PROVIDENCE - The Department of Environmental Management has announced the award of farm viability grants totaling $205,311 for projects that will enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops grown in Rhode Island. The funds are from the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Specialty Crop Block Grant program. Specialty crops are defined by this federally-supported program as fruits and vegetables, dried fruit, tree nuts, and nursery crops including floriculture and turf grass production.
"We're pleased to award these grants for projects that will help strengthen markets for specialty crops, sustain the livelihood of Rhode Island farmers, and promote the long-term viability of agriculture in our state," said DEM Director Janet Coit.
The farm viability grants will be used for a wide range of purposes, such as increasing purchase of specialty crops by local schools, creating African vegetable markets in select stores in African and Latino neighborhoods, and supporting agricultural research at the University of Rhode Island.
DEM's Division of Agriculture and Resources Marketing received 11 applications for the grants. Following is a list of projects awarded funding through the grant round:
? $50,000 to Farm Fresh Rhode Island, to increase specialty crop purchases by local public schools by continuing to provide technical assistance to food service management companies and local farmers; making connections resulting in local specialty crops on the menu at schools, hospitals, care facilities, senior meal sites and worksite cafeterias; and building demand for local specialty crops through classroom and worksite education programs. Matching funds cover the costs associated with non-specialty crop items;
? $20,000 to the African Alliance of Rhode Island, to provide access to African vegetables grown in urban vegetable-growing parcels by creating African vegetable markets in pilot corner stores in African/Latino neighborhoods that will incorporate native African vegetable education programs and cooking demonstrations;
? $17,000 to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Rhode Island, to provide training for specialty crop farmers in the use of organic production techniques;
? $10,500 to Beanhouses Inc. and the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension, to determine if there are any varieties of dry beans that can be grown in Rhode Island, and make dry bean production an affordable option for farmers by conducting variety trials and demonstrating a bean thresher and bean winnow to growers;
? $31,865 to the University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension, to improve yield and quality of melons by testing innovative methods of protecting melons from striped cucumber beetle damage throughout the crop cycle while minimizing risks to bees. Successful control methods will be shared with interested growers through Vegetable Twilight Meetings hosted by the Cooperative Extension, and through the newly web-accessible "RI Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin;" and
? $35,000 to Alex Caserta, to promote Rhode Island specialty crop growers and educate consumers about locally-produced specialty crops by working with the Rhode Island Public Broadcasting Service and the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association to develop a pilot television series promoting specialty crops.
In addition to the grants, $40,946 in funding is provided to DEM's Division of Agriculture, to continue to increase demand and consumption of Rhode Island-grown specialty crops by expanding on the "Rhode Island Grown Get Fresh Buy Local" initiative through produce preparation demonstrations featuring local celebrity chefs at all RI farmers markets and participating roadside stands; updating its RI agricultural display; enhancing the marketing program by making point-of-purchase advertising material available to farmers; and introducing electronic benefit transfer banking to farmers markets to allow federal nutrition benefit recipients to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Matching funds will be used to cover non-specialty crops and producers.
RI School Districts Spend 11 Percent of Food Budgets Buying Local Products, According to New USDA Report
Director Coit pointed to Farm Fresh Rhode Island as a good example of an effort that is regularly supported by the specialty crop grant program. Today, Farm Fresh Rhode Island is a successful organization supporting the local food system that sponsors the Farm to School program, which is aimed at increasing the consumption of locally-harvested fruits and vegetables by Rhode Island school students. In addition, Farm Fresh Rhode Island also sponsors a host of farmers' markets including one year-round market; distribution channels for bringing locally-grown products to restaurants, worksites, hospitals, grocers, schools, food pantries and community centers; and special events such as the Local Food Forum held annually at Brown University.
As indicated in USDA's first-ever Farm to School Census which was released today, Rhode Island has a very high participation rate in farm-to-school programs, which was reported at 100 percent among the census respondents. The state's responding school districts spent $1.1 million, or approximately 11 percent of their school food budgets buying local fruits and vegetables. "There's nothing better than biting into a freshly-picked apple or ear of sweet corn from a local farm, and thanks to the farm-to-school program, students across Rhode Island can enjoy these delicious, healthy foods as part of their school lunch," said Director Coit. "Plus, more than 95 percent of the responding school districts said they will buy more local foods in the future. This is a real win-win for our students and Rhode Island's agriculture industry."
Sheri Griffin, co-executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island said, "Support from the specialty crop program has created important successes for the RI Farm to School program. All of Rhode Island's public school districts purchase locally-grown specialty crops, with support from Farm to School Coordinator Kim Clark providing technical assistance to school purchasers and farmers alike. Kim is also able to provide agricultural education programs for students in these districts, with lessons that touch on math, history, business and environmental topics. We are so fortunate to be able to secure this funding for this important work."
DEM's Division of Agriculture oversees numerous efforts designed to maintain the viability of farming in Rhode Island, including locally-produced milk, meats and locally-harvested seafood, farmers' markets, and buy local and agri-tourism programs. "All across our state we can see the tremendous growth of agriculture, from the expanded network of farmers' markets to the promotion of local foods in our outstanding restaurants," noted DEM Director Janet Coit. "Rhode Island's $1.7 billion green industry – and the 12,300 jobs it supports – is a bright spot in the economy of our beautiful state, thanks to growing consumer interest in products grown locally. On top of these economic benefits, agriculture also contributes to tourism, open space, quality of life, and access to local foods and horticultural products."