SARE: USDA Grants for Producers to Experiment and Educate

April 19, 2023

Farmers and ranchers are more than just producers. They’re biologists in many ways - observing what’s happening on their land and trying new methods to ensure growth. Good news, farmers and ranchers of America! Through a USDA research and education grant program, you may be able to get a grant to help you conduct research around your farm.

FarmRaise Premium members were able to sit down with Rob Myers, from the North Central SARE program, and ask their top questions about SARE’s popular “Farmer Rancher” grants. Below are some highlights from the discussion, as well as answers to commonly asked questions.

What is the USDA’s SARE Program?

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program is a competitive grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). SARE supports on-farm research and education by providing farm grants for research and education projects that focus on sustainable practices. It is made up of committees of farmers, ranchers, researchers and educators that evaluate and administer grant funding directly for farmers and agricultural professionals.

SARE is comprised of multiple competitive grant programs that serve farmers, ranchers, researchers and educators across the United States and outlying islands. We'll dive into those different types of grants in this post. In fact, we'll cover:

  • How to find your SARE region
  • SARE eligibility requirements
  • How to apply for different types of SARE programs
  • Proposal writing tips
  • How FarmRaise can help SARE applicants

Who’s Eligible for SARE Funding?

SARE is more than just free money for farmers. It’s made up of multiple programs with different requirements for grant proposals, grant calls and timelines. A graduate student applicant in Connecticut may have an entirely different experience than a farmer collaborative applying from Puerto Rico. That said, there is a wide variety of farmers, ranchers, students and researchers who are eligible to apply for SARE. The process is even open to indoor farming projects like greenhouse projects and indoor Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) farmers.

SARE grants are not tied to the size of the farm, so any size farm is eligible as long as it meets the definition of a farm for the relevant SARE region.

SARE Regions

SARE operates within four regions of the United States. Your state or island will fall into one of the four SARE quadrants of the country.

the four SARE regions for SUDA farm funding - FarmRaise
  • North Central SARE (NCR-SARE) – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin
  • Southern SARE – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas Virginia, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Northeast SARE – Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Washington, D.C.
  • Western SARE – Alaska, American Samoa, Arizona, California, Colorado, Guam, Hawaii, Federated States of Micronesia, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Northern Marianas Islands, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming

Types of SARE Programs

Each of the four SARE regions has its own suite of available SARE programs so you may find that what is available in Vermont is not available in Hawaii or vice versa. Here are some of the programs that are available across all four regions.

SARE Farmer Rancher Grant Program

The SARE Farmer Rancher grant is one of the most popular among farmers, so we’ll spend quite bit of attention on it in this post. Southern SARE calls it the “Producer Grant” and Western SARE calls it “Farmer Grant.” Regardless of the name, the following guidelines apply.

Maximum funding amount: Funding amounts vary greatly by region and whether you’re applying as an individual or as a farmer organization. However, you’ll find that no region exceeds $30,000 in funding.

Award maximums range from $15,000 to $30,000. Multiple farmers can apply together as a group to get more money. But know that if you’re applying as a farmer group, the farmers must come from two different farms (can’t be a husband and wife, or parent and child applying as a “group”).

Timeline: SARE Farmer Rancher grant proposals are generally due in November or December, depending on your region.

  • Reviewed by other farmers: After you submit your grant, it’s actually other farmers that review and score it.
  • It’s about doing something new: Competitive projects are those that allow a farmer to get some experience trying out a new practice on the farm, and these can include marketing practices. To apply, you should be trying out a new production method, or figuring out a new way to do things in your area.
  • And something sustainable: Profitability, environmental impact and quality of life for you and your community – these elements must be present in your proposal and addressed by your project.
  • And something applicable to others: Pretty much any type of crop is eligible for a project, but the project needs to contribute to sustainability. If the crop of interest is a really minor or obscure crop, be sure to explain how work on this crop might create opportunities for other farmers in your region.  
  • Almost all farmers are eligible: The cool thing about SARE is almost any farm is eligible, including hydroponic operations and large, commercial farms. There is no income threshold (though your region may require that you make $1,000 or more to be considered a farm). We asked Myers “Is there eligibility for new programs on an existing, conventional farm?” His response: “We have funded SARE producer grants on fairly conventional farms, but the project needs to involve trying out a new practice or approach that holds potential for improving the sustainability of the farm.”  
  • Projects are from one to two years: At the end of your project, you need to invite people out to the farm to showcase what you did and what you learned (even if the project failed).
  • Historically underserved farmers may receive priority funding: Some regions, like the Northeastern SARE, strongly encourage projects that include or collaborate with women, the LGBTQIA+ community and historically underserved farmers.
  • What about projects that would need several years before knowing results? The project length varies a little by region (most are two years), but work on a longer term problem is perfectly fine. You can still have a field tour, for example, that shows your initial results from the project period.

