The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $205,000 in grants to Rhode Island projects that promote “specialty crops” last October. This month the department concluded another round of 16 applications for an additional $150,000 in grants that will be awarded in the fall.
The USDA specialty-crop grants and the new Local Agriculture and Seafood Act grants approved by the General Assembly in 2012 are nourishing the state’s growing agricultural industry.
The LASA program started with $100,000 in the 2013 state budget and was matched with an additional $100,000 from local philanthropies, expanding funding to seafood and aquaculture projects, in addition to farming.
“We had 89 applications for the LASA grants, requesting a total of $1.4 million, so there’s clearly more demand than available capital,” said Leo Pollock, network coordinator for the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, an independent organization with the mission of “promoting a more accessible, more equitable and more sustainable food system” in the state. The council is assisting DEM with administration of the LASA grants.
“I think there’s been a gap in access to capital and the eligibility for these LASA grants is specifically aimed at those who have been growing less than 10 years,” said Pollock. “If you’re starting out on leased land and you have high overhead, but you want to scale up, generally the banks have not been interested in or willing to lend to smaller growers, especially if they’ve been in business less than three years.
“Farms and the food sector overall are showing positive trends in the state,” said Pollock. “This is one area where we’re seeing exciting growth in the Rhode Island economy and I think people are encouraged by that.
“People will see this as a state where you have an opportunity to start on a small scale, build a customer base and then build sales,” said Pollock.
Rhode Island is defying the national decline in the number of farms.
From 2007 to 2012, the number of farms in the U.S. decreased 4 percent, to 2.1 million, while the number of farms in Rhode Island increased 2 percent, to 1,243, according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture Preliminary Report released in February.