Top 5 USDA Grants and Funding for Agriculture

December 4, 2023

“The thought of doing the paperwork and coordinating with ten different agencies for ten different programs is really a mind boggling thing for me.”

This FarmRaise customer was capturing a sentiment we’ve heard dozens of farmers share over the past year: farm funding opportunities are difficult to navigate. Many farmers seek out technical assistance to understand what’s out there for them.

That’s why we’ve created a database of 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 the key considerations you’ll want to be aware of as you navigate this landscape.

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • Eligibility for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funding
  • How funding works
  • The top USDA funding programs for producers
  • How to submit a stellar application

Who Qualifies for USDA Funding?

There are so many different USDA funding programs and they apply to a wide range of stakeholders within the food system. Fortunately, that means you are bound to be eligible for several of them, no matter your type of farming!

Generally, any grower that owns or operates farmland and has some existing production is a great candidate for farmer-facing USDA programs. You can be a sole proprietor, a corporation, a partnership or even a non-profit. The true key to accessing USDA funding is that you are currently farming.

USDA grants can be used on a variety of land types, too. You might have forest, wetlands, prairie or cropped acreage, and any of these scenarios are good fits for USDA programming. For example, you can get crop production grants for your cropped acreage, and conservation easements or reserve payments for your wetlands.

If you’re an urban farmer, indoor farmer or vertical farmer, there are grant programs to support you, too. You might look at USDA marketing grants to build a website and market your goods, or sustainability grants to experiment with energy use reductions.

There are demographic considerations that might help you access funding, too. The USDA acknowledges “historically underserved” farmers in many of its grant programs with certain benefits. A historically underserved farmer is defined by the USDA as a farmer or rancher who meets one of the following categories:

  • Indigenous farmers and ranchers
  • Farmers and ranchers of color
  • Veteran farmers and ranchers
  • Beginning farmers or ranchers in your first ten years of production
  • Low income farmers and ranchers

If you fall into one of these categories, there are a few benefits to you. The first is that many USDA programs will set aside five to 10 percent of their total funding pool to go to historically underserved farmers. And the second is that you may be eligible for higher cost-share rates if you participate in funding programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Cost-share programs like EQIP give a payment rate per practice that’s usually based on 75 percent of the market cost of the practice. Historically underserved farmers may be eligible for cost-share rates as high as 90 percent. Lastly, historically underserved farmers can qualify for up-front grant disbursements for programs that are reimbursement based, so that you spend less cash out of pocket.

How Does USDA Funding Work?

You might be inclined to think of the USDA as a bank - there’s the main organization and they distribute funding directly to their clients or constituents. However, the USDA doesn’t work like that. Instead, the USDA governs multiple agencies that are able to distribute funding directly to producers through their own programs. These agencies 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) — More than $10 million available annually in grants alone (many more dollars available through loan programs)
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) — More than $2 billion available annually
  • Rural Development — Roughly $40 million available annually
  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) — Roughly $30 million available annually

The organizational hierarchy of the USDA is divided into six entities.

It’s also important to note that most programs are administers regionally. For example, SARE (which we’ll cover in a moment) is divided into four regions covering the entire United States. You wouldn’t apply to a national SARE program. You’d apply through your region’s office.

SARE, like most UDSA funding programs, is divided into regions across the nation.

Organizational Hierarchy of the USDA

Each of these entities has its own unique focus area and charter designated by the USDA and the Farm Bill, and this 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 assistance 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.

Types of Farm Funding Awards

There are five types of funding structures by the USDA for producers.

Not all farm funding opportunities are structured as grants. We’ve found the breakdown is best captured by the following categories:

  • Grants: Financial assistance programs for farms and ranches structured as reimbursement-based awards to complete a specific project with a tailored objective.
  • Cost-share programs: Financial and technical assistance programs for farms and ranches in which the government agency shares the cost of the practice with the producer, usually at a predetermined rate based on the practice.
  • Easements: Long-term arrangements, usually targeting rural areas, that allow farmers to get paid for keeping land in conservation or agricultural production. Especially relevant for rural areas that border urban areas and are targets for development, or for marginal croplands that could benefit from being taken out of production. Read all about easements and see if they’re right for you.
  • Loans: Financial assistance in the form of debt financing.
  • Emergency and disaster relief: Emergency programs to cover excess cost or uncertainty during times of extreme weather that are intended to improve farm viability.

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 grants require that you write reports about your project, so that your research can inform the broader farming community on the effective sustainability practices.

As you consider your options, it’s important to recognize that some program applications consist of standard forms where you fill out basic contact and 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.

Top 5 USDA Funding Programs for Agricultural producers and Landowners

1. The Environmental Incentives Quality Program

EQIP is the largest federal cost-share program for farmers and ranchers that incentivizes you to implement conservation practices - like cover cropping, or rotational grazing - on your land. EQIP is disbursed as a per practice payment rate over three years.

There are EQIP deadlines for each specific state or island in the U.S. but you can apply any time of year. The deadline refers to the time when applications will be considered for the year.

If you secure a space in the EQIP program, see how you should file your taxes to maximize your return.

2. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program

SARE Farmer Rancher Grants are for individual farms and ranches to support on-farm research and outreach around sustainable agriculture practices. This is a narrative-based grant that requires you to submit project reports in the middle and at the end of your grant period.