What SARE Farmer/Rancher Money Can Be Used For

Funding is not a loan that you have to repay. It’s a grant for you to use on the project. Here are some examples of expenses that SARE can cover:

  • Pay part of your time devoted to the project
  • Hire a consultant or pay extension agent’s time to help put it on (ie: grazing or soil health consultant)
  • Some farm supplies are eligible but they must be used for the project
  • Equipment cost rules vary by region, but some equipment can be covered. There are budget guidelines in each regions’ call for proposals that will help spell this out for you.
  • Travel expenses to go to a workshop or a grazing school (but you can’t just use it to generally go to any event or conference)

How can I increase my competitiveness?

According to Myers, your SARE proposal is most likely to be funded if you explain how you are going to test different methods of doing something and compare it to your current approach. You’ll be a more competitive applicant if you can articulate a research question or hypothesis. Think: the scientific method. SARE doesn’t typically fund a proposal to spend time just gathering information on a topic.

Let’s say you’re looking into a new natural pest control regime. You’ll need to articulate your hypothesis and provide a plan to address it. For example: "By planting XYZ cover crop and spraying a natural pesticide fermented and distilled from the chilis we grow on the farm, we will see a X% decrease in crops damaged by X pest than when we used our old pest control regime.”

It’s also recommended you talk to the SARE farmer grant coordinator for your region if you have application questions.

  • North Central SARE (NCR-SARE) – Joan Benjamin 402-805-7678
  • Southern SARE – Candace Pollock-Moore 770-412-4786
  • Northeast SARE – Candice Huber 802-651-8335, ext 554
  • Western SARE – Cayley Eller 406-994-7349

One other way to increase your competitiveness is to keep your farm finances organized.

Be more competitive for funding opportunities by tracking your farm expenses.  Sign up for FarmRaise Tracks to get started! This tool also helps you keep great financial records for reporting on your grant.

SARE Graduate Student Grants

SARE supports projects by graduate students whose degree program addresses sustainable agriculture issues. Students may only receive one grant in their graduate career. Take a look at these 2021 NCR grantees for inspiration.

Maximum grant amount: Up to $15,000

Timeline: The timelines for each region varied widely. For example, the Western SARE Graduate Student Research and Education proposal is due in December while the NCR proposals are due in April. So be sure to check your region’s website for details.

SARE Professional Development Program

The SARE Professional Development Grant Program (PDP) supports the education and training of agricultural professionals so they are empowered to address emerging issues in agriculture using sustainable agriculture. There’s an emphasis on education in up-to-date technology and farming methods that would help producers address environmental concerns and improve farm profitability.

The typical competitive grant will usually be an educator who focuses on training agricultural educators in extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service, the private sector and nonprofit organizations. Some examples of grant active PDP grants support such activities as producing workshops, creating educational manuals and videos, or conducting on-farm tours and demonstrations.

Maximum funding amount: The Southern and Northeastern SARE programs have no funding caps but keep in mind that the larger your funding request, the more scrutinously your application will be reviewed. NCR awards up to $120,000 for Professional Development Projects while Western SARE funds up to $100,000.

Timeline: The Southern and Northeast SARE program require a preproposal which is typically due in mid-summer. A preproposal will be reviewed and if it’s accepted, you’ll be asked to provide a full proposal afterward. All full proposals are due in November for each region except for NCR which is usually due in April.

