USDA grants $35m to specialty crop research

Twelve universities have received grants of up to $6.5m to work on issues that include improving spinach production, developing new grape varieties and creating a domestic stevia industry.


Twelve universities have received grants of up to $6.5m to work on issues from improving spinach production to developing new grape varieties and creating a domestic stevia industry.

The US Department of Agriculture has granted $35 million in specialty crop research grants.

Using funding provided by the 2014 Farm Bill’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded 12 new research grants to universities including Texas A&M, Michigan State and Colorado State, among others.

The largest grant, $6.5 million to Cornell University, will sponsor research dedicated to developing new grape varieties with high fruit quality and mildew resistance. The smallest grant, $45,470 to the University of Georgia, will co-ordinate research efforts on the effects of consumer gardening and landscaping on specialty crop consumption and related issues.

Other topics of research sponsored by the NIFA grants include managing disease and improving resistance in strawberry crops; creating a safer and healthier melon supply chain; and assessing the potential for a sustainable stevia industry in the US.

Tom Bewick, NIFA’s national program lead for the division of plant systems, told Agri Investor that the program’s grantees were identified through a process that screened 155 pre-applications, 82 of which were invited to submit full applications. A panel of scientists evaluated each project’s scientific merit, Bewick said, with a separate panel comprising growers, trade organizations and processors tasked with determining each project’s relevance to industry.

Bewick said that he encourages applicants to develop their proposals in co-ordination with end users in order to ensure that they apply for an appropriate amount of funding.

“If you have too many objectives and you are not asking for enough money, you’re not going to be successful,” he said. “On the other hand, if you are asking for too much money, you might be successful, but we’re not getting the best return on our investment. What we really want are projects that are scaled where the budget matches the objectives.”

Commercialization potential

Among the research areas sponsored in this year’s research grants, Bewick highlighted that many are connected with USDA’s focus on plant breeding, genetics and genomics, which he labelled as key to sustainable agricultural production.

“The tools that are available now for improving crops are far more robust than they were even five years ago,” Bewick said. “It used to take 15 or 20 years to breed a new apple variety, as an example. Now we can do it in five.”

Under the terms of the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, Bewick said, federally sponsored research is publicly available for commercialization, and although universities are able to patent intellectual property, agricultural research sponsored by past NIFA research grants has been commercialized.

Bewick highlighted a 2008 project focused on comprehensive automation for specialty crops that was completed in 2012 and whose results were since refined by a private company. In May, the start-up, Abundant Robotics, secured $10 million in Series A funding from a group of investors that included BayWa AG, Tellus Partners and Google Ventures.

Bewick said he expects NIFA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative to be renewed in the 2018 iteration of the Farm Bill, currently being planned by the US House Committee on Agriculture.