Source: USDA news release

WASHINGTON – Today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced two U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) investments designed to support the U.S. specialty crops industry. The launch of the Assisting Specialty Crop Exports (ASCE) initiative will provide $65 million for projects that will help the specialty crop sector increase global exports and expand to new markets.

Additionally, today USDA is announcing $72.9 million in grant funding available to support the specialty crops industry through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) will fund innovative projects designed to bolster the competitiveness of the expanding specialty crop sector. Specialty crop exports totaled $24.6 billion in FY2023, representing 13.8 percent of total U.S. agricultural exports.

“Specialty crop producers feed our nation and the world with nutritious fruits, nuts, and vegetables and supply our communities with horticulture products. Yet, they have unique challenges and opportunities to compete in the domestic market and a vast array of barriers that prevent their world-class products from entering foreign markets,” Secretary Vilsack said.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is making these significant investments to maintain, open, and grow markets and reduce and eliminate trade barriers for U.S. specialty crop producers, which in turn will support rural communities, enhance our competitive edge, and help establish lifelong consumers for U.S. food and agricultural products across the world.”

Today in Grant, Michigan, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Jenny Lester Moffitt and Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Alexis Taylor joined Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, to highlight these two investments and the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Initiative (SCCI), which is part of a larger effort to support specialty crop producers. While there, Under Secretary Moffitt, Under Secretary Taylor, and Senator Stabenow met with producers at a local business as the Biden-Harris Administration continues to improve market access for American products, including specialty crops, at home and abroad.

SCCI’s objective is to better focus USDA resources and identify needs to support the competitiveness of U.S. specialty crops in domestic and international markets, minimize costs, manage pests and diseases, strengthen supply chains, and support climate outcomes.

Assisting Specialty Crops Exports

ASCE is funded through a set aside from USDA’s new Regional Agricultural Promotion Program (RAPP), a foreign market development and food security initiative announced in October 2023. USDA plans to use $65 million for initial projects that will address barriers unique to specialty crops exports. The initiative, administered by USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, or FAS, will support projects that advance U.S. specialty crop exports by expanding domestic understanding of foreign food safety systems and foreign understanding of U.S. food safety systems. The initiative will also collect information needed for export certification, and packaging to meet other countries’ new requirements.

“Each specialty crop product faces a myriad of import standards in every market it enters, including plant health standards, facility and product certifications, packaging requirements, licensing, inspections, maximum residue limits for pesticides and fungicides, and various import permits,” said USDA Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Alexis Taylor. “In order to meet all these requirements, it takes significant investment by commodity organizations and producers to navigate the gauntlet of regulations. The new resources provided through Assisting Specialty Crop Exports initiative will help introduce U.S. specialty crops to new markets and consumers around the globe.”

USDA has identified three workstreams to assist specialty crop exporters: commodity-specific trade and regulatory capacity building; plastics and packaging solutions; and funding of a maximum residue limits (MRL) database. Each workstream addresses a critical issue identified by specialty crop producers and exporters. These efforts will create new market opportunities and ensure existing markets remain open to U.S. specialty crops.

RAPP will help exporters break into new markets and increase market share in growth markets. The United States enjoyed a three-year streak of record agricultural exports from 2021-2023, with exports expected to remain high in FY24. Even at record export levels, the FY23 agricultural trade deficit is $19 billion, and USDA has projected that it will grow in FY24. There is also increased competition in the United States’ export markets in Asia and Africa. Therefore, additional investments in market development are needed to sustain and open new markets. RAPP will help exporters to diversify their markets and ensure continuity of the relationships key to market development.

Specialty Crop Block Grant Program

Through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, also known as AMS, will issue noncompetitive grants to state departments of agriculture or equivalent in the 50 States, District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to fund projects that enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops and support specialty crop growers through marketing, education, and research. Specialty crops include fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops, including floriculture.

“The innovative projects funded through this year’s USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program will help U.S. specialty crops producers remain competitive, open new market channels, and increase the consumption of specialty crops products,” said USDA Marketing and Regulatory Programs Under Secretary Jenny Lester Moffitt. “The grant program also furthers the goals of USDA’s Specialty Crops Competitiveness Initiative – ensuring that specialty crops producers and businesses have the resources they need to remain competitive in markets across the world while improving the sustainability and profitability of their operations. Programs like these are key components of the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to support American agricultural producers and rural America by transforming our food system from one that benefits a few to one that benefits many.”

AMS encourages applications that serve smaller farms and ranches, new and beginning farmers and ranchers, underserved producers, veteran producers, and/or underserved communities. Interested applicants should apply directly through their state departments of agriculture. A list of state contacts is available on the SCBGP website.

Applications from states and territories must be submitted electronically through by 11:59 p.m. ET on May 2, 2024. Any grant application submitted after the due date will not be considered unless the applicant provides documentation of an extenuating circumstance that prevented their timely submission of the grant application. More information is available in the AMS Late and Non-Responsive Application Policy.