Best Practices for Administering Farm Grant Programs

April 1, 2024

Managing Gov-Funded Grant Programs

Administering a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded grant program as a grantee is no small feat. Fortunately, because there are over $500 million in USDA grant funds awarded to external institutions annually, there are proven pathways to grant management success. This guide offers some best practices for managing your organization’s gov grant, financial assistance or cost-share programs.

Please note: this article is intended for funders who are either in the process of submitting grant proposals or have grant proposals that have been accepted and awarded by a government agency. If you haven’t yet submitted your grant proposal, it’s a good idea to read through this content so that you can write some of these tips into your grant budget and proposal narrative. Many of the best grant proposals are those which fully account for the cost and complexity of award management, because this allows your organization the budget to invest in scaleable solutions.

Establish Roles and Responsibilities

At the start of new initiatives, it’s critical to have clear systems of communication, ownership and accountability to ensure effective execution. This is true especially with federal grant-funded initiatives, like Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grants or Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program grants, since the timelines can be long and variable for each step in the process. For example, many USDA funding opportunities will have months pass between the grant application process and the official start of awardee initiatives. The steps are generally:

  1. Confirm your organization’s and project’s eligibility
  2. Submit a competitive grant application
  3. Receive notice from the USDA or relevant gov entity that your program has been selected
  4. Negotiate with funding entity (USDA or other relevant gov entity) about final award terms including budget and timeline
  5. Finalize and sign official documentation with USDA / gov entity
  6. Start project

You should anticipate that each step in the above process happens at least several weeks, if not several months before the next step. This is a timeline you often do not have control over, as it’s based on the USDA / gov entity’s constraints.

Fortunately, you do have control over the cadence and quality of your communication to internal and external stakeholders about your project. The first step is to internally clarify roles and responsibilities within the lead project organization. If your project involves multiple lead partners, then consider this your internal team to distribute roles and responsibilities.

While you may have a large internal group contributing to the success of your program, it’s important to establish one key decision maker or point person with whom the buck stops. Your organization may choose to pursue consensus or decisions by committee, but when you communicate with key project partners and stakeholders, it’s important to present one, aligned voice. A designated decision maker, or project leader, is critical for funneling perspectives in an aligned, coherent manner to external entities.

You will also want to determine who is responsible for the following:

  • Fiscal management - budgeting, reimbursements, payments and associated record-keeping
  • Marketing and outreach
  • Technical assistance for participating farmers, ranchers and agricultural producers
  • Legal / compliance
  • Partnerships coordination
  • USDA / gov entity reporting

It’s possible that some of the above roles may be held by the same person. Just make sure that whoever is managing multiple jobs has ample support and well-defined expectations.

Keep Partners Informed

Additionally, you will need to be diligent and consistent about your communication to project partners. Given the lengthy process from application through award start, you will want to be transparent and clear with partners about the award progress - or lack-thereof. Make sure that every partner has the contact information for the project lead, and send out regular emails (perhaps at a monthly cadence) to inform partners about project happenings.

It’s also a good idea to host webinars at key points in the process to get all partners in the same room and work towards a sense of alignment and solidarity. You might, for example, host webinars at the following stages:

  1. During the process of drafting your application
  2. Once your project has been selected
  3. Once the final project negotiations have concluded with the USDA / gov entity
  4. When the project is fully executed and ready to start
  5. Throughout the lifecycle of the project, perhaps at a quarterly cadence

Projects can flounder if partners lack clarity about next steps and performance to-date. It’s critical that the lead organization fills communication gaps and provides the glue for the community that will execute the project.

📌 Grant Administration Tip: While the modern day work environment allows for easy digital collaboration via Zoom calls, webinars and shared digital artifacts (Miro, Google Drive, OneDrive, etc.), sometimes in-person meetings are critical to fostering a sense of belonging and solidarity amongst disparate partners. Think about using some of your budget to bring project partners together once a year through field days or interactive workshops.

