Mississippi’s Department of Agriculture and Commerce has been awarded a $160,000 base grant from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops grown in Mississippi.

Specialty crops is the term generally given to the production of fruits and vegetables, items that are gaining more and more attention from farmers, consumers and grocery store operators in parts of Mississippi and other Southeast states.

“This program will help enable the Mississippi farming community to bring awareness of the importance of our state’s specialty crops to the citizens of Mississippi,” said Lester Spell, the MDAC’s commissioner. “This funding will allow farmers to showcase their specialty products to the general public and provide assistance to growers through much-needed university research.”

The MDAC is partnering with four agricultural organizations and universities to promote the state’s specialty crop industry through research, educational opportunities, promotional campaigns, financial assistance, and the development of marketing and educational tools. The partners and their responsibilities:

• Alcorn State University will use funding to evaluate and research various outlets for the use of medicinal herbs that will benefit Mississippi growers and further their marketing initiatives.

• Mississippi State University will conduct various educational and research based initiatives through specialty crop producer workshops, high tunnel specialty crop demonstrations, and beneficial research for strawberries and cut flowers.

• The Mississippi Nursery and Landscape Association will use funds to promote their Green and Sustainable Initiative Program that promotes the proper use of specialty nursery plants in Mississippi landscapes.

• The Mississippi Beekeepers Association will use funds to help continue its successful producer cost-share program to provide financial assistance to beginning beekeepers pursuing the establishment of honeybee colonies.

Through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, USDA awards grants to state departments of agriculture to enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops as defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture crops and nursery crops (including floriculture).

The Mississippi Department of Agriculture is now accepting applications for FY09 Specialty Crop Block Grant funding. For more details, visit the department’s website, www.mdac.state.ms.us.

Consumer and environmental groups have been pushing for more locally grown produce in grocery stores and retail outlets, but farmers often find it difficult to compete against growers in California, Florida and south Texas who have been in the business for decades.

The specialty crop block grant program is expected to help farmers in non-traditional fruit and vegetable producing areas gain more knowledge about growing and marketing those items to local food retail outlets.