For Tennessee farmers in every part of the state, the hope to expand or improve their farming operations with all sorts of implements and ideas just became reality.

State Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens has announced awards totaling more than $835,000 to producers who put their dreams on paper and competed for cost share dollars from the Agricultural Growth Initiative.

“We’re making a real difference for farmers who want to be farming in the future, and who have an entrepreneurial mindset to succeed. It’s exciting to see how many ways these funds will be used to strengthen Tennessee agriculture at the grassroots level,” said Givens.

“We’re proud to support the kind of production, marketing and promotional activities that could mean the difference between success and failure in an industry where profit margins are tight and where the rural economy is rapidly changing.

“These are producers who’ve already proved with their successful operations that they know what they’re doing,” said the commissioner. “That’s why we feel confident the awards we’ve made are going to make a difference and allow these people to plunge a little deeper a little bit faster than they would have been able to, otherwise.”

The agricultural development program was proposed last year by Governor Phil Bredesen and approved and funded by the Tennessee General Assembly through an appropriation for the Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program (TAEP). The TAEP is a comprehensive plan that also includes improving cattle production and profits in Tennessee and expanding animal health services to farmers statewide.

Just in its second year, the Tennessee Agricultural Growth Initiative is helping farmers expand or improve their operations through production of diversified agricultural products. Diversified agricultural products include agri-tourism, aquaculture, bees, fruits and vegetables, horticulture, goats and sheep, organics, value-added products, viticulture and others as approved by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Through the Ag Growth Initiative, Tennessee farmers can apply for reimbursement of 35 percent, up to $10,000 for eligible cost share activities. The dollars are meant to help farmers who want to install farm infrastructure, purchase specialty equipment and/or market their diversified farm products. Applications are then reviewed for eligibility, ranked and approved on a competitive basis, based on project plans and the potential to increase farm income.

In the first year of the program, the department funded 152 projects totaling more than $645,000 through the Ag Growth Initiative. According to program coordinator Jan Keyser, more and more farmers are taking advantage of the program as they see what it can do for them.

“This year, we had 271 applications totaling over $1.3 million in requests for funding, a significant increase over last year,” said Keyser. “More importantly, we saw a marked increase in the quality of applications from individuals who really put a lot of time and effort in developing innovative projects.

“One of the more unique proposals involved developing a tissue culture business for propagating new and better plants for the nursery industry. That’s what we really like to see — well thought-out and practical plans for expanding an enterprise and increasing farm income.”

The 205 ventures funded represent the breadth of new and emerging agriculture including 20 agri-tourism, 2 aquaculture, 12 bee and honey, 24 fruit and vegetable, 54 goat and sheep, 47 horticulture, 13 organic, 11 value-added and 22 viticulture projects.

Although the application period for this year is closed, Keyser says the department will take applications again next summer, so there’s still an opportunity for farmers to work on developing their plans and to apply next year.

For more information about the Ag Growth Initiative, contact Keyser at the Tennessee Department of Agriculture at (615) 837-5346, or via e-mail at Ag.Growth@state.tn.us.