Prioritize Outreach and Marketing

In addition to updating project partners, it’s critical to establish an external outreach and marketing plan that will enable farmer and rancher recruitment and participation. Your funding program will be an exciting opportunity for agricultural producers, and while you want to generate ample enthusiasm for the initiative, you also need to manage expectations.

Be prepared to communicate the following:

  • Project timeline, including application cycle dates and deadlines
  • Eligibility criteria, including factors like whether participants can be small businesses, beginning farmers, non-profit organizations, or participating in other USDA programming, such as that offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
  • Enrollment process and timeline
  • Contact information for those that have questions or need support
  • Type of funding offered (reimbursement, loan program, cost-share program, etc.)
  • Allowable uses of funding (feasibility studies, development grants, conservation practices like cover crops, water quality initiatives, value-added production, local food efforts, rural development initiatives, etc.)
  • Requirements of project participants, including providing progress reports, proof of implementation, and other data on the agricultural practices and their impact

It’s possible - and highly likely - that you won’t know all of these details right when the project kicks off. In this case, it is advisable to wait to announce your project until details are clear. And, if you expect that details may change over the course of your grant program (especially if your program spans multiple years), you may want to express that in outward communications to manage participant expectations.

Be sure to give agricultural producers several weeks, if not a few months, of lead time to apply to your program before the deadline.

📌 Grant Administration Tip: Please note that deadlines are a great way to encourage sign-up, as a deadline forces participation. But you will want to pick deadlines that align with the realities faced by your farmer and rancher stakeholders. Allow prospective participants to apply during times of the year when agricultural production is less busy, such as winter months or mid-summer.

Develop Data Infrastructure

To comply with USDA / gov reporting requirements, you will need to keep meticulous records of data collected throughout the life of your project. This data will come not only from your organization, but from participating agricultural producers and project partners. Data may come to you in multiple formats: paperwork, files, images, CSVs, uploads, etc.

You can develop a data infrastructure system that makes the management of these disparate sources of data clear, secure and effective. Here are some key questions to ask of your organization as you develop this system:

  • Data Storage: What kind of physical capacity do we have to store files? Is our storage secure, and will it be secure for the duration of the project? If physical space is an issue, you may want to pursue a digital-first approach to data storage, using software and secure data storage platforms like OneDrive or GoogleDrive to keep track of project data.
  • Data Sources: Who will be providing data for the project? Where are they getting the data that they’re providing? Is there an easy way for them to transfer that data over to your system of record?
  • Data Access: Who needs to access stored data and for what purpose?
  • Data Manipulation: Who needs to edit stored data and for what purpose?

For example, below is a scenario that we’ve witnessed at FarmRaise in our work with federal grant awardees:

  • The grantee needs to accept files and data points in multiple formats from farmers and ranchers.
  • A digital system of record is chosen, given its security and effectiveness and organizing multiple sources of data.
  • Project partners responsible for technical assistance will also need to add data to the system of record and tie that data to specific farmer and rancher participants.
  • The grantee needs to be able to update data points when prompted by farmer and rancher participants to address user error issues (ie: the farmer input the wrong field value and needs to update it).
  • The grantee needs to issue paperwork for farmers and ranchers to review or sign and store those in the secure database.

After you identify your data and file needs using the questions above, you then need to determine the best system of record that will meet your needs. Many systems exist, though no solution exists for the specific use case of administering agricultural financial assistance programs outside of FarmRaise’s Funder Software suite.

Determine USDA Reporting Workflows and Cadence

As the project lead, your organization will likely be tasked with all USDA / gov reporting. The complexity, scope and frequency of this reporting will depend upon the type of grant program you’re awarded. Make sure that you have clarity about reporting expectations from the funding agency. For most USDA awards, you can clarify expectations with your USDA project coordinator who’s been assigned to manage your award. Many programs require you to complete your reporting through your organization’s profile in grants.gov.

