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Specialty crop grants announced for Michigan growers
By Kevin Walker
Michigan correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow has announced $1.9 million in block grants to help Michigan’s many specialty crop growers. Under the USDA’s definition, a specialty crop grower raises fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, nursery plants and flowers.
“Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables are not only a source of great pride – they are also critical to our state’s economy,” Stabenow said. “This new support will help Michigan farmers get their products off the farm and onto our plates during these difficult times.”
The USDA’s specialty crop block grant program awarded 20 different projects in the state, which fall generally along the lines of promotion, disease control and eradication, and agronomy.
One grant recipient, the Michigan Bean Commission, actually won two grants this year. One, for $107,000, is for promotional efforts. “As an industry we haven’t done a great job of telling the consumer how nutritious beans really are,” said Joe Cramer, executive director of the commission. “We’ve never had a lot of money to tell our story to the public.”
The commodity group will use the grant to advertise on social media, produce media kits for use at trade shows, produce online ads and a limited number of print ads.
The other grant, for $99,998, is agronomic, Cramer said. It will assess the optimal fertilizer rate for a given soil type. “Our goal is to try and work on and fix issues that hinder great yields,” Cramer explained. “This grant will help us study fertility issues. It will help growers figure out how best to feed their plants to maximize yields. We were pretty lucky, we got two grants this year.”
The Michigan Bean Commission is using researchers at Michigan State University (MSU). That is also the case with Michigan Celery Research, Inc., which won a $70,046 grant to try to figure out why so much of the celery crop is experiencing “plant meltdown,” a phenomenon in which the celery plant wilts, with the base of the plant in its interior rotting. MSU Professor of Plant, Soil & Microbial Sciences Mary Hausbeck will lead the project to study why this is happening. Much of the grant money will be used to pay for a graduate student to help with the lab work and the cost of supplies, Hausbeck said. MSU already has plant specimens that it collected in 2019, which it has been able to store.
“In this particular project, we are looking at whether certain herbicides are causing or contributing to the meltdown,” Hausbeck said. “There might be several different factors. It’s just not known right now. Maybe we can eliminate some factors.”
Hausbeck added that celery plant meltdown can be quite significant at times, with some substantial crop losses. If not addressed, the plant meltdown issue is likely to worsen, she said. Michigan is one of the largest celery producers in the nation, with 110 million pounds of it grown in 2018. Celery is used both for the fresh market as well as for use in vegetable juice.
The Michigan Apple Committee (MAC) also won an award this year, as it has for the past number of years, according to MAC Executive Director Diane Smith. The group will use its $125,000 for a social media campaign and other advertising and marketing efforts, in particular at this time of year when people consume the most apples.
“Everybody’s on some sort of social media platform these days,” Smith said. She added that Michigan apple growers had a “really good year” this year.
Other grant recipients include the Cherry Marketing Institute, $125,000; Hop Growers of Michigan, $73,258; Michigan  Asparagus Advisory Board, $125,000; Michigan Blueberry Commission, $70,258; Michigan Christmas Tree Assoc., $72,744; Michigan Grape Society, $40,000; Michigan Greenhouse Growers Council, $70,000; Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association, $100,000; Michigan Potato Industry Commission, $85,625; Michigan State Horticultural Society, $99,500; Michigan Vegetable Council, $91,577; National Grape Cooperative, $99,637; Shiawassee County Sheriff’s Office, $125,000; Southwest Michigan Wine Trail, $88,252; and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development International Marketing Program, $161,626.