Illinois has been awarded more than $630,000 in federal funds to strengthen the competitiveness of the state's specialty crop industry.
The funds come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and will support efforts to open new markets for fresh produce grown in Illinois.
"Expanding access to nutritious, homegrown Illinois food is important not only to the health of consumers, but also to the health of our rural economy," Illinois Department of Agriculture Acting Director Bob Flider says. "It's one of my top priorities as I start work at the department."
Lt. Governor Sheila Simon, chair of the Governor's Rural Affairs Council, encourages farmers to apply for the grants and serve residents in food deserts.
"This grant program will help Illinois farmers create markets, reach new customers and unleash the economic potential of a local food system," Simon notes. "Increased access to local foods will mean healthy choices for consumers and more jobs for our economy."
The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service defines specialty crops as "fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops (including floriculture)." According to a 2010 Illinois Specialty Crop Survey, more than 101,000 acres of Illinois farmland are devoted to growing specialty crops, producing nearly $392 million in annual sales for Illinois farmers.
Nationally, Illinois ranks first for its pumpkin production and in the top ten in the production of specialty crops such as asparagus, cauliflower, peas and lima beans. Proposed projects should accomplish one or more of the following objectives:
Increase child and adult nutrition knowledge and consumption of specialty crops.
Improve efficiency and reduce costs of distribution systems.
Assist in developing "Good Agricultural Practices," "Good Handling Practices," "Good Manufacturing Practices," and in cost-share arrangements for funding audits of such systems for small farmers, packers and processors.
Invest in specialty crop research, including organic research to focus on conservation and environmental outcomes.
Enhance food safety.
Develop new and improved seed varieties and specialty crops.
Improve pest and disease control.
Promote organic and sustainable production practices.
The IDOA will accept grant proposals until March 15, 2012, at 4 p.m. Request for Proposal Packets can be found online at www.agr.state.il.us/Grants/specialtycrops.html or by contacting Delayne Reeves. She can be reached by phone at (217) 524-9129 or by e-mail at email@example.com.