For quarterly reports, these reports are often due the last day of the month following the end of the last quarter. For example, if your quarter ended on March 31st, then your report for that quarter’s activities would be due on April 30th. Some programs don’t require you to submit any reporting documentation unless farmers have been enrolled and started their work to unlock your financial assistance.

Your reporting requirements may require you to submit data about the following:

  • Budget spent during the reporting period
  • Farmer enrollment and practice adoption during the reporting period
  • Payments disbursed to farmers during the reporting period
  • Partner contributions during the reporting period (in-kind donations, time or effort certification, etc.)

Some reports may ask for a qualitative update, like a narrative or briefing, to accompany the submitted data and supporting documentation.

Submitting your reports in a timely manner is a necessary step for award compliance. If you’re having trouble with your reporting, ask your gov contact for assistance and guidance. It’s also possible the gov agency will revise reporting expectations if they become too cumbersome.

An example of this can be seen in the recent USDA Climate-Smart Commodities program, which originally required that grantees report out on farmer yields, marketing channels, prices and commodity type for each field enrolled in the financial assistance program. Based on feedback from grantees, USDA leaders in Washington have mentioned cutting back some of the reporting requirements to enable producer enrollment at scale.

As the grantee, you have influence over the scope and intensity of the reporting for your project. It may seem like you have to do everything exactly as the USDA requests it (and, to be clear, we aren’t advocating that you completely disregard the stated requirements!), but we’ve worked with grantees who have been able to make their case effectively to the USDA about why the reporting requirements should be waived or altered for particular programs.

If you’re feeling dismayed by reporting requirements, it’s worth remembering why they exist. Not only does the USDA have a responsibility to use public dollars well, when you share data on the innovative initiatives your organization offers for farmers, you help to inform future public efforts to promote sustainability, climate change mitigation and food system resiliency.

📌 Grant Administration Tip: One way to streamline reporting is to have your project focus on simple, straightforward cropping systems and practices. The more cropping systems your funds are intended to target, and the more interventions / practices your program funds, the more complicated your reporting will be. You could also cap total grower enrollment to a manageable number per year based on your organization’s capacity to keep reporting limitations lower.

Manage Your Budget and Reimbursements

Another important aspect of grant award management involves managing your budget, payments and reimbursements. Many federal awards are reimbursement-basis, meaning you will “invoice” the government for work after it is completed. Some organizations - such as small businesses - may be eligible for up-front payments. But, more likely than not, your award will be issued as a reimbursement award.

You’ll want to build a master resource where you can track your total budget amount, and then your projected spend across various categories, partners and years of the project. Each period that you request reimbursement, you’ll want to meticulously record all expenses and track supporting documentation (receipts, partner invoices, etc.). The USDA / gov agency will likely have a template form that you’ll use to request reimbursement, and you may supplement this form with your own supporting documentation.

To streamline this workflow, we recommend creating a checklist that you follow each time you submit your expenses for reimbursement to the USDA.

Administer and Track Payments to Agricultural Producers

One more aspect of financial management will be administering and tracking all payments made by your organization directly to farmer participants. Many organizations follow the reimbursement basis with farmers, where funds are only given out to participating farmers and ranchers after the practice has been implemented. For example, if a farmer purchases cover crop seed and plants the cover crops, then they can alert your organization that they’re ready to receive payment.

Many programs are offered to farmers as cost-share, where the farmer gets either a set rate per acre for the practice they’re implementing, or a set percentage of total costs covered. The former method - a set rate per acre - is considered cost-share because it’s based on an assumed average cost of implementing the practice. This type of flat rate structure does allow the farmer to potentially capture 100% or more of the cost of the practice in reimbursement if they can find a way to implement the practice for less than the incentive amount.

To administer direct payments to farmers, you’ll want a notification system where farmers can submit their proof of practice implementation to your team, your team can then review and approve or reject the proof, and then your team can send payment and update the farmer’s award status to reflect that a payment was made. To understand how we’re tackling this challenge at FarmRaise, read more on our partnerships page or send us your questions.

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