North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler has announced the awarding of 22 specialty crops grants, totaling nearly $1.2 million to 17 different agriculture related organizations within the state.

North Carolina State University received five of the grants, some geared directly toward improving the states already thriving organic farming enterprise. The state is one of few in the Southeast with an ongoing organic crops research and outreach program.

Chris Reberg-Horton, who heads the North Carolina State organic crops program, says these crops are growing in size and economic importance to North Carolina and the Carolina-Virginia region.

Organic grain crops, required to produce organic meat, is expected to move close to 20,000 acres in North Carolina in the next couple of years. Grants such as these are helping researchers and outreach personnel develop marketing outlets for organic crops, Horton adds.

“Wheat grown organically in rotation with organic soybeans is one of the fastest growing of the organic crops in North Carolina. The high value of these crops and the ever-increasing production costs to produce them has spurred interest in organic production among conventional growers, he adds.

North Carolina is the U.S. leader in sweet potato production, and one of the grants was awarded to the North Carolina sweet potato commission.

Though production of sweet potatoes remains good in North Carolina, marketing sources are often difficult to find and maintain. Several larger growers make international trips annually to market their crops.

Troxler says the $1.2 million grants will help many of the state’s fruit and vegetable crops be more efficient and profitable. “These projects will enhance the competitiveness of the state’s specialty crops in the marketplace, and help local farm families grow more profitable crops.”

North Carolina’s specialty crops include fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, Christmas trees, turfgrass and sod, and nursery and greenhouse crops.

Grant proposals were submitted by non-profit organizations, commodity groups, government agencies and universities. The selected projects ranged from promoting North Carolina sweet potatoes and blueberries to developing organic farming and growing a hops industry in North Carolina.

One of the specialty crops directly impacted by the NCDA&CS is hops. North Carolina State University Horticulturist Jeanine Davis says, “Spurred on by the demands of a burgeoning craft brewing industry and a strong public interest in locally grown ingredients, farmers are experimenting with hops (Humulus lupulus) as an alternative income source.

“Over the past three years, a small community of growers across North Carolina have established hop yards and sold their product to local craft breweries and home brewers,” she says.

The NCDA&CS specialty crops grant program is administered by the department and funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program established by the 2008 farm bill.

Following are the grant recipients:

• Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (two),

• Columbus County Cooperative Extension Service,

• North Carolina Blueberry Council,

• North Carolina Christmas Tree Association,

• North Carolina Commercial Flower Growers Association,

• NCDA&CS,

• North Carolina Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association,

• North Carolina Nursery and Landscape Association,

• North Carolina Potato Association,

• North Carolina Sod Producers Association,

• North Carolina Strawberry Association,

• North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission,

• North Carolina Vegetable Growers Association,

• North Carolina State University (five),

• North Carolina Watermelon Association,

• Preserve Heritage Agriculture and Regional Markets Now,

• Polk County Office of Agriculture Economic Development.

Growers interested in learning more about the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, can go to www.NCSpecialtyCropGrant.org. or contact the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

rroberson@farmpress.com