on northwestern Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, part of the state’s wine growing region. (AP Photo/John Flesher)

(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it spent $55 million in fiscal 2012 to support 748 “specialty crops” across the country – benefiting everything from fruit and nuts in California to an “interactive wine trail” in Massachusetts to the promotion of Michigan-grown Christmas trees and poinsettias.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack lamented that such support programs will not be funded in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 unless Congress passes the pending farm bill:  “October 1st is the start of a new fiscal year, but it also is the end of many of the programs authorized under the 2008 farm bill,” Vilsack said on Monday.

The $55-million in block grants was distributed to the agriculture departments in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories. Thirty percent of the grants went for “marketing and promotion” of specialty crops, which are defined as “fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).”

USDA confirmed to CNSNews.com that all grants were allocated for fiscal year 2012 and have already been administered.

Here’s a sample of what taxpayers funded:

-- The Alabama Watermelon Association, Inc. used its money to “promote the consumption of Alabama’s watermelon through appearances of the Alabama Watermelon Queen at various events and locations.”

-- New Mexico received money to create “new target markets” for the New Mexico green chile, including the creation of a DVD offering green chile recipes;

-- The Massachusetts Farm Winery Growers Association spent its share of the money on an “interactive wine trail” compatible with iPhones, Android and Blackberry smartphones, as well as “promotional materials” available for download.

-- The Michigan Christmas Tree Association received funding “to increase awareness and sales of Michigan-grown Christmas trees and poinsettias by conducting an extensive media campaign,” including “high visibility events” and TV ads;

-- The Sonoma County Winegrape Commission—a marketing association representing more than 1,800 growers in Sonoma and Marin counties—used its grant money to “implement a marketing campaign that will provide a unique chance to promote highly valued winegrapes from this area and build brand value for Sonoma County wines.”

-- The Big Island Beekeepers Association in Hawaii is using its grant money “to promote Hawaiian natural honey through a marketing campaign.”

-- The Garden Club of New Jersey received funding “to increase awareness and appreciation of organic gardening…”

The grants also funded promotional campaigns for potatoes in Idaho, mint oil in Oregon, maple syrup in Indiana, peaches in Georgia and more Christmas trees in Delaware.

Vilsack says the millions of dollars spent on specialty crops help American farmers establish new businesses opportunities in each region of the country.

“These investments will support local and regional markets, and improve access to healthy food for millions of children and supply thousands of farmers markets, restaurants and other businesses with fresh, high-quality fruits and vegetables. The grants also help growers solve technology needs or make better informed decisions on profitability and sustainability, leading to stronger rural American communities and businesses,” Vilsack added.

In addition to the $55 million in block grants, the USDA said it has spent an additional $46 million to fund specialty crop research projects.

According to the USDA, the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program has distributed $240 million since 2006.

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