A farmer in Tennessee recently commented on the grant funding landscape to our team, saying: “The thought of doing the paperwork and coordinating with 10 different agencies for 10 different programs is really a mind boggling thing for me.”
He was capturing a sentiment we’ve heard dozens of farmers share over the past year: farm funding opportunities are difficult to navigate.
At FarmRaise, we’ve mapped many federal grant and cost-share programs to make it easier for you to understand what you’re eligible for and how to apply. Our research has uncovered 5 key considerations you’ll want to be aware of as you navigate this landscape.
#1: The USDA does not deploy grant funding directly to farmers & ranchers.
Rather, the agency directs funding through USDA programs that operate somewhat independently of one another. Grant programs for farmers are offered primarily through the following USDA entities:
- The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) — Roughly $27 million available annually
- Farm Service Agency (FSA) — over $10 million available annually in grants alone (many more dollars available through loan programs)
- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) — over $2 billion available annually
- Rural Development — roughly $40 million available annually
- Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) — Roughly $30 million available annually
Each of these entities has its own unique focus area and charter designated by the USDA and the Farm Bill, and that drives the grant programs they administer. It’s important to be familiar with this structure since each agency will administer and deploy funds in its own way. For example, to apply to a SARE grant, you need to go through SARE’s online submission portal, but to apply for NRCS funding, you’ll have to fill out PDF forms & submit them directly to your local USDA service center (via email or in-person).
Some programs — such as those administered by the AMA and Rural Development — require you to apply through grants.gov. And for certain programs you will need to register with the government’s system for award management, a process that can take a couple of weeks.
#2: Farm funding exists across 5 types of awards.
Not all farm funding opportunities are structured as grants. We’ve found the breakdown captured best by the following types of funding: grants, cost-share programs, easements, loans, and emergency/disaster relief.
Even within the category of grants, there are distinctions among programs. For example, the Value-Added Producer Grant offered by USDA Rural Development requires you to match the funds you receive with your own time and money. And, SARE program grants require reporting on your projects, so that your research can inform the broader farming community on the effective sustainability practices.
#3: Program applications range from standard forms to narrative-based submissions.
It’d be ideal if there was just one common application for farm funding (this is something we’re working on at FarmRaise!), but that doesn’t exist today. So as you consider your options, it’s important to recognize that some program applications consist of standard forms where you fill out basic contact & farm operating information (no additional narrative required). Other program applications are more involved — in addition to providing contact information, you need to write a compelling narrative about why you want the funding and what you’ll use it for.
FarmRaise helps you with both types of applications. We pull together all of the paperwork you need for standard form applications & remove the jargon, TurboTax style. For narrative-based grants, our team strategizes with you to build the best narrative to represent your goals & make you competitive, and then we help you write it & submit!
#4: Federal grant funding is best for long-term projects, rather than short-term cash needs.
If you’re looking for essential working capital to fill an important need on the farm, most grant and cost-share programs are not going to help. Rather, these programs are intended to help you innovate, try new practices, and expand your market and infrastructure. These funding opportunities can help you de-risk innovation and improve your financial situation in the long-run, but they are not a quick fix for your short-term cash needs!
Also keep in mind that, if you are awarded a government grant, it will be some time before you see the money in your bank account. And, some programs, like the NRCS EQIP program, operate on a reimbursement basis, meaning that you receive the award after you have paid for the project already.
#5: The best first step you can take is to identify your goals & prioritize them!
One of the reasons the farm funding landscape can be so daunting for producers is that it’s all too easy to jump in without really taking the time to know your ultimate goal.
We always advise the farmers we work with to take some time to identify their farm goals and priorities. Only after doing that do we identify the programs that they should pursue.
Your goal setting process might involve these prompts:
- What is your vision for the farm 5, 10, and 20 years from now?
- Identify the top 3 to 5 projects you want to take on for the farm in the next 3 years. These projects should be aligned with your long-term vision.
- Prioritize those projects in terms of importance.
- Decide which projects are most urgent — what do you need funding for sooner rather than later?