3. Value Added Producer Grants

The VAPG program funds projects to help you cover the cost of marketing, personnel and rental expenses that are necessary to growing and expanding value-added production on your farm. Value-added production can include local food production and organic certification, as well as altering the state of your raw commodity by making products like jams and jellies. If you want to improve the business side of your agribusiness or you like to sell your products at a farmers’ market, this one would definitely interest you.

4. Rural Energy for America Program

The REAP grant and loan program is offered to farmers and ranchers who want to pursue renewable energy or energy efficiency projects. It can fund a surprising amount of projects like improving your greenhouse, installing solar panels or retrofitting your irrigation system.

5. Farm Service Agency Loans

FSA Loans are low-interest, government loans for farming and ranching small businesses who have trouble accessing credit elsewhere. There are many types of FSA loans to help you buy farmland or to cover operation costs.

You can find these grants and many more in the FarmRaise Farm Funding Library. You’ll be able to look up and track deadlines for organic certification cost-share programs, specialty crop block grant programs and agribusiness development programs. Try the FarmRaise Farm Funding Library for free.

Tips to Be a Competitive Candidate

Some USDA programs are considered competitive grants and programs. EQIP for example accepts about third of its applicants. But if you understand how to go about applying, you can increase your chances of earning an award.

Track and Document Everything

Keep your inventory, revenue, costs and milage in one place to make funding applications easier.

To make your financial journey smoother and more efficient, consider tracking and documenting every detail of your farming operations. Think of it as your farm's diary, capturing the ins and outs throughout the year. Why does this matter? Well, when you're applying for grants or loans, lenders often want to see your financial story told through statements—things like balance sheets, profit and loss reports, and schedules of liabilities.

Being on top of your cash flow and assets makes this storytelling way easier. It's like having your financial narrative neatly organized, ready to impress lenders. That's where tools like FarmRaise Tracks come in handy. They're like your trusty sidekick, helping you keep all your financial data in check so you can present a strong case for financial assistance.

And it's not just about loans. For certain programs, like disaster relief, you need to keep a record of the challenges your farm faces. Hold on to that evidence; it's like your farm's survival kit. Keeping tabs on damages incurred and holding onto this proof, sometimes for years, is your way of saying, "Hey, here's what happened, and here's why I need a hand."

So, whether it's for loans, grants, or handling unexpected challenges, being organized and having the right tools at your disposal, like FarmRaise Tracks, can make all the difference in keeping your farm thriving.

Make a Business Plan

Identify your goals and 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 five, 10, and 20 years from now?
  • Identify the top three to five projects you want to take on for the farm in the next three 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?

Choose Long-Term Projects.

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 EQIP program, operate on a reimbursement basis, meaning that you receive the award after you have paid for the project already.

Learn Your Local USDA Office’s Priorities

Be thoughtful about which farm projects are attractive for funders.

Regional USDA offices vary in terms of the amount of funding they have to give away and their top priority projects to spend that money on. We recommend that you develop a relationship with your local USDA office, so that you can get the scoop on your county’s top priorities. You can find your county contact here.

When you do your research about a specific program in your specific area, you can increase your chances of becoming a standout candidate. For example, the North Central SARE program offers webinars to learn more about their USDA farm funding processes. They are considered “contact forward.” Meaning they encourage direct outreach, like emails and phones call, to learn more about their programs and goals. Try reaching out to your local office so you can discover their priorities and increase your chances of receiving funding.

Keep Your FSA Records Updated

FSA Records are like the Farm Service Agency’s memory of some of your farm’s important information like:

  • Ownership and operation
  • Land use and size
  • Crop plantings, production and yield
  • Conservation practices
  • Financial assistance

If anything changes in those aspects of your farm, you’ll need to update your FSA Records.

Not sure if you already have those records set up with the FSA? Then you may need to apply for a farm number. You’ll need a farm number to apply for most federal funding. It’s free to apply so make sure you set up your farm number as soon as possible. Here are some detailed instructions on how to set up a farm number.

There are plenty of federal funding opportunities for seasoned and new farmers alike - as well as opportunities from  private and non-profit organizations. But even with all this funding our get it—applications can be a drag, and we're here to make the process as painless as possible.

It can be tough keeping track of all the opportunities, deadlines and application steps. Consider using a tool that can track these funding opportunities as well as the finances you’ll need to show once you earn a space in one of these USDA programs. Once you get into a program like EQIP which operates through reimbursements, keeping receipts and finances in order will be crucial.

So here’s what you’ll want to keep track of:

  • Farm expenses and receipts
  • Revenue/income, sales and invoices
  • Equipment purchases and milage
  • Changes in operations or use of conservation practices
  • Yield

We’ve looked, and honestly, there just aren’t a lot of farm accounting software out there to help farmers keep track of the USDA-funding essential data. That’s why we made FarmRaise Tracks to handle your farm's expenses and income, snapping photos of receipts and having everything neatly organized by Schedule F categories (that’ll be a huge help during tax season). It also works like a charm even when you're off the grid, making sure every corner of your farm is covered. When tax season or loan applications approach, exporting reports is a straightforward process.

FarmRaise Premium members also get access to funding alerts and a paperwork support module that turns the headache of FSA Records and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program into a walk in the orchard.

Dive into the FarmRaise toolbox for free!


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