WSU to provide resources for small food processors through new WSDA grant

Girish Ganjyal, standing and holding a can of Cougar Gold cheese with trees and building in background.
Girish Ganjyal, professor in WSU’s School of Food Science, will use a new grant to provide resources for small growers and food producers.

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

Girish Ganjyal, professor in Washington State University’s School of Food Science, will use a new $250,000 grant to provide resources for these small but mighty value-adding growers and producers.

“Small processors are innovative, hardworking, and trying their best to make a livelihood with minimal resources,” said Ganjyal, an Extension food processing specialist and the school’s interim director.  “WSU Extension plays a significant role in helping them.”

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.

“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,” added Vicki McCracken, associate dean and director of WSU Extension. “The grant provides funding that allows us to live out Extension’s mission of taking science-based knowledge and implementing it throughout communities.”

Ganjyal emphasizes 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 amongst 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.”