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November 12, 2018

Maine ‘specialty crop’ producers get competitive boost from $538K USDA grant

Photo / Ted Axelrod, axelrodphotography.com
Photo / Ted Axelrod, axelrodphotography.com
The University of Maine has received two USDA grants totaling almost $145,000, for research to improve production of the state's wild blueberry industry.

About the grant program

Since 2006, the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program has awarded over $5.2 million to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to support the growing number of specialty crop producers who are selling into local and regional markets. Each year, the Maine department accepts applications for the grants, evaluating proposals in a competitive, statewide process. The program provides federal funding to projects identified as critical at the local level. Past and current awards have supported research into Maine's most crucial agricultural commodities, development of pest management strategies, school initiatives, and food safety projects. Funds have been used to improve harvests of blueberries, potatoes, maple syrup, hops, honey, and other crops.

Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry announced Friday that Maine has received $538,073 through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to invest in nine projects that are working to improve the competitiveness of Maine "specialty crop producers."

"These investments strengthen many of Maine's most important agricultural crops, defined by the federal government as specialty crops," said Commissioner Walt Whitcomb. "Selected projects benefit farmers and consumers by helping growers make food safety enhancements, solve research needs for better pest management, provide hands-on agricultural education for school children and make informed decisions that will increase the profitability and sustainability of Maine agriculture. These investments strengthen markets for Maine crops and help develop new economic opportunities."

Among this year's awards are two, totaling almost $145,000, for research at the University of Maine to improve blueberry production.

According to Nancy McBrady, executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, the block grants awarded to UMaine, will "help propel critical wild blueberry research regarding integrated pest management and plant management" for Maine's blueberry industry, which historically has produced up to 100 million pounds a year, bringing $250 million into the state, according to the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.

But in the last two years, those benchmarks have fallen due to price drops to deal with price drops, unaccommodating weather, diseases, foreign competition and reduced crop size.

Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry reported that UMaine received $99,880 to research improving blueberry production with integrated pest management for weeds and diseases. That project will be done in partnership with the Wild Blueberry Commission.

"There are 510 wild blueberry growers in Maine managing 44,000 commercial acres," the department stated. "This project would prevent $32.6 million in annual grower losses and sustain $128 million in value added economic activity per year to Maine. Over the past several years wild blueberry growers have consistently ranked controlling weeds and diseases as two of their top concerns for sustaining crop production and yield."

UMaine also will receive $43,887 to evaluate the impact of new fertilizers on the market used by wild blueberry growers. The latter grant also will evaluate the impact of "increased climate variability" on Maine's wild blueberry crop.

Other grant recipients

Food safety Vassalboro-based AgMatters LLC, a family-run crop consulting business, will receive two grants totaling $72,126, to update and train Maine growers on new food safety rules.

"Specialty Crop Grants have allowed us to support and guide fruit and vegetable growers in Maine with their food safety needs," said AgMatters' Linda Titus. "This has enabled growers to competitively sell their crops in larger markets and be prepared for the Food Safety and Modernization Act's Produce Safety Rule. The grants have provided Maine growers the opportunity to prepare for and to meet the challenges of these new laws by educating and informing them of exactly what they need to know and do before the law is enforced."

UMaine also received $270,110 in three grants to help Maine's potato industry. Projects include research in alternative cash crops and cover crops that can be successfully grown in rotation with potatoes.

Maine Landscape & Nursery Association received "52,070 for its "Plant Something at School" outreach K-12 program in Maine public schools.

Partnering with three other partners in the Maine School Garden Collaborative, the association plans to boost that program "with new resources for school gardens, newly planted school orchards and the publishing of a new children's book in the 'Agriculture for ME' series promoted with the 'Plant Something at School!' marketing vehicle," according to the news release.

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