We may successfully cultivate a diversity of crops on our farms, but growing a “money tree” is unfortunately probably not one of them. If you feel like there is always a pending project on your to-do list that needs an influx of cash to get it done, you’re not alone. But don’t write a dream off due to lack of financial resources. A variety of organizations do help farmers fund the boost they need to take their business to the next level.
“Remember, the first question to always ask is not ‘What grants exist?’ but rather ‘What is my goal and what support do I need to get there?’” says Deirdre Birmingham, grants adviser with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. “Don’t waste your time chasing dollars before you take the time to think through your business plan and develop a tangible plan on where you want to go.”
Remember, too, to be open to different means of support and that really any organization that provides you with resources is investing in and wanting to become an ally and champion in your farm business. While there isn’t “free money” in the sense that any arrangement you take part in involves your commitment and responsibility to seeing a project through, be open to loans and other forms of support, such as business advising or scholarships to attend conferences or training. It all adds up to effectively and strategically growing your farm business.
On that note, the types of resources we’re talking about here support viable farm businesses, not hobby farms, an important distinction to keep in mind to make sure your venture is at a viable point. While your business doesn’t necessarily need to be large in size to qualify for the programs below, you do need to have an established financial track record that such an entity would want to invest in your vision.
When you do identify a specific need—from a refrigerated truck to expand your deliveries to assistance in developing a marketing plan—keep these organizations on your radar for potential assistance.
1. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)
Programs benefitting small-scale, diversified farms remain a small funding slice of the big Farm Bill pie; however, don’t rule out the mighty USDA for support. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) offers several programs particularly targeting farms that champion sustainable agriculture.
Note, the SARE program is divided into four regions. Your first step would be to identify which region you are in as deadlines and program specifics may vary.
SARE’s Farmer Rancher grants (also called Farmer or Producer grants) generally support farms that want to explore sustainable solutions for problems via education, research or demonstration. I’m currently working under a Farmer Rancher grant in my North Central SARE region to develop a label and packaging toolkit for small farmers like myself who want to up the professional look of their pickles and jams produced in home kitchens under cottage food law. The idea behind SARE projects like mine is then that the information and learnings would then be openly shared with the farming community, a collaborative spirit that suits us small-scale, sustainably focused farms perfectly.
2. Private Foundations & Nonprofits
See if there’s a private foundation that offers support for what you are envisioning to do. Private foundations can potentially be more open to innovation and out-of-the-box ideas, as their hands are typically not as tied as government entities’ are.
Sometimes such private foundations may have a specific regional focus and mission that helps support your needs. The Frontera Farmer Foundation, led by celebrity Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, offers capital development grants of up to $12,000 to small, sustainable Midwestern farms specifically serving the Chicago area to enhance the availability of locally grown produce in this region.
Another private nonprofit that offers assistance on a national level is Fund-A-Farmer Project, a project of the Food Animals Concerns Trust (FACT), which awards grants and facilitates peer-to-peer farmer education to increase the number of animals that are raised humanely. Be sure to always read the detail on applications requirements. For example, for Fund-A-Farmer, an applicant would need to already be or actively working toward animal welfare certification from a nationally recognized organization.
3. Co-ops & Private Businesses
Think about businesses that share a role and are dependent on your farm’s success, such as food cooperatives or grocery retailers that need a reliable supply of locally produced fare to meet increasing customer demand. Such programs can be a loan with an attractive low-interest rate and payback terms. Whole Foods Marker offers a Local Producer Loan Program that seeks to support producers wanting to expand the availability of local products in communities where Whole Foods Market does business.
Clare Hintz, of Elsewhere Farm in Wisconsin, along with group of fellow local farmers together applied for and received a loan for $3,000 from their Chequamegon Food Co-op to purchase a used walk-behind tractor. As the co-op supports area farmers, the loan was at a very low interest rate and on very favorable terms for repayment over two years.
“It’s a piece of equipment we can readily share as we all need it intermittently, and it’s small enough that we can trailer it between farms or if it needs to go to the shop,” she says.
Remember the real secret behind finding a “money tree” is to focus on creating a successful, strong business and strategically thinking through what you need to bloom to the next level.