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WSU earns grant to assist small food processors

A classic red barn standing in the middle of a green wheat field in the Palouse.
Photo by knowlesgallery on iStock

A new $250,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) will help Washington State University’s School of Food Science provide resources for the state’s small but mighty, value-added food growers and producers.

Washington’s small specialty crop farmers and food processors play an important role in the state’s food system: they use their harvests to create agricultural products such as jams, jellies, salsas, and pickles that have extended shelf lives and nutritional value.

“Small processors are innovative and hardworking, and they are trying their best to make a livelihood with minimal resources,” said Girish Ganjyal, WSU food science professor and Extension food processing specialist who is leading the project. “WSU Extension plays a significant role in helping them.”

Girish Ganjyal

Ganjyal’s project is one of 20 to receive a portion of the roughly $4.7 million in Specialty Crop Block Grant Program funding awarded to the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service this year.

Cathy Blood, School of Food Science events coordinator, helped write the grant. Once the funding is received, she’ll help organize related events and manage the fiscal aspects.

“It’s nice to feel that the WSDA appreciates and sees our vision,” she said. “We’re very pleased.”

Born and raised in India, Ganjyal developed an interest in food science during high school. After seeing local farmers let unsold produce go to waste, he was inspired to study ways to add value to agricultural products by transforming them into different ingredients and foods that are safe for human consumption in the offseason.

Ganjyal’s Extension program does just that. The WSDA and FDA rely on the program to provide third-party verification and testing for an average of 400 small value-added food processors per year.

“If we can help businesses be better at what they do and increase their value and income, that creates jobs for people and improves their local communities,” said Ganjyal.

As Ganjyal worked with different food processors and crop growers, the same questions repeatedly surfaced. The grant will address these by subsidizing in-person trainings and answering frequently asked questions through a library of easily accessible online resources like fact sheets and short videos. Resources will be offered in both English and Spanish.

The learning materials, which will cover everything from thermal processing to food safety and quality, will also be available in print form for community distribution. Such information is key to helping small food processors avoid expensive product recalls.

“Small businesses are the backbone of the state of Washington. Making this information easily accessible will help them grow and become more established,” said Blood.

Helping small growers pays off, added Vicki McCracken, associate dean and director of WSU Extension.

“There’s a greater likelihood that small-scale growers will invest in local communities. A lot of these producers create products that stay in the state,” she said. “The grant provides funding that allows us to live out Extension’s mission of taking science-based knowledge and implementing it throughout communities.”

Ganjyal emphasized the importance of helping food processors while they’re still small. Many big companies start small with scarce resources, and any help that smaller processors receive now could help them grow. It’s a win for WSU to have a hand in that, and it also meets Extension’s mission, he said.

Ganjyal will continue to help WSU stakeholders across the state by applying for future grants as other areas of need are identified.

“This grant is an example of how a little bit of money gives the department recognition among a lot of individuals,” said McCracken. “The success of a faculty member in getting one of these grants is very good evidence that they’re addressing a critical need of the state’s people. It’s a perfect example of what we do well in terms of the land-grant mission.” 

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