Fed funds to benefit county farmers

California will spend a portion of $54.5 million on projects to enhance the competitiveness of special crops in Tulare County and surrounding Valley

SACRAMENTO – Specialty crop farmers in Tulare County will benefit from a handful of new programs being funded by the federal government.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced funding for the 2021 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP). California received more money, $54.5 million, including $31.6 million in stimulus funding to address impacts of COVID-19 and promote economic recovery, than any other state of the $169.9 million awarded nationwide. The SCBGP provides grants to state departments of agriculture to fund projects that enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops, defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).

These projects focus on increasing sales of specialty crops by leveraging the unique qualities of specialty crops grown in California; increasing consumption by expanding the specialty crop consumer market, improving availability, and providing nutritional education for consumers; training growers to equip them for current and future challenges; investing in training for growers/producers/operators to address current and future challenges, including impacts and adaption to COVID-19; and conducting research on conservation and environmental outcomes, pest control and disease, and organic and sustainable production practices.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) will fund approximately 100 projects, awarding grants ranging from $50,000 to $5 million to non-profit and for-profit organizations, government entities, and colleges and universities. Four projects will directly benefit Tulare County farmers, including projects for water conservation and efficiency, to control invasive pests without chemicals, as well as reclaim and improve high-salinity soil in pistachio and almond orchards in Tulare County and the surrounding Valley.

Nearly half a million dollars will go to the Regents of the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) to provide sustainable pest management solutions for small and socially disadvantaged farmers from Tulare County to Santa Clara County who either can’t afford the cost of chemical pest management are can’t use chemicals because they grow organic crops. While UC ANR’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) guidelines may exist for many individual pests, IPM guidelines for these pests and their management in small-acreage, culturally important crops and small-scale, diversified cropping systems are either currently unavailable or need expanded guidelines on organic approved methods. The $449,991 project will develop IPM guidelines for culturally relevant crops and provide agricultural education to socially disadvantaged farmers using a whole-farm IPM approach through on-farm demonstrations and peer-to-peer training to assist farmers in adopting nonchemical methods of pest management.

UC ANR’s Research and Extension Centers, such as Lindcove east of Exeter and Kearney in Parlier east of Selma, will receive $444,283 to develop strategies to improve drip irrigation for almond and pistachio orchards with tough soil in the San Joaquin Valley. Almonds and pistachios are major crops in the Central Valley and primarily use drip irrigation due to the high water needs of the crop. This project will work with Valley growers to improve water infiltration rates and alleviate the rootzone saturation problems that increase root diseases such as Phytophthora. The project will develop educational materials and conduct traditional cooperative extension activities such as field days and workshops.

A $187,465 project at UC Davis will also be looking at soil issues for pistachios. A 2019 California Water Research Report noted that 89% of Tulare County’s soil—and also 66% of Kings, 55% of Kern, 51% of Merced, and 36% of Fresno counties—is moderately to extremely saline, meaning it has a high concentration of salt. More than 84% of California’s pistachio acreage is located in these counties and half of those orchards are growing a salt sensitive rootstock. The goal of this project is to determine if long-term, salt damaged pistachios rootstock and a 6 to 10-foot water table can be reclaimed and managed with the addition of in-season leaching with saline and good quality water. The outcome will be a new method of salinity management and an extension education program on salinity management.

Fresno State Foundation received $239,780 to do education and training workshops about on-farm water and energy automation. Major specialty crops in the San Joaquin Valley, such as almonds, pistachios, and grapes, rely on groundwater pumping. However, groundwater levels in the Valley are declining due to overdrafting, and new regulations for groundwater pumping are anticipated under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which began implementation last year. Growers need monitoring and automation systems to simplify farming operations, reduce water and energy use, and improve production efficiency. This project will conduct 15 workshops for almond, pistachio, and grape growers to demonstrate water and power monitoring, demonstrate automation systems, and train end-users. Growers will benefit from new tools to assist in SGMA and Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program compliance, and with nitrogen management plans. The workshops will be conducted by the Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT) and the California State University, Fresno using CIT facilities and the University Agricultural Laboratory fields located at the California State University, Fresno.

A full list of the projects to receive funding in California is available at www.cdfa.ca.gov/Specialty_Crop_Competitiveness_Grants/pdfs/2021_SCBGP_Abstracts_FarmBill.pdf.

Additionally, CDFA focused on first-time recipients with technical assistance and grants to organizations that support beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, including urban farmers, and/or promote increased access or nutrition education in underserved communities throughout California.

CDFA continues its partnership with the Center for Produce Safety in the evaluation and recommendation of food safety related projects. These projects represent an ongoing effort to address food safety practices and minimize outbreaks of foodborne illness with proactive research.

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