“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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
Not all farm funding opportunities are structured as grants. We’ve found the breakdown is best captured by the following categories:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The more organized you are throughout the year, the more prepared you’ll be to submit an application for a grant or loan.
Lenders often ask their prospective clients to submit financial statements (balance sheets, profit and loss, schedule of liabilities) with their loan application. If you aren’t keeping track of your cashflow and assets, you’ll have to work harder to prepare your application. We recommend utilizing tools like FarmRaise Tracks to keep your financial data organized.
For certain financial assistance programs, such as disaster relief programs, producers are expected to keep track of the damage they incurred and hold onto this evidence for years after the incident.
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:
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.
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.
You might be able to go it alone, but you don’t have to. FarmRaise is here to help.
With FarmRaise Tracks, you can keep up with your farm expenses and income, easily uploading photos of your receipts so that you don’t lose them. It works offline where you are, and you can export reports at the end of the season to make tax prep - or loan applications - a breeze.
FarmRaise Premium members also get access to funding alerts so that you never miss a deadline. We also provide a streamlined paperwork support module for FSA Records and EQIP, so that you can fill out pristine applications without headache.
Through our funding library, you can filter, save and track funding programs that fit your farming goals. Each state has over 100 opportunities, whether for small businesses, new farmers, nonprofit organizations, or whomever. Keep track of your eligibility and competitiveness with our readiness surveys, where we tell you whether its time to apply and how to get the best application support. You can try it for free!
Check out these tips for filing taxes for your farm or ranch and see how FarmRaise may be able to help.
If you’re a first-time farmer looking to start a farm business, iIt’s not easy to find private or USDA grants and loans to support a new farming endeavor. Even still, you can jumpstart your farming career with these finance and experience tips.