Chuck Gould walks to a tray to empty his rake of blueberries in 2016 at one of the Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Company fields in Township 19, Washington County. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

Maine’s agriculture scene now has the money to get a whole lot more resilient.

On Monday, the Mills Administration awarded a total of $492,039 across seven Maine organizations to invest in innovative technologies and grow new markets for Maine’s specialty crops, such as wild blueberries and potatoes.

These grants were awarded as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant program, a competitive annual grant program which awards funds for market research, market promotion and new technology to benefit producers of specialty crops — those that are not grown at a commodity scale, like corn and soybeans, but instead fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops like cut flowers.

Since 2002, the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program has awarded more than $7 million to the Maine Department of Conservation and Forestry to support the growing number of specialty crop producers selling into local and regional markets. The block grant model allows the federal government to award funding, but allows individual state agricultural agencies to make local decisions about allocating the funds.

Each year, the Maine DACF administers the grants after they are submitted to the USDA for review.

“The Specialty Crop Block Grants are an opportunity for Maine agriculture to shine. The Department is consistently impressed by the caliber of the applicants and the dynamic proposals to expand, research, and strengthen various agricultural sectors within the state,” said Nancy McBrady, director of the Bureau of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources at the Maine DACF.

The seven projects awarded Specialty Crop Block Grants this year are diverse. Blue Barn LLC received $62,800 to expand the supply, demand and infrastructure for wild blueberry sparkling wine, while the University of Maine was awarded $99,894 — the largest of the grants — to explore tools to build wild blueberry resistance to a warming climate.

Meanwhile, the Maine Potato Board received $79,245 to improve management of the potato virus Y, a disease that has wreaked havoc across potato crops in the state.

Not all the grantees grow food, either. The Maine Flower Collective was awarded $90,200 to enhance the competitiveness of Maine’s cut flower industry.

Other grantees include the Daybreak Growers Alliance, the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association for projects looking to expand marketing and distribution of specialty crops, develop farm equipment sharing cooperatives and expand produce safety.

“This year’s Specialty Crop Block Grant recipients are representative of the forward-thinking innovation our agricultural sector embodies,” said Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Maine DACF. “From collaborative equipment sharing initiatives to researching cultural practices to reduce the incidence and spread of potato virus Y, the Department is proud to support these producers in their efforts to grow new markets and test technologies that enhance the resilience and sustainability of our production systems.”

The Maine DACF will also apply $32,000 to develop a digital library to offer lectures, workshops and educational content for Maine specialty crop producers and develop a campaign to promote the sale of Maine specialty crop fruits and vegetables across New England.

The next application period for the Specialty Crop Block Grant will be in late winter or early spring 2022.