The Specialty Crop Block Grant program allocates federal funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to state departments of agriculture, which award grants for promotion, research and other initiatives.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture awarded a $360,000 grant and tabbed SureHarvest to coordinate a self-assessment and benchmarking sustainability initiative for a variety of specialty crops including stone fruit, garlic, onions, tomatoes, pears, pistachios, table grapes, raisins and walnuts.
"What we're doing is creating assessment tools that growers now use,” Ohmart said. "We'll use that information to set practice benchmarks.”
The ultimate goal is to establish a sustainability program to eliminate some of the confusion facing buyers as some packers and marketers have created their own programs that often differ substantially, said Gary Van Sickle, president of the California Tree Fruit Agreement, Reedley.
"As this comes into play arching over several commodities and providing an umbrella, maybe some will review their programs and adopt some of the same language to get us all back on the same track,” he said.
"We're going to be able to provide to the grower and their customers a real foundation,” he said. "It's going to help the buyer realize it's really a legitimate program.”
The project will be based on a historical profile that will be inserted into a harmonized model being developed by the cross-section of commodities, said Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, Fresno. Having multiple interests involved in the project is an advantage, he said.
"It allows everyone to participate in discussions on perceptions of what is sustainability,” Beckman said. "It's better if we can all agree upon what elements go into a sustainability project. It will put us all into using some of the same benchmarks, same terminology, some of the same values.”
Another grant of more than $400,000 is aimed at expanding the one-year-old almond sustainability program. During the first year, the project targeted best management practices and sustainability issues. The new grant will focus on pest management and water and air quality and energy modules.
"When using the five Ps as a business model, growers will realize there are cost savings within their business, but it's also going to optimize resource use so that the supply chain and consumers also benefit,” he said.
An element of the almond sustainability program is to develop software for an online system for growers, Ohmart said. Software is not a part of the multi-commodity project, but there are plans to develop a self-assessment tool on paper, he said.
The multi-commodity project should be an advantage for smaller grower-shippers that don't sell directly to a retailer, Van Sickle said.
"When we develop the umbrella program, all that a grower will have to do is to drop in numbers to fill in the form to customize it for his operation,” he said.
The two-year project runs into 2013. If the project stays on schedule, "we'll probably want to start prepping industry people sometime in 2012,” Van Sickle said.
With a third grant of $74,000, SureHarvest will assist the California Cut Flower Commission, Sacramento, in weighing growing practices and transportation methods to catalog the environmental benefits of buying California flowers.