Farm Bill Yields Crop of Sustainability Grants

Guide Details 63 Government Programs

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Posted: Wednesday, December 3, 2014 2:09 pm

If you’re looking for federal grants or low-interest loans to kick-start sustainable agriculture, forestry, entrepreneurship, conservation, food systems or community development programs, a newly revised guide published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture might help.

The guide, titled Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities, describes 63 programs intended to assist local governments, private businesses and individual producers in a wide range of sustainability, economic development and conservation efforts.

The 86-page guide, available as a free download or for sale as a printed document, was produced in collaboration with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (MFAI), the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). It was authored by Margaret Krome (MFAI), George Reistad (MFAI), and NSAC’s policy staff.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) provided principal funding for the production and distribution of the guide.

While it contains all the farm and ranch assistance programs you’d expect from the long overdue farm bill approved by Congress this year, the available funding isn’t just for big ag producers. Small towns and city folks will find programs that support urban agriculture and forestry, local foods, farmers’ markets, farm to school initiatives, biofuel development, and a variety of grassland, wetland and woodland conservation grants.

“This guide is written for anyone seeking help from federal programs to foster innovative enterprises in agriculture and forestry in the United States,” according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Services, an NCAT program. “Specifically, the guide addresses program resources in community development; sustainable land management; and value-added and diversified agriculture and forestry. Thus, it can help farmers, entrepreneurs, community developers, conservationists, and many other individuals, as well as private and public organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit.”

Grants outlined in the guide fall into eight categories, described in the guide as follows:

Economic Development for Farms, Businesses and CommunitiesMany rural communities with historically agriculturally dependent economies have suffered as agriculture has concentrated toward fewer, larger farmers, serving and served by fewer local businesses. Programs in this guide offer direct and indirect support through loans, grants, and technical assistance, including for cooperative development.

Farm LoansFarms and farm businesses often need access to capital, both for land and operating costs. This guide describes several USDA direct and guaranteed loan programs, which increasingly are available to enterprises of all sizes, with terms and availability designed to serve beginning, underserved, and veteran borrowers.

Insurance and Risk ManagementFarmers seek to manage risks associated with farm production as well as market fluctuations. Some use only crop insurance, but many also use strategies like diversifying their farm enterprises or seeking organic or other higher value markets. Historically, crop insurance policies have been unavailable or poorly designed for organic and diversified farms. This guide features several programs offering steps to correct such inequities, as well as other risk management education programs.

Natural Resources Conservation and Management - Farmers, foresters, and other landowners seek to adopt resource management practices that protect soil, air, water and wildlife on their land in an economically viable way through many strategies. These include sustainable forestry practices; intensive rotational grazing of livestock; soil conservation; organic or biodynamic farming systems; cover crops and crop rotations; farmland protection, wetland and other habitat restoration; riparian buffers, and many other practices. This guide describes funding, technical assistance and other resources to support such land management changes.

Nutrition and Consumer Food AccessThe nation’s struggle to address the health, fiscal and social implications of obesity has brought a renewed awareness of the importance of affordable, culturally appropriate, safe and nutritious food, including fresh fruits and vegetables. Many families and communities in both urban and rural areas lack community food security. Remedies range from creating market linkages between local producers and consumers to more systemic efforts to address underlying poverty in a community. This guide describes several forms of federal economic and technical assistance.

Renewable Energy and Energy ConservationFluctuating fuel prices, concerns about climate change, and desire for greater national energy self-sufficiency have resulted in several programs supporting renewable energy and energy conservation. Some programs support energy production on farms and ranches, including biomass production and processing, wind turbines, manure digesters, solar panels, and geothermal. Others help build community infrastructure that supports renewable energy or conservation. Others in this guide support individual landowners or producers’ interest in creating energy or reducing energy costs on their farms or ranches.

Research and OutreachAs farmers, ranchers and landowners move toward more sustainable agricultural and forestry practices, they often need reliable, research-based information, technical assistance, or other informational help. Several programs offer outreach, research, or community assistance, and the last two Farm Bills have included provisions to focus particular assistance on underserved, beginning or veteran farmers and ranchers.

Value-added and Marketing Innovations - Because earnings in extractive industries (for example, agricultural production and timber harvesting) are generally low and volatile, many entrepreneurs seek environmental sustainability by adding value to natural resources through processing, packaging, marketing, distributing the products themselves, or by producing their goods with methods that gain market premiums. This guide describes programs offering financial, technical, marketing, and other assistance for such enterprises, as well as programs that support local marketing or market development, including organic or food safety-related certifications.

The guide provides information on eligibility, uses and restrictions applicable to each funding opportunity. The downloadable PDF version contains clickable links to online applications and other resources. Basic program information and project examples are also provided.

“The guide can also help USDA and other agency employees become aware and take better advantage of the enormous array of federal programs and resources available to their clients in supporting sustainable innovations in agriculture and forestry,” the authors said. “This edition is the guide's sixth printing and fourth complete update, incorporating programs from the 2014 Farm Bill.”

The guide book also provides tips on project conception and grant writing strategies, as well as numerous links to related online resources.

The Michael Fields Agricultural Institute offers workshops to help use the guide. The workshops cover how to envision and design sound projects; how to identify programs offering resources; and how to maximize your chances of submitting successful proposals. Find more information at

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