If free money to fund our farm’s mission grew on trees, we would quickly cultivate an orchard of those plants. While no such miracle money tree exists, various funding entities can potentially provide monetary support and other resources to bring your farm vision to life. From federal programs within the Farm Bill to state-specific options, a range of grants exists to support small-scale, family-farm ventures.
"The key to a successful grant application is the same as a solid farm-business plan: researching and writing out a strategic blueprint for your farm vision and the steps to successfully get there,” explains Traci Bruckner of the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit organization that advocates sustainable-agriculture-venture funding. "Federal grants to support high-value, niche markets are highly competitive, so as an applicant, you need to be thinking big picture as well as finite details, answering the tactical questions that need to be addressed and thought about regarding where you see your farm business heading.”
The following are five key steps to developing a successful grant proposal.
1. Assess your farm’s financial needs.
"Think about and understand what it is you want to accomplish. What farm needs do you have that a potential grant may fund?” asks Margaret Krome, policy program director at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in Wisconsin.
Krome conducts workshops across the country helping farmers access federal programs to support sustainable agriculture.
Grant funding enabled Beth and Jody Osmund, of Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, Ill., to strategically research, test and prosper by becoming the first meat community-supported-agriculture operation serving Chicago. Their family farm received a Farmer Rancher Grant through the North Central Region of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a federal program supporting various aspects of sustainable agriculture. These competitive grants fund farmer- and rancher-led projects in their region that explore sustainable solutions to problems through on-farm research, demonstration and education.
"We had been doing a diversified vegetable CSA since we started in 2003, with some livestock on the side,” Beth Osmund explains. "We felt that the meat side of the business could be more lucrative and a better fit for our farming interests and lifestyle. Our SARE grant helped us explore how to best market our meat using a direct-to-consumer model through venues like farmers’ markets.”
The SARE grant provided funds for needed equipment, such as a market trailer, as well as compensation for the Osmunds’ time to develop a meat product line and to research pricing.
"This opportunity enabled us to try out and test new marketing venues we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” Osmund adds.
While exploring the idea of meat sales at farmers’ markets, the duo came up with the idea of using the CSA model for meat: selling monthly "shares” of different beef, pork and poultry cuts. The Osmunds’ success exemplifies one of the goals of these SARE grants to support farmers in assessing needs, having the opportunity to really research and strategically plan their business venture before fully jumping in, thereby increasing long-term likelihood of success.
2. Research farm-grant options.
After identifying your farm-funding needs, start researching the potential grant options. The free downloadable booklet, "Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities” developed by the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, provides a concise overview of available federal funding. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition also offers a free download, "Grassroots Guide to the Farm Bill," with a synopsis of Farm Bill programs related to potential funding options as well as a free weekly email with farm-program updates.
State and regional sustainable-agriculture grassroots groups, like the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, often produce electronic newsletters that announce state-specific funding opportunities as they become available. For those interested in adding energy efficiency or renewable-energy systems, the U.S. Department of Energy maintains the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, which enables you to research programs specific to your state.
Grants differ from loans in that they typically do not need to be repaid. This doesn’t mean it’s "free money.” These grant programs, particularly federal programs, often require a time-intensive application. You’ll need to be prepared to invest many hours to navigate and complete the process. For example, my family applied through the USDA for the Rural Energy for America Program grant to install a photovoltaic system for our business. Because the grant review was so competitive, we received less than we had applied for and almost missed turning in some key documents on time—an issue caused by the administration of the grant (and not our overnight delivery service).
Typically, when a particular grant is open for applications, the administering entity will issue what’s called a Request for Applications or Notice of Funding Availability. This information can be found on the organization’s website and will outline the details for the grant, including deadlines, exactly how the grant proposal needs to be written, and what the grant will and won’t cover. Some grants are more educational in focus and will only directly fund nonprofit organizations, while others, like SARE, will make a grant directly payable to the farmer.
