USDA Grants for Funders

March 25, 2024

USDA Grants for Funders

Farmers and farm business owners aren’t alone in searching for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funding. Often, funders that provide financial assistance directly to farmers are also on the lookout for grant programs that can support their initiatives.

Fortunately, the department of agriculture offers over $500 million per year through competitive grant programs for institutions working across the food system. These USDA grants help funders provide better outreach about their programming, scale up their technical assistance for farmers, and administer funding directly to farmers for things like natural resource conservation or local food system support.

The focus of this article is to provide an overview of USDA grants for organizations that want to offer financial assistance directly to farmers.

Popular Gov Grants for Funders

USDA grants for funders range from cost-share programs for natural resource stewardship to research funding for on-farm trials and outreach. The largest and most consistently funded programs are housed with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), though other USDA programs offer similar initiatives. For example, grant programs are offered through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Rural Development Program and the Farm Service Agency (FSA), among others.

Here are a few of the most popular and consistently funded programs for funders to consider:

  • Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP): Offering over $500 million each year to participating institutions, this program allows nonprofits, universities, city and state governments, and companies to build and deploy cost-share programs for farmers and ranchers who want to adopt conservation practices like climate-smart farming, soil health, and natural resource conserving practices or renewable energy systems. The applications usually open in the spring / early summer each year, with awardees announced in the fall. Grants can range from $1 million to $10 million in a typical grant cycle. RCPP funding has been expanded in recent years, such that over $1 billion was awarded in 2023 with project sizes ranging up to $25 million. Please note that there are two types of RCPP grants: Classic and AFA, or “alternative funding arrangement.”
  • Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG): Offered for the last 20 years, the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program is offered by the  USDA-NRCS. This program allows non-USDA institutions to deploy innovative programs to address natural resource challenges on private lands. The CIG program is offered at the federal and state levels, with states being allowed to opt-in and devote some of their traditional cost-share program funding towards an annual CIG competition. Individuals, nongovernmental organizations, private businesses, tribal organizations, and State and local governments can apply. All projects must have direct farmer and rancher - or private landowner - involvement, and every participant must be eligible for NRCS-Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) participation to enroll. Typically, the program awards about $19 million in total programming per year, so it’s a small and competitive pool with modest award sizes.
  • CIG - On-Farm Trials: In the 2018 Farm Bill, the NRCS added a new program onto the CIG suite: the On-Farm Trials program. This program awards up to $25 million in total funds each year. As a sub-program of CIG, the On-Farm Trials program has similar requirements, but allows for longer project durations (up to 5 years) and focuses on on-farm pilot projects and demonstrations. This program requires that applicants provide a 25% match to USDA funds.
  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) Grants: The USDA-SARE Program funds projects that aim to conduct on-farm research with a small cohort of farmers. These grants range from $30,000 to $75,000 in total award value, and usually require the involvement of up to 3 farmer or rancher participants. The awards available vary by region, as shown below:

You may also want to consult your state department of agriculture to identify state-level funding pools.

Occasionally, the government may issue special initiatives relevant to pertinent issues facing the food systems. For example, the federal government deployed the USDA Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities program in 2022. This program offered over $3 billion in additional grant funding available to institutions that proposed innovative programming aimed at incentivizing farmers and ranchers to adopt climate-smart agriculture practices. It’s important to stay up-to-date with USDA programs so that your organization can participate in unique opportunities like this one!

Additionally, if you’re building an initiative that seeks to support historically underserved and/or beginning farmers, this may give you a more competitive application for many of the programs listed above. Reaching these farmers is a priority from the USDA.

Please keep in mind that not all USDA grants for institutions are good fit for those seeking to issue financial assistance directly to farmers. For example, some USDA programs such as the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) - which is housed in the Rural Development Office - offer grants oriented at supporting regional food system development. These programs are typically smaller in budget ($50,000 to $250,000) and are less relevant to organizations that wish to offer direct financial assistance to farmers in the form of farm grants, reimbursement or cost-share. Instead, programs like the Farmers Market Promotion Program (offered by AMS) are relevant to food system partners like food hubs, small businesses, non-profit organizations, and farmers market entities that allow farmers an easier path to local marketing.

How to Apply

If your organization has a project lined up that would be a good fit for one of the above USDA funding opportunities, the first step is to confirm your eligibility. Applying for one of these programs can take up significant organizational resources, so you want to be certain that your organization passes USDA eligibility requirements, and that your project is truly aligned with the goals of the program.

A good way to assess eligibility is to review the program information posted on the USDA website for each program. Here are some useful links:

When in doubt, you can always call someone from the relevant USDA program office and region to clarify your organization’s eligibility. Every USDA agency posts contact information for the relevant county, state and region on their website.

After you confirm you’re eligible, it’s time to assemble a team and plan. Writing a grant requires extensive planning and coordination. It can be likened to writing a business plan, except for a specific initiative or project within your organization. You will need a project manager, points of contact across your organization ranging from legal to financial to operational, and supporting partners from other organizations, including relevant farmer and rancher participants and stakeholders.

Some organizations may choose to outsource the grant writing to a professional, which is a reasonable and allowable approach. If you are looking for external help with a grant proposal, consider hiring a consulting firm that specializes in the agricultural sector and has familiarity with agricultural products and initiatives. Otherwise, you can post a listing on sites like UpWork or OpenGrants to find a relevant grant writer within your budget. Our team at FarmRaise can also refer you to trusted grant writing partners that we’ve collaborated with. You can reach out to us with questions here.

Once you’re ready to apply, make sure to get set up in both Grants.gov and the System for Award Management (SAM). Enrolling in these databases is an essential step for you to be able to apply for and receive funds from the government. SAM enrollment in particular can take several weeks, so be sure to do this as soon as you know you’re going to submit an application.

💡 Budget Tip: When you’re building your budget for the project, consider how you will manage all reporting data and grower enrollment. It’s a good idea to factor these costs into your total budget, either with a designated partner in mind or with intentions to issue a “request for proposals” from relevant partners after your grant is warded. Too often, we encounter organizations that have undervalued and under-planned for this very important implementation question.

Tips for Grant Management and Funding Administration

If you’re awarded a USDA grant that allows you to provide financial assistance directly to farmers and ranchers, congratulations! And while you take time to celebrate, it’s also a good idea to make sure your ducks are in a row.

Here are some recommendations for getting started after your project is approved:

  1. Buckle in and be patient. After the USDA informs you that your project has been approved, you will need to finalize project budget, timeline and paperwork with the department of agriculture. This process can take several months.
  2. Become familiar with your program contact, and start building a relationship. The USDA will assign you a key project contact from within the relevant agency. Start building a relationship with this person, who will serve as your source of truth about billing, reimbursement, program requirements, reporting needs and other issues.
  3. Determine a plan for facilitating farmer and rancher enrollment, contracting, implementation and payments. Do you want to manage these steps via pen and paper processes, or leverage efficiency-generating platforms like FarmRaise so that you can reach agricultural producers in a more streamlined way?
  4. Keep your partners informed. Be transparent with project partners about timelines, outstanding questions and project start dates. Try not to start work before the project is fully signed with the USDA, but if you have to start work before, ask partners to log their time so that you can report these contributions to the USDA later.

While these tips are helpful, sometimes you just need to talk with others who’ve been through this before. In that case, we recommend that you reach out to our team. Our cofounders have written and been awarded USDA grants in the past, and our company delivers software solutions that helps funders better manage their USDA grants and financial assistance programs. You can reach out to us here or learn more on your own by visiting our Partnerships page.

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