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EAST LANSING, MI -- Michigan's specialty crops from cherries to cucumbers to chestnuts got a boost Monday from more than $12.5 million in federal program funding and research grants.

In total, U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded more than $113 million nationwide in program grants to support farmers growing fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and nursery crops, also known as "specialty crops," through research, agricultural extension activities, and programs. The goal is to boost demand and promote food safety and better crop yields, officials said.

Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the nation, second only to California. While crops like wheat, cotton, soybean and corn often cover more acreage, specialty crops can be quite lucrative. But historically, officials said, these crops have tended to receive fewer federal dollars for their promotion in the marketplace and scientific advancement.

As part of Monday's announcement, Michigan State University received more than $10 million of the $50 million in grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

For Rebecca Grumet, professor of horticulture at MSU, that means roughly $6.5 million in a new grant for a university-led project across seven institutions to develop modern genetic tools to improve crops including melons, cucumbers and squashes, especially through disease resistance.

"We're at a wonderful starting point to take advantage of all of these tools," Grumet said.

The idea, she said, is to discover and identify genetic markers which would then be detectable through a DNA analysis for plant breeders to gain more information about crop traits including the ability to fight disease. Then the producers could market to farmers specific cucumber seeds, for example, that do best on their land and avoid crop disease.

The nationwide awards also include roughly $1.9 million for 27 marketplace programs in Michigan for specialty crops. Michigan's total food and agricultural impact is estimated at $101.2 billion and the grants are designed in some cases to aid agricultural associations in their efforts to boost a crop's profile in farmer's markets and supermarkets.

"Small awards can go a long way," Agriculture Department Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Gary Woodward said.

Michigan's slice of federal funding for specialty crop programs has grown steadily by more than 25% in recent years, to $1.9 million this year from $1.3 million in 2010. This year, the programs are a diverse bunch.

Among the more unusual is a team effort with with the Michigan Potato Industry Commission to introduce "potato-friendly salad bars" to school systems. Another would help boost a new promotional campaign with Cherry Marketing Institute to promote Montmorency tart cherries as a recovery solution for athletes.

"They have shifted the consumer perspective from being a pie ingredient to being a super fruit" applicable for wider uses, said Nancy Nyquist, market development specialist at the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

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