PROVIDENCE - The Department of Environmental Management has announced the award of farm viability grants totaling $255,543 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.
"These grants will help promote the long-term viability of agriculture in Rhode Island by strengthening markets for specialty crops and sustaining the livelihood of our state's farmers," noted DEM Director Janet Coit.
The farm viability grants will be used for a wide range of purposes, such as enhancing food safety practices among farmers and produce vendors at farmers' markets; increasing the consumption of specialty crops by the Latino population and decreasing obesity rates among participating families; and supporting agricultural research at Rhode Island College on the honeybee population.
Following is a list of projects awarded funding through the grant round:
? $37,752 for the Rhode Island Good Agricultural Practices Program, a partnership between the University of Rhode Island's Nutrition and Food Sciences Department and DEM's Division of Agriculture, to provide growers with training and support to become part of the state RIGAP certified grower program. The program has helped enhance food safety on farms for the past 12 years by providing farmers with information and resources about safe produce planting, harvesting and handling practices;
? $40,000 to Farm Fresh Rhode Island for the RI Farm to Cafeteria Project, a collaborative effort designed to bring RI institutional buyers such as schools, hospitals, state agencies and worksites together with RI farmers to develop sustainable purchasing agreements. This project builds on the success of the RI Farm to School Program, taking best practices and techniques and applying them to other types of large-scale food buyers. Work will include educating food service buyers and chefs on local specialty crop availability and use through the development and dissemination of a "Harvest of the Month" print marketing campaign to promote local specialty crops in cafeterias, and enhancing the Market Mobile program to serve more institutional purchasers;
? $10,300 to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Rhode Island, to increase the production and consumption of certified organic specialty crops in Rhode Island by providing outreach, education, and technical assistance to farmers;
? $35,400 to New Urban Farmers, to support a collaborative effort with the Pawtucket Housing Authority that promotes the use of specialty crops among Latino residents living in two family development complexes in Pawtucket. The project will include hands-on demonstrations and workshops, a mobile market to make specialty crops available from farm-to-table, and assistance for residents to establish community gardens;
? $22,736 to the Rhode Island College Honey Bee Study, to conduct a rigorous survey of the health and size of the state's honeybee populations along with the incidence of the small hive beetle (SHB). Survey data generated will represent baseline data for further monitoring of the bee population in Rhode Island. Educational outreach will be conducted to promote beekeeping and bolster bee populations, and mitigation strategies will be assessed to reduce the impact of the SHB. The goal of the study is to increase the size of the bee population and enhance the ability to pollinate specialty crops in the state;
? $31,398 to the University of Rhode Island Division of Research and Economic Development to conduct a study entitled, "De-Tasseling Sweet Corn to Prevent Bird Damage: An Alternative to Cannons?" This project is designed to address bird damage to sweet corn, which is a major specialty crop in Rhode Island both in acreage and in value. Uncontrolled feeding by flocks of birds can result in the loss of entire plantings of sweet corn. Currently the most effective and affordable control option for farmers is propane-fueled bird cannons, which emit a sonic blast every 40 seconds to 30 minutes to frighten birds. It has been reported that removing the tassel from corn plants after pollination decreases bird damage and may be an effective alternative to bird cannons. The study will evaluate the effectiveness of de-tasseling at preventing bird damage, measure its effect on corn yield and quality, and determine if de-tasseling provides sufficient benefits to growers to justify the expense; and
? $6,000 to Harvest New England Association, Inc. for an educational program designed to increase sales and consumption of regional specialty crops by New England consumer, specialty crop producers and wholesalers of specialty crops.
In addition to the grants, $71,957 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; and enhancing the marketing program by making point-of-purchase advertising material available to farmers.
Rhode Island has 1,243 farms, mostly family run, which occupy 68,000 acres. The state is a national leader in direct-sales to consumers, with 50 seasonal farmers markets in the state's urban, suburban and rural areas, seven indoor winter markets, and numerous pick-your-own and farm stand operations. The recent Green Industry Economic Impact Study funded by DEM and conducted by URI conservatively estimates that total agricultural revenues in Rhode Island are $170.6 million.