WASHINGTON, DC – In an effort to help Rhode Island farmers, producers, and the state’s agricultural sector grow and develop a healthy, sustainable future, U.S. Senator Jack Reed today announced over $275,000 in Specialty Crop Block Grants.  Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), these federal funds will be awarded to five projects designed to grow the state’s ‘specialty crop’ sector, which include fruits, vegetables, and horticulture and nursery crops.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and four non-profit and academic institutions will use the federal USDA funds for specialty crop research, education, training, and market development.  In order to qualify for the competitive grants, projects had to demonstrate a benefit the industry as a whole, rather than one product, individual, or organization.

The specialty crop grants being awarded this year in Rhode Island include:

$105,136 for DEM to help increase consumer awareness and demand for specialty crop products and to strengthen marketing efforts for RI Grown Tomatoes.  DEM’s Division of Agriculture will work with farmers to extend the growing season of tomatoes with the use of hoop houses and other means.  The federal funding will also be used to certify organic specialty crop farmers and assist farmers with water testing to meet good agricultural practices and food safety modernization standards for specialty crop farmers.

$50,000 for Farm Fresh Rhode Island to build awareness and consumption of locally grown specialty crops through a series of in-classroom education, cooking and tasting programs and garden programs for students, parents, teachers, and staff.  Specialty crop farmers will visit Rhode Island public schools to talk about specialty crops and how they are grown locally and provide technical assistance on school gardens.  Chefs and food service professionals will teach students, teachers, and staff about how to prepare specialty crops, why they are an important part of a nutritional diet, and the role of specialty crops in the larger food economy.

$49,942 for the University of Rhode Island (URI) Saffron Program to promote saffron as an extremely high-value crop for Rhode Island agriculture. Saffron is the world's most expensive spice, selling for more than $5,000 per pound wholesale.  Initial tests have shown that saffron crocus grow well in Rhode Island.  URI will host a conference to introduce Rhode Island farmers to saffron production; conduct replicated, controlled field trials at URI to determine the best way to manage saffron during the summer dormant season; and provide technical support and training to Rhode Island farmers interested in saffron production.

$37,474 for Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) Funding to develop a locally adapted system for organic hop and rhizomatic crop production and farmer training.  SCLT will develop a research and training farmyard at URI and implement variety trials to determine which hop varieties grow best and how to optimize production.  At Urban Edge Farm, SCLT will develop a training space where farmers can learn how to grow rhizomatous food crops.

$33,005 for Northeast Organic Farming Association of Rhode Island (NOFA/RI) to provide training and support for organic farming methods on specialty crop farms. Through training, sharing best practices and skills-based learning, this project is expected to increase the sustainability, efficiency, profitability, conservation, and food safety of farms that produce specialty crops using organic methods.

According to DEM, there are more than 1,000 farms across Rhode Island and the local food industry supports 60,000 jobs.