Faculty Professor Rami Reddy in the BILSA Agriculture Lab Greenhouse

Cranberry producers can breathe a little easier today, thanks to a grant program for specialty crops.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) administers the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. This U.S. Department of Agriculture effort enhances the competitiveness of specialty crop industries in domestic and foreign markets. Entomology researcher Shawn Steffan credits three of these grants, totaling around $147,000, for funding the discovery of native nematodes that battle the cranberry flea beetle, a top insect threat to Wisconsin’s $1 billion cranberry industry. This newfound biological control may reduce insecticide use and the pest’s economic damage to cranberry marshes.

“The three DATCP grants are largely responsible for the conduct of this entire program,” says Steffan, with the USDA Agricultural Research Service and University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They funded it at the start. They sustained funding during early virulence screening, and then for a third round, they stepped up to the plate to fund what I would call the last proof-of-concept work. That third stage of DATCP funding was critical, because that’s the jump from small-scale efficacy work to real-world applications.”

DATCP Grant Program

Grants Fund Industry-Wide Results

Over the last five years, DATCP has awarded an average of $1.2 million per year in Specialty Crop Block Grant Program funds, says Juli Speck, the department’s grant manager. Recipients include nonprofit and producer organizations, government agencies, universities and other agricultural groups. DATCP commits these dollars to projects with the potential to benefit the specialty crop industry in Wisconsin.

Steffan used the grant program to first locate and trap native nematodes that feed on cranberry flea beetle larvae near native cranberry plants in Central Wisconsin. The work escalated through years of lab work, field tests and experiments to the point of on-farm, large-scale application of two beetle-predator nematode types in summer 2018.

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The results showed excellent control of about 60 percent of underground cranberry flea beetle larvae, crippling the pest’s population before emergence as adult beetles that feed on cranberry plant vegetation and fruit.

“This bio-insecticide can go shoulder to shoulder with the best insecticides we have,” Steffan says. “It’s a new tool in the toolbox. Because it doesn’t leave residues in the fruit, it potentially will provide Wisconsin cranberry growers with the means to have a harvest that can then be marketed outside of the U.S., where some countries have different standards for allowable insecticide residues in imported fruit.”

Grant Supports New Wisconsin Crop

Thanks to a $64,000 Specialty Crop Block Grant, Wisconsin vegetable growers now know more about production of baby ginger, a potential high-value crop for fresh-market sales.

“The most significant finding is that we are able to produce the ginger seedlings at a very low cost,” says Rami Reddy, the project’s leader and the director of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville School of Agriculture. “Secondly, we have shown how to use a bag method in production, which reduces susceptibility to soilborne diseases.”

The study on baby ginger grew from the idea to use compost, a resource from the university’s dairy farm. But it was the Specialty Crop Block Grant that provided the means for Reddy’s team to navigate this niche crop’s greenhouse production and marketing issues in Wisconsin’s climate and consumer base.

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After testing various production methods, the research team assessed the market. They evaluated packaging methods and tested price points at retailers and farmers markets.

Meanwhile, educational efforts raise awareness of this crop with growers and consumers, who can use baby ginger to grate onto salads, add to soups or make tea that soothes cold and flu symptoms. Members of a campus student club also used ginger to make value-added products, including jam, candy and ginger beer from a locally sourced version of a crop that is largely imported from other countries.

“A tropical crop like ginger being grown in Wisconsin could never have been possible without the help of the Specialty Crop Block Grant administered by DATCP,” Reddy says.

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