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As a beginning farmer, you have your farm dream alongside a limitless pile of cash and are ready to start, right? Wrong!
While that might be a nice farming fantasy, in reality, we all share the challenge of crafting our business vision with one that fits our financial limitations. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by a lack of capital, but with some creative vision and tapping into the variety of support available for beginning farmers, you can bring your frugal farm dream to life.
First things first: There’s no such thing as free money, no matter how sincere your intentions may be. However, there are grants and opportunities available, the key being to view these resources as building blocks to help you achieve your bigger farm goals. While it likely won’t come in the form of one big fat check, there are savvy ways to harvest what you need to succeed in farming without accumulating massive debt.
Here are six things to think about when looking for beginning-farmer funding opportunities.
1. Identify Your Plan
Avoid spinning wheels and chasing grant opportunities before you take the time to think about and plan your farm vision.
"The first and most important thing is to develop your business plan, to strategically identify what it is you want to do on your farm and your plan to get there,” says Deirdre Birmingham, grants advisor for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to education, policy and research in sustainable agriculture . "Do this first because then you can objectively evaluate various grant resource opportunities and assess how they might fit into your bigger vision.”
Good news: Various free online templates tailored for farm operations are available to help you through the business-plan writing process, including AgPlan, by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Farm Financial Management, which offers free constructive feedback from advisors. Grant-writing resources are also available via the MFAI website.
2. Seek Conference and Training Scholarships
While there are some Farm Bill programs that support beginning-farmer training, most notably the Beginning Farmer & Rancher Development Program, these funds don’t go to farmers individually but rather support various nonprofit, academic and other agency projects that provide training sessions and workshops for beginning farmers.
"A lot of conferences offer scholarships for beginning farmers, so it’s always smart to ask for such opportunities if price is a barrier for you,” says Lindsay Rebhan, coordinator of the New Organic Stewards Program, a project of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service and Renewing the Countryside that receives support from BFRDP funding. "When asking about scholarships, be sure to inquire early, ideally several months before the event, and be sure to tell them if you’ve never been to this conference before, as these funding resources aim to bring new people in. You can also always volunteer to help in exchange for complementary admission.”
3. Embrace Professional Assistance Support
Funding for "bricks and mortar,” aka building structures and equipment, can often be the hardest to find. Granted, you might feel you need it the most, but be open to other forms of support, particularly technical or business-planning assistance, that can help you evaluate and make the best decisions on what infrastructure you really need.
For example, the "Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” Technical Assistance program, under Wisconsin’s agriculture department, offers up to $3,000 for one-on-one technical assistance to Wisconsin farmers who need business-related help, from legal services to market development, including logo, brand, social media and Web development. Again, it won’t pay for that new computer, but it will help you make the best purchase and maximize its use.
4. Check out SARE
Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, the USDA’s sustainable farming wing, offers free educational resources and grant programs—grants that farmers can apply for directly. Visit their website to check out what grant opportunities are available in your state.
5. EQIP Yourself
More federal acronyms for you: EQIP refers to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, offered through the USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service. EQIP offers cost-sharing financial and technical assistance to help farmers plan and implement conservation practices, such as creating prairie habitat for pollinators for a bee or orchard operation. A contract lasting up to 10 years is developed between the farmer and NRCS outlining these arrangements.
6. Track Future Opportunities
Remember, most grant opportunities are perpetually in a state of flux, dependent on various state and federal budget ebbs and flows. Add in the fact that these applications take time and thoughtful planning to complete, and you quickly realize no money is gained overnight.
Keep a list of future grant opportunities as you come across them. Some might not fit your current situation but could in a few years, so it’s best to keep every option on your radar.
Above all, remember identifying, targeting and writing a successful grant application are ongoing skills to keep refining. Move forward with your farm business venture, but remain flexible when such funding opportunities arise, ask questions and continue to build your farm vision.
About the Author: Lisa Kivirist farms, writes and runs a highly diversified operation from Inn Serendipity, her family’s farm and bed-and-breakfast in Wisconsin. She is co-author of the award-winning book ECOpreneuring (New Society Publishers, 2008), as well as Rural Renaissance (New Society Publishers, 2009) and Farmstead Chef (New Society Publishers, 2011).