Specialty Crop Block Grant Programs

Baby Plantsby Naomi Rosen

Bear with us here.  As I like to tell Jason McDonald (FiLoLi Tea Farms) every chance I get…”I’m a city girl”.  What I mean to say is I know absolutely nothing about growing crops.  Which makes me perfect for explaining what a Specialty Crop Block Grant is and why you should look into it.

What is the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP)?

Per the USDA website: “The purpose of the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) is to solely enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops. Specialty crops are defined as “fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).”  Tea falls into this category.  These monies can be used to determine proper cultivars for your region, crop feasability, long term financial impacts for the region, etc.  This kind of information is a vital resource to the Ag community in your individual states and can impact the economic and physical health of your region.  

As a side note, tea falls into the pre-approved specialty crop list because of the 1899 USDA Report Number 61 “Tea Culture: the Experiment in South Carolina” by Dr. Charles Upham Shepard, Special Agent in Charge Tea Culture Investigations. It was submitted to Hon. James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture and has been considered a specialty crop for over 100 years.  A free copy of Tea Culture can be downloaded, or you can find it in a local library as well.

How do I apply? 

The first thing you need to do is contact whomever is responsible for Agriculture in your state.  You can find the contact information here.  As mentioned in previous posts, networking and getting to know your Ag representatives in your area is vital and wise!  It is mentioned on the USDA site that funding is normally awarded to “state and local governments or nonprofits organizations, which then use the money to operate assistance programs locally”.  That’s not to say that you can’t apply as an individual but I would encourage you to work with your local Ag representatives and universities to increase your chances of becoming a priority.  There are two really HUGE reasons for not going it alone:

  1. Most states have elected commissioners of agriculture who administer the cash.  Politicians aren’t huge fans of doling out large quantities of money on Ag concepts or trials.  When presented as university research, it’s a safer gamble.
  2. In most states, the competition for these kinds of grants is huge.  Aligning yourself with a university just makes sense.  They will have the unending expertise and resources to see the project through to completion.

Once you have been in contact with your state representative, they can walk you through the application process.  Jason McDonald, or FiLoLi Tea Farm, having partnered with Mississippi State University, was recently awarded one of these grants.  Thank you to Jason, Dr. Bi and Dr. Nagel for sharing the submitted proposal: Bi_MDAC Proposal-2013.

We would encourage you to share your experiences with us if you have already applied for a SCBGP.  We would encourage you to share questions/concerns you have about this program.  We would encourage you to look over the proposal we provided and use the information to put together your own successful tea growing program.  Alright…that’s enough encouraging…


5 thoughts on “Specialty Crop Block Grant Programs

  1. Naomi, thank you for publishing this information. I wonder if you can tell me what kind of project do the block grants fund? Would this be a propagation project? Hybridizing project? Marketing project? How would the grants help a tea farmer?

    Thank you very much,

    Rob Nunally
    Onomea Tea Company
    Papaikou, HI 96781

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  3. Rob, thanks for the note and the questions. Being that I am a total rookie…I have listed some information below that might help. I have also asked Jason McDonald to answer this as he has hands on experience working with the grant process and is just more knowledgeable in general.

    In a nutshell, yes to propagation and hybridizing programs. On the marketing end of things, they are a little more strict on what is/is not allowed but that would be a question for your county agent. The first thing I would recommend would be to get in contact with your county agent (http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/Site/counties.aspx).

    Per conversations with Jason, these grants are traditionally awarded to universities (thus the reason you want to partner with one) and the monies are then distributed via them. If you were to partner with U of H on a propagation or hybridization program, your farm would be an indirect recipient of those funds. That research and work would benefit both your farm as well as the collective knowledge the university could garner to assist other US tea farmers in Hawaii.

    Did I answer your question? This is all new to me too!

  4. Rob,
    Again, I agree with Naomi in contacting your county agent or visiting your local USDA office as they will be more knowledgeable on this subject or can help guide you down the right path.
    According to the USDA, “The purpose of the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) is to solely enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops. Specialty crops are defined as “fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).” Tea is already listed in the specialty list so we know they can fund tea projects.
    The State of Hawaii has a list of priorities that will be considered when awarding these grants and they can be found at http://hdoa.hawaii.gov/add/files/2013/03/RFP_SCBGP-FB-FY-2013.pdf.
    I would say everything that you mentioned in your question would be covered except for marketing. The way that I approach the definition is that anything that can be done in the propagation, processing, harvesting, cloning, and growing making tea more efficient and competitive would be covered under this definition. Hawaii has imposed a little stricter guideline and I would definitely consult someone used to writing agricultural grants in your area with how to “creatively” meet these priorities in your proposal. In Mississippi, we addressed the grant prohibition of benefiting one product, by showing that tea can be used in multiple forms from drinking tea to medicines and health care products. Someone who is “creative” in writing a grant and sees the “whole picture” can help “tailor” a grant for your particular concern. (I am in no way using “creative” in a form of deception, I am merely stating that people who can see the whole picture can help meet the guidelines in place.)
    However, remember, the money is limited and it can be tough to get funded. Dr. Bi submitted the same proposal four times to our department of agriculture and was rejected three times. It just depends on how your state prioritizes its spending in a general fiscal cycle. This is why it is important to get to know your local university because they will be more in touch with what is being funded and can tailor the proposal to meet these priorities.
    It will help tea farmers directly because it helps provide money to research things that individual farmers may not have the funding for and can be beneficial. Some examples I can think of off of the top of my head are:
    -Similar to what MS is doing by assembling a gene pool for field and nursery trials and selecting the best cultvars for our area.
    -Planting methods: do you mulch, fiber cloth, weed net, hand weed, etc. What materials to mulch with that will benefit the plant nutritionally and structurally? Can they design the best “mulch” and how to apply it?
    -Cloning: is it better to air layer, take cuttings, use seed, graft, single node cuttings, multi-node cuttings? What soil matter do you use that works best? Do you use rooting hormones? Does one cultivar do better than other for each method? Would some benefit from different colored shade cloth in greenhouses? What produces the healthiest and quickest plant?
    -Manufacture and processing: what is the most cost-effective method? Which method provides the best quality tea? Factory design, factory layout, etc.
    Those are just a few, but if you have something that you need help on, you can get creative with someone that is used to grant writing and can work out a proposal to make it fit into this program. You can also propose to make your own garden the “test” site for the project or at the very least somewhere close enough for you to see real results “tailored” to your farm.
    Are there particular things that you would like researched? Email me at coaster_25@hotmail.com and I will try to help guide you in my limited capacity and knowledge.
    Also, as a side note, the USDA has a program for marketting. You can find that program at http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/FMPP. There are none available right now, but from time to time, they come available. You may also be interested in WUSATA (http://www.wusata.org/AM/ContentManagerNet/HTMLDisplay.aspx?ContentID=3209&Section=HOME) which is the Western US Agricultural Trade Association. They are very similar to a group we have here in the South called SUSTA (The Southern US Trade Association). These groups provide help with marketting and branding directly to their members.
    I hope this helps some. If you have further questions, let me know.

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