Colorado Grows with Specialty Crop Block Grants
By Jodi Torpey:
Growers from all parts of the country know agriculture is more than just corn and soybeans. AG also includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, dried fruits and even nursery crops. That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides grants to bolster the efforts of specialty crop producers in each state.
Researchers with the Specialty Crops Program at Colorado State University apply for some of these federal dollars through the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), the agency in charge of managing the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (https://ag.colorado.gov/markets/markets-funding/specialty-crop-block-grant). Around $800,000 are distributed each year, according to Jennifer Benson, grants specialist with CDA.
Benson manages the whole grant application process that includes recruiting outside reviewers, awarding the grants and monitoring the grantees. In pre-pandemic times she’d also conduct on-site visits.
“The grants we get from the USDA are three-year grant periods, so at all times there are anywhere from 15-30 projects going on at once,” she explained. Grantees need to be able to measure the results of their efforts from improved sales, better access, increased awareness or other positive outcomes.
“I continue to be involved through the life of the grants which is fun because then I get to see their progress and the success at the end,” Benson said.
The annual Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association Conference, held virtually this year, highlighted the diversity of research projects supported by the CDA and the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. Two of the 11 mini-presentations included grant recipients Guidestone Colorado (https://guidestonecolorado.org/) and the Colorado Cider Guild (https://www.cociderguild.org/).
Growing Guidestone Colorado’s Farm to School Program
Farm to School is one of Guidestone Colorado’s four programs offered in Salida. The nonprofit works to promote agricultural education for all ages, according to Monica Pless, farm to school director.
“On the farm we’re growing for the school district, we sell to other places like the hospital and use it as a demonstration site for kids and adults to learn how to grow at high altitudes.”
The $18,000 Specialty Crop Block Grant is the second one for Guidestone. The first funded movable high tunnels for more growing space. “The overall purpose for the second grant is to increase production and education of specialty crops at high altitude,” Pless explained.
This grant funded supplies, materials, and specialty crop seeds like the round, red ‘Moskvich’ tomatoes that school cafeterias prefer and that can grow at 7,000 feet.
Pless also experimented with Bio360 biodegradable mulch that warmed soil earlier in the season, kept weeds down and held up well in a dry climate. Agribon 19 row cover, used for protecting crops, also performed well.
“A lot of grant funding we get is for the education side of our work,” she said. “This grant allows us to keep innovating on the production side so that we’re able to report to other growers the kinds of techniques that work best here.”
Cider Guild Seeks Industry Answers
The Colorado Cider Guild is a small trade association with 18 members who want to know: Is there a demand for hard cider in Colorado?
“Our long-term goal is to somehow have a symbiosis between those of us who produce the finished product with those who grow the fruit,” said Brad Page, past present and current treasurer of the Colorado Cider Guild. He’s also part-owner of the Colorado Cider Company (https://coloradocider.com/) located in Denver.
Page applied for a Small Crop Block Grant on behalf of the Guild to research the viability of a cider apple industry in Colorado. The $58,000 grant is being used to gather data to determine the economics on both the supply and demand side.
“My goal for putting in this grant application is to articulate the issues from both the grower side and the maker side,” he explained. “The conventional wisdom in the industry is that the demand is very small.”
However, Page thinks the industry is ahead of the consumer market, much like craft beer was in the late 1980s.
“The grant is broadening the scope of how we see the industry in Colorado where we have ties with agriculture,” he said. Data collection is ongoing and he anticipates wrapping it up this fall.
Jodi Torpey is author of Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening and The Colorado Gardener’s Companion.