We all have dreams for our farms, but often the dream is bigger than the budget.  Understanding how to write a winning farm grant can make the difference between a ”someday dream” and a “right now reality”.

Before you even start thinking about a grant, sit down with anyone involved in the management of your farm and create a farm business plan.  Farming is a business, after all, and writing out a business plan not only helps you with the numbers, but it can help others understand your vision and support you in your farm venture.  A solid business plan is required for some grants.  Even if it is not required for the grant you are writing, it will be extremely helpful in all grant applications, as it clarifies the purpose and goals of your farm.

The first thing you need to decide when working on the business plan is the mission statement.  This is the overarching purpose of your business, answering in one or two sentences why your farm exists, what purpose it serves and where it is headed.  This is not where you put your money making goals.  The mission statement reflects the core purpose of your farm and is based on your personal values.

After you are satisfied with your mission statement, start thinking about the goals you have for your farm.  This is where you put in monetary goals.  But money isn’t everything.  Include environmental goals, sustainability goals, community goals, as well as personal goals.  Divide your goals into short-term and long-term projects, with short-term goals to be accomplished within a year and long-term goals taking a year or more.  For each goal, come up with a minimum of three action steps and the date you need to accomplish them in order to reach the goal.  Consider the acronym “S.M.A.R.T.” when creating goals:

SPECIFIC – “I will make a ton of money from my garden” is not a specific goal.  “I will make $1200 per quarter from the herb portion of my farm selling fresh, dried and value-added herbal products” is a specific goal.

MEASURABLE – “Everyone will love my farm products” is not measurable.  “Eighty percent of my customers are repeat customers or found me by word-of-mouth from a happy customer” is a specific and measurable goal.

ATTAINABLE – “I will be a formidable competitor of WalMart.”  No, no, no you won’t.  But you can choose a niche market and be the best in your neighborhood.

REWARDING – If you hate chickens but heard you can make a million dollars selling eggs, you heard wrong.  And while you may have an okay season or two, you will never make enough money doing something you don’t find intrinsically satisfying.

TIMELINE – When you announce that you will have a successful farm someday, you are just dreaming.  When you announce that you will be making a specific amount of money from your farm by a certain date, you are goal-setting.

Once you have set specific, measurable, attainable, rewarding goals on a timeline, you can fill in some background information.  Assess what you currently have.  This can mean anything as basic as how many acres you have to the general practices you employ regarding conservation, food production and marketing.

Before moving on to your strategy, take a look at your finances.  List all your current farm income and operating expenses in detail. Forecast what is needed for the growth you are aiming for.  Do not forget to include what your future operating expenses will be.

At this point you are ready to work on your strategy.  This is where you will look five years into the future.  Start by researching industry trends, identify your competitors and define buyers.  Conduct a S.W.O.T. analysis by analyzing your farm’s internal strengths and weaknesses.  Then look at external opportunities and threats.  Threats can include regulations, competitors and economic conditions. Opportunities show themselves when following market trends in the form of new products, as well as the availability of new markets.

After researching and completing your S.W.O.T. analysis, create a list of products and/or services that align with your mission statement and will help you achieve the goals you have set.

With your list of products in hand, develop a marketing plan.  For each product, include price, potential markets, and promotion ideas.

Now you can write out your implementation plan.  Refer to this document when you are applying for grants.  It will make the process faster, less stressful as well as increase the possibility of a successful grant application.

Congratulations!  By creating a farm business plan you have laid a solid foundation and you are almost ready to write a grant proposal. There is just one more thing to consider before finding the right grant for your farm.

It is critical to understand that while all farms serve a noble purpose, the federal government favors high-value, niche markets when it comes to handing out federal dollars.  Spend some time researching how you can turn something you already do successfully on your farm into a high-value, niche market.

Now it is finally time to research farm grant opportunities.  Local grants are often the easiest to secure so the best place to start your search is at your local USDA office.  Make an appointment and make sure you are able to clearly communicate what you are looking for. The more precisely the grant matches the project, the more likely your success is.  If you have exhausted the local grant opportunities, I recommend the SARE website (www.sare.org).  This site provides a list of grant funds available by region and will send you updated information if you sign up for their e-newsletter.

Once you have identified the grant you want to apply for, spend some time on that specific website.  The administrators of each grant will issue an RFA (Request for Applications or Notice of Funding Availability) once the grant is open for applications.  The RFA is where you find the requirements – deadlines, how the proposal should be written, allowable and unallowable expenses, and any outside resources that are required.  It may feel like a waste of time but it is very important to print out the RFA and read through it several times, highlighting any areas you need to do more research or work on.  This goes without saying but I am going to say it anyway: federal grants are competitive. Do not miss deadlines, regardless of how busy you think you are.  Someone else, possibly with a less impressive project will win the money if they are on time and you are not.

When writing your grant proposal focus on clear and concise writing.  This is not a short story contest.  Your writing will only be judged on how well it communicates the vision of your project.  Anything else is aggravating to the grant reviewers.  Most narrative sections in grants have a word count of 200 words.  This is not a suggestion.  Get to the point in the first sentence.  Cut any superfluous words.  Adhere to the word count by communicating your ideas simply.

In addition to concisely communicating your vision, be careful to avoid over-promising in an effort to outshine all other applicants.  This almost never works.  If you over-promise and win the grant, you will under-deliver.  This not only prevents you from being eligible for future grants, but can also result in having to pay back the money you received.

Make sure to give yourself enough time to write the grant and gather all the necessary information.  If you know which grant you are applying for before the application process is open, go ahead and start working on it.  Most of the information will be the same although it is possible that the amount of money available will vary.  Once the current RFA is available, carefully check the funding and requirements against what you have prepared and make any necessary changes.

Two extremely important and scrutinized parts of the grant application are the budget and the goals.  This is where the work you did on creating a farm business plan will really come in handy.

When creating a budget, be as specific and as detailed as possible.  Make careful notes of what can and cannot be covered by grant funds and do not include any of the expenses not allowed by the grant in your budget summary.  Do your research on price and availability and include the most cost-efficient choice possible.  Even if it does not ask you to report what your accounting practices will be, know what system you will use to keep your grant funds accounted for.  Whether you open a separate account, hire an accountant, or keep track of funds on QuickBooks, decide how you will handle the money before you receive it.

When working on the goal section of the grant you need to be sure the goals you list are in accordance with the stated goals of the grant. The more of the grant goals that you can incorporate into your project, the better, but do not over-promise.  Grants also want your project goals to be measurable.  Detail how you will measure and evaluate the outcome of each goal and the project itself.

Finally, it is a great idea to submit your application at least a week or two early.  If it turns out that you are missing some information, this will give you time to rectify that situation.

If you do not receive the grant, ask questions until you understand what went wrong.  You will be better prepared for writing the next grant. If you do receive the grant, take a minute to celebrate your hard work and then, well, get to work!

USDA – www.federaltimes.com

Grants – www.santabarbararotary.com

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