"Read the RFA several times to be sure you understand exactly what the particular grant will and won’t fund,” Krome advises.
Be particularly aware of what types of farms, such as certified organic, qualify for that particular grant. While the number of small-scale, diversified, sustainable farms is increasing, most USDA programs still target larger, commodity-crop farms. Check for a minimum acreage or production volume before proceeding with the paperwork. We spent time researching the Conservation Stewardship Program, a USDA program that funds farmers for various conservation activities on land in agricultural production. While we definitely qualified for our land stewardship practices, our farm of less than 5 acres was deemed too small for the program.
Think beyond the expected agriculture grant resources for ways to connect the funding dots with other programs, particularly opportunities in your state and local area. Holly Mawby, co-owner of gardendwellers FARM, a culinary herb and agritourism operation in Esmond, N.D., tapped into various local groups, from tourism organizations to utility companies to historical societies.
"We received funding from our state historical society toward an outdoor interpretive sign for our farm,” Mawby explains. "This was a win-win, as our farm helps support telling the story of the area’s agricultural heritage. We now offer the historical society another spot to add to their tour map.”
"I’m always reading local papers, and whenever I see an announcement of a grant being awarded, I think about how that might fit our farm,” Mawby says. She recommends tapping into organizations, like rural telephone and electric cooperatives, where you’re a member and using their services. "Help these groups see how your farm shares and supports their mission, like preserving area history or spurring the local economy with new jobs or tourism.”
A local connection helps foster potential funding opportunities, as well, when you’re able to meet with program administrators directly. Joe DeFrancesco advises this route for USDA programs he used, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides financial and technical assistance to growers who implement conservation practices. DeFrancesco, a fourth-generation farmer who runs Farmer Joe’s Gardens, a diversified produce operation and farm stand in Wallingford, Conn., with his family, received EQIP funding for farm projects (like drip irrigation in the fields), conservation projects and transition funding to implement energy-saving and -efficiency techniques and equipment. "Programs like EQIP are often easiest to start with, as you can sit down with someone in your local USDA office and see what kind of funding they do and what fits into your plans,” DeFrancesco says. "I’m very thankful for these programs and have seen immediate benefits for our farm operations.”
3. Develop your grant proposal.
Once you decide to proceed with a grant application, read over the RFA several times, following the requirements exactly. You want your writing to be clear and concise; grant writing is not a situation where you get extra credit for creative prose. The key is to follow the required format and make sure your idea is clearly communicated, adhering to all word-count requirements. Don’t make the grant reviewer work to understand your idea; communicate your farming ideas simply and in a straightforward fashion.
Allocate more time than you think you’ll need to grant writing. Enlisting others to read and revise your grant application helps; ideally, choose someone with an outside perspective on you and your farm so they can give it a fresh, objective read. Sometimes grant applications require additional elements that take time to gather, such as letters of support or tax records. With our jam-packed farm schedules and duties, finding time to add in the grant-writing process can feel overwhelming, so keep abreast of deadlines. Don’t assume that just because a grant targets farmers it won’t have a deadline in the peak of summer. Unfortunately, legislators don’t always think like farmers. Many grants have the same general cycle and timing annually, so you could use winter downtime to write the bulk of an application that may be officially due during peak planting months. That said, USDA programs, in particular, are tied to the federal budget and can vary in funding allotments from year to year. Don’t assume the parameters this year will be the same next year.
Take time to research and write a detailed and appropriate budget. Does the grant require matching funds? Matching funds are often used as an indicator of your commitment to the project because you’ll be contributing out of pocket in addition to receiving grant funding. Ask questions about what qualifies as a match because in-kind contributions, such as existing equipment or volunteer labor, can often be included in your matching funds instead of cash only.
Some grants might require you to involve partners and other community organizations directly in the project and application process. For example, Mawby has found that when certain grants require the applicant to be a nonprofit organization (which her farm is not), she can partner with a local group with 501(c)3 status to officially submit and be the lead applicant while her farm takes on a partnering role. She still receives the financial backing, but it’s paid through a partnering organization.
