The USDA does award a number of grants, but they are not generally grants that go to individual farms. We review them here because they are related to farming and may be of interest to your farm or organization in terms of partnering with another organizations, finding what grants may be available from your state department of agriculture. Or if you are a non-profit or a local agency you may find a grant for which you can apply directly. The USDA does provide an impressive list of loan programs. We review these in the second part of this article. If you are interested in how the USDA might help you rent or purchase a rural home read the USDA section in this article called Grants for Housing.
The National Institute of Food and Agriculture is a research agency associated with the USDA. It awards grants related to agriculture and farming primarily to researchers, educators and other professionals at colleges and universities. It could be worth checking out their grant search tool to see what kinds of things are going on and what innovations may be of interest to your farm.
The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program is a federal program that awards “block grants” to the states which then provide programs and grants to individuals or organizations. These funds are intended to support the competitiveness of “specialty crops” which are pretty broadly defined. They include fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, nuts that are grown on trees, nursery crops (including flowers) and more. The awards will be different for each state, but the overall goals are the same. Eligible applicants for these grants also vary widely. They could be local or statewide and include groups and projects such as:
- making it easier for people in low income areas to get access to specialty crops;
- creating and operating community gardens
- creating and operating school gardens
To see how your state is using its Specialty Crop Block Grant and what grants may be available go to the website of your state’s Department of Agriculture (see Useful Resources).
Farm to School Grants: The USDA’s Farm to School Grant Program helps projects that help elegible schools get better access to local foods. Over $5 million is awarded each year to meet this goal. The grants cover everything from initial planning to training and operation to buying equipment, starting school gardens and more. There are several categories of grants so wherever your school, farm, non-profit, Indian tribal organization, local agency or other group might be in terms of creating a partnership or a program, it’s worth checking out these grants. The application period generally begins in February for the following year’s programs.
The Farmers Market Promotion Program provides two competitive grant programs to get more people to buy and consume locally and regionally produced foods. They also aim to promote the development of new market opportunities for farms and ranches that serve local areas. Funds can be used on a wide variety of activities that create more and/or better farmers’ markets (including roadside stands), support agritourism, sales that go directly from producer to consumer, and more. In the past individual awards have had a maximum of $100,000 and the minimum $15,000.
The list of eligible applicants is long and can be found on the USDA website — just go to usda.gov and search on that site for Farmers Market Grants. There you can also learn when the next round of applications is announced and how to apply.
In recent years the government has stepped up its efforts to help rural Americans achieve a greater measure of economic security. Resources have been dedicated to improving job creation and the development of small businesses in rural communities. Though many people are looking for grants – i.e. money that never needs to be paid back – the assistance generally comes in the form of loans to farmers and ranchers who require financial assistance to keep their enterprises running. Though that may be a disappointment, it is a reality. The good news is that the loans available are extensive and generally more accessible than in the past. And there are actually a number of grants for very specific purposes, discussed at the end of this article.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) provides financial assistance to small family farms and ranchers who are not able to obtain financing and credit via normal banking institutions. This assistance comes in the form of loans and the amounts can vary depending on what particular need is to be addressed.
Direct Farm Operating Loans are for the purpose of helping with the daily needs of running a farm. These expenses include operating expenses such as pay for your workers. They also can be used for the cost of seed or feed, livestock, equipment and fertilizer. The maximum Direct Operating loan available is $300,000. These loans do not require an upfront payment.
Micro-loans are smaller loans that are more easily accessible. They have a reduced-paperwork application process to ensure that they are quickly available to those in need. While they do generally require some sort of experience, apprentice programs and non-farm business experience can help non-farmers qualify for these programs. The maximum micro-loan available is $50,000. These loans do not require a down payment.
Farm Ownership Loans are loans that assist with purchasing farmland, making improvements and constructing or repairing farm buildings. These loans can also be used to implement soil and water conservation measures on your farm. There is no down payment required, but applicants must have participated in the direct management of a farm or a ranch for at least three years before they will be considered. The maximum loan available is $300,000.
The FSA’s Farm Emergency Loans help with farmers who are located in areas designated as Federal disaster areas by the President or the Secretary of Agriculture. This money helps pay for actual physical loss of buildings, equipment, and crops or livestock, as well as loss of production due to not being able to farm because of the disaster. The maximum loan amount is $500,000 and the money can be used to replace tools and equipment, fund living expenses, and reorganize the farming operation after an emergency.
The FSA also provides loan guarantees to encourage lenders, such as banks and farm credit bureaus, to make loans to borrowers who might not normally qualify for credit under a lender’s ordinary standards. The FSA guarantees 95% of the principal and interest of the loan, so that the lender can reduce its risk when it extends credit to borrowers who might not have perfect credit.
These loans can be obtained for both Operating and Ownership reasons, and lenders are actively encouraged to extend to credit to first-time farmers, as well as to minority applicants.
To apply for any of these loans, you can get in touch with your local FSA office. Experienced loan officers will guide you through the application process.