Alabama is widely known for its peanuts, poultry and catfish. But farmers of the state are also working hard each year to churn out specialty crops like blueberries, peaches and sweet potatoes. Thanks to a USDA-funded federal grant, designed specifically for specialty crops, these growers can take advantage of a generous opportunity to make sure their business is up to standards in the competitive market.
The Specialty Crop Block Grant, managed by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI), was put in place to help enhance the competitiveness of Alabama specialty crops. Roger Templeton, manager of Escambia Blueberry Growers, Inc., knows first-hand the positive impact it can have.
Templeton oversees packaging at the Blueberry Growers Association, and saw the need for improvement at the facility. The Association applied for the grant in 2010 and was awarded $50,000 by the state after their proposal concerning food safety and packaging was approved. “The grant allowed us to build a temperature-controlled room that we use to cool blueberries and package them,” says Templeton. “This has helped us extend our shipping season by about a month or two.”
Templeton explains that as soon as a berry is picked off the vine, it begins to deteriorate. Escambia Blueberry Growers, Inc. ran into problems throughout the hotter months of July and August because berries would be too soft to ship. “Removing the heat from the berries quickly helps them last longer and makes them more attractive to consumers,” Templeton says. He adds that not only has the cooling room made a huge difference in that area, but it has also allowed them to keep employment of blueberry pickers and packers longer.
“Seeing what has happened with longer seasonal employment is a huge benefit of the grant,” Templeton says. “And consumers receive a better product because of it. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
As for the application process of the grant, applicants seeking funding can submit a proposal that must show how their project impacts and produces measurable outcomes for the specialty crop industry and/or public, rather than a single organization. State and local governments, colleges and universities, and non-profit and for-profit companies are eligible to apply.
Through the State of Alabama, the definition of specialty crops includes fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, Christmas trees, greenhouse and sod, herbs, dried fruits and floriculture. Applicants can submit proposals on a number of topics, including food safety, research, pest and disease control, new seed varieties and more.
Not only are Alabama specialty crops gaining popularity with the help of the grant, but consumers can also get a hands-on experience at the growing number of U-Pick farms. In the summer, that means blueberries, strawberries and blackberries, while pumpkins and apples take center stage in the fall. Those interested in picking their own produce can visit the ADAI’s website, agi.alabama.gov/alabama_u-pick, which features a listing of all Alabama U-Pick operations.