Take a look at the list of NCR 2021 PDP grantees for inspiration.

Research and Education Grants

The SARE Research and Education (R&E) Grant Program is for researchers and educators seeking funding for projects that “explore and promote environmentally sound, profitable, and socially responsible food and/or fiber systems.”

If you’re wondering what types of projects R&E grants fund, a typical project coordinator will explore sustainable pest, weed or water management, community, food systems and urban ag, crop diversification and more.

Maximum funding amount: Each region has a different grant funding range.

  • NCR-SARE – $10,000 to $250,000.
  • Southern SARE – up to $400,000
  • Northeast SARE – $30,000 to $200,000 (you may apply for more than $200,000 but know that your application will be examined more closely.)
  • Western SARE – up to $350,000

Timeline: Preproposals are usually due in mid-summer with full proposals due fall.

Partnership Grant Program

While the SARE Partnership Grant Program is only offered in the NCR SARE and Northeastern SARE (which currently has a one-year hiatus on the program), we want to highlight this SARE program because anyone who works with farmers can apply, and it focuses on making professional connections between farmers. Since we at FarmRaise partner with farmers daily, we recognize the importance of collaboration between agriculture professionals and farmer/rancher collaboratives.

The goal of the Partnership Grant Program is “to catalyze on-farm research, demonstration, and education activities related to sustainable agriculture.”

Maximum funding amount: $50,000 for NCR and $30,000 for Northeast SARE

Timeline: Proposals are generally due in October and funds are dispersed in early spring.

Publish Your Findings with SARE Outreach

One of SARE’s goals is to support and disseminate grantee research results that will boost sustainability in our food systems and regenerative agriculture across the nation. That’s why SARE Outreach exists. If you have a podcast, white paper or book about regenerative ag in the works SARE Outreach can act as your publisher.

SARE Outreach is located in Maryland but since it’s the national communications arm of SARE, it functions across all four regions. The Outreach steering committee is run by professional development experts, regional Administrative Council members and agriculture communications experts. If you’re interested in sharing your findings on a broad scale, visit the SARE Outreach website to learn about the eligibility criteria.

SARE Reporting Requirements

You are required to file a report. If you’re doing a one-year project, just one report is due at the end of that year. If you’re doing a two-year project, one report is due midway through and another at the end. These reporting timelines vary by region and SARE program so be sure to check in with your regional coordinator for details.

Examples of Successful SARE Projects

See what grant projects other grantees have completed. Go to the SARE project search page and enter keywords describing your farm or the project you have in mind in the search for “project title.” To broaden the search, in the “project report” section you can search by region or state as well.  

How to Apply for SARE

SARE applications are narrative based so there will be writing involved. Each of the four SARE regions has a detailed set of guidelines on how to apply for a variety of SARE grants. 

Typically, you can apply as an individual or as a collective - and collaborating with partners around the community is highly encouraged. Only one proposal can be submitted each grant cycle so it’s best to choose the idea you believe will produce the most benefit for farmers in your region. Start your proposal early and be sure to include an outreach plan - or how you’ll disseminate your findings. If you’re a FarmRaise Premium member, talk with Farm Funding Advisor so they can review your proposal and offer edits. 

Proposal Writing Tips

Here’s a hot tip Myers gave us: Projects can be unique to your farm, but at least some components of the project should be of interest to other farmers. SARE is less likely to fund a project where only one farmer will ever benefit from what is learned. Be specific on your methods, make it clear what you are comparing, and be sure to talk about how the project holds potential for improving sustainability of your operation.

Here’s another application tip: Don’t go it alone. FarmRaise is here to help.

We support the use of regenerative agriculture to make farms more profitable and sustainable. Our Farm Funding Library hosts SARE program details and hundreds of other private, government and nonprofit farm funding operations. We’ll also send you Funding Alerts so you never miss any SARE deadlines, and your personal Farm Funding Advisor can help determine if you’re a good candidate for SARE funding. See how FarmRaise works and take the next step toward finding farm funding that’s right for you.

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