What Is A Specialty Crop?
By Gina Clithero, Agriculture Development Specialist
When I first heard the term “specialty crop,” I thought of niche specialty food products, such as elderberry jam, maple-flavored granola, and Vermont wine. I did not think of staple foods like potatoes and onions, nor did I expect that over half of the 6,808 Vermont farms counted in the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture grow specialty crops.
In general, most agriculture products that are not animal products or grain, fiber, and oil field crops are considered specialty crops by USDA. The most common specialty crops we see in Vermont are fruits and vegetables; culinary herbs, spices, and medicinal plants; nursery, floriculture, horticulture, and Christmas trees; honey; hops; maple syrup; and mushrooms. You might be asking yourself, why does this definition even matter? The answer is simple: USDA has funding through the Farm Bill to support these specific agricultural industries, and we at the Agency of Agriculture want to help ensure those funds address the most important needs of Vermont growers and producers.
Specialty crops contribute to Vermont’s diverse agricultural landscape and add tremendous value to the state and region in terms of providing healthy food, aesthetic and cultural qualities, and local economic development, among many other benefits. According to the 2017 USDA Ag Census, there are over 10,000 acres of farmland in Vermont producing any combination of the specialty crops listed above, in addition to 2.8 million square feet of specialty crops in greenhouse/high-tunnel production, 10,205 honeybee colonies, and 5.9 million maple syrup taps. The specialty crop category is broad and includes food producers as well as businesses that practice horticulture for aesthetic and cultural values, such as nursery operators and Christmas tree farms.
If you happen to fall under the broad category of “specialty crop producers,” then you might be interested in learning more about the Vermont Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP). The USDA funded Vermont SCBGP invests approximately $200,000 each year in supporting the long-term viability of specialty crop industries. On January 19, VAAFM will send out a request for applications (RFA) for the 2021 funding opportunity. The deadline to submit pre-applications will be March 1, 2021. If you have ideas for projects that would benefit multiple specialty crop producers and help increase the competitiveness of Vermont specialty crops, learn more on our website and contact our team with any questions at AGR.SpecialtyCrops@vermont.gov or 802-585-6225.