Here are some more tips to keep in mind as you draft your grant application:
- Realistic timeline: Be generous with your assessment of the amount of time a project will require to complete the grant application, taking into account potential bumps in the road. With some uncontrollable variables, like weather, address how your project might need to adapt and change (i.e., have a Plan B).
- Adequate resources: Double-check your budget and make sure expenses are accounted for and that you can deliver what you propose in your grant application. It’s easy to overlook expenses and to over-promise. Make sure items like travel mileage and supplies are adequately represented.
- Evaluation plan: Describe how you’ll measure and evaluate the outcome of your project. Are you keeping records, surveys or other documentation? Define how you’ll measure and determine the project’s success. For example, for our USDA REAP grant, we record the annual production in kilowatt hours of the 2.28 kwh photovoltaic system and must submit this information to the USDA for the first three years.
- Collaboration: Strengthen your proposal by connecting with others and building coalitions. This could include researching what other people in your community or elsewhere have done and how you could learn from and build on their work. Our local women farmers’ group (Green County Area Women in Sustainable Agriculture) applied for and received a Youth Educator grant through SARE that added $2,000 in funding toward an open-house day at eight women-owned farms in our area, helping cover things like graphic design for a brochure and supplies for on-farm educational activities for kids.
- Sharing: Outline a plan for how you’ll communicate your results and outcomes with the right audience, such as other farmers or community members. This could include hosting field days with tours, speaking to local community groups or posting results online.
4. Submit your grant application and learn.
Don’t wait until the last minute to submit the grant application. A lot of issues can crop up that could jeopardize your whole application. Build in some easy insurance by having the grant completely finished and submitted a few weeks (or at least a few days) before the deadline. Realize, too, that with the increasing number of grants requiring online applications, there may be a large number of people electronically submitting proposals at the last minute, which could create technical hiccups on the government servers and cause your proposal to miss the deadline.
Approach grants like you plant the garden: Always plant a few more seeds because you know not everything will germinate. Resources are tight, and nearly all grants are competitive. Rejection is a reality of the process, but it’s one you can learn from.
"If you don’t receive something you applied for, by all means, ask questions and garner an understanding of why things didn’t work out,” Krome advises. "Many successfully funded proposals are the result of past rejections.”
It may be that something was off-target or missing from your application, or it may simply be that you didn’t have the strongest proposal and the process was highly competitive. Don’t argue with the grant administrator or express severe disappointment; these discussions are simply an opportunity to gather helpful feedback for next time.
"Most of the grants I applied for I haven’t received, but each rejection helps me better refine and improve my ideas,” Mawby says. "I’ve generally had more success with local grants, as there’s more of a direct connection and personal relationship.”
If you receive the grant, after you pat yourself on the back for an application well done, make sure you fully understand the next steps and any additional requirements you need to fulfill. Some grants necessitate that you sign a contract and complete ongoing reporting forms for several years to track your efforts as well as the success of the operation. Take the time to process these details before jumping into the project to avoid hang-ups—and possible payment issues—down the line.
5. Stay active.
Keep connected to and help support continued and increased funding for grant programs that support young and beginning farmers and sustainable agriculture.
"We need farmers to both use these programs and speak up for them,” Krome says. "It’s also important for farmers who receive support to share their learning and success to help further champion the sustainable-agriculture movement.”
Maybe there isn’t a miracle money-growing tree for farmers, but there are definitely opportunities to connect with resources to support your farm vision.
About the Author: Lisa Kivirist and her family run Inn Serendipity bed-and-breakfast on their organic farm in Wisconsin. She is co-author of Farmstead Chef (New Society Publishers, 2011), Rural Renaissance (New Society Publishers, 2009) and ECOpreneuring (New Society Publishers, 2008). She serves as director of the Rural Women’s Project, a venture of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service that helps connect women farmers to educational opportunities.