As a farmer you’re an innovator, an experimentalist, an improviser; in other words, you are a scientist. Testing new crops, or production and/or management practices are a regular (and required) occurrence that involves labor and money. Labor and money are resources that we all know are limited even before thinking about experimenting with some new system or concept. In comes the NE SARE Farmer Grant – where farmers can receive up to $15,000, during a 2-year period, to help you test this new system or concept. Of course, there is no such thing as ‘free money’ and if you’re interested in pursuing the grant there are a handful of factors you may want to consider.
SARE stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. Funded by the USDA – National Institute for Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). SARE acts nationwide with the mission to “offer farmer-driven, grassroots grants and education programs.” SARE is broken down by regions, of which there are 4, and priorities are set region-wide to focus on grants and education. Here in NY we are part of the North East SARE region – NE SARE. The other states in the NE SARE region include Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.
The NE SARE Farmer Grant, applications due November 17th and awards announced in February, “are for [farmers] who have an innovative idea they want to test using a field trial, on-farm demonstration, marketing initiative, or other technique”. A farmer, as defined by the USDA is a commercial operation that produces and sells agricultural products with gross annual sales of at least $1000. The grant awards up to $15,000 for projects that can run up to 2 years, and address “agricultural sustainability issues such as profitability, environmental or health risks, natural resource conservation, farm labor, and quality of life”. Of course, there is no such thing as ‘free money’ – and what you are being paid for in this case is new information that will benefit the NE agricultural community.
In fact, a key component of the NE SARE Farmer Grant is that the results of the project will benefit other farmers in the region. For example the results from Groundwork Market Garden’s (Buffalo NY) research on the “Economic Feasibility of Caterpillar Tunnels on Urban and Small-scale Farms“ will not only help Groundwork Market Garden “determine if the benefits and returns [of caterpillar tunnels] will outweigh the input, cost, and potential challenges associated with management and production”, but other farms will reap the benefits of this knowledge contribution as well. Another example is The Piggery’s (Ithaca NY) research on “Cost-Benefit Analysis of Pastured Pig Weight Gains With and Without Added Protein Supplements“. The results of this research may very well help other pastured pig operations, besides the Piggery, become “more financially sustainable in a market that only allows for very thin profit margins”.
Grants are tricky and very specific, as Mary Kate MacKenzie pointed out in a recent ‘Farmer Grants & Loans’ discussion – grants are limited with strict eligibility criteria and by chasing the seemingly ‘free money’ that grants offer farmers may run the risk of “mission drift” (diverging from core values or intended focus). This is in part due to the expenses grants will (and will not) cover, and the NE SARE Farmer Grant is no exception.
Simply put, the NE SARE Farmer Grant will cover expenses related to the project for the duration of the project, not including capital or operating expenses. If you need a piece of equipment to perform the duties of the grant NE SARE will cover the cost of the equipment rental for the duration of the grant period, or they will cover a portion of the purchase cost (e.g. a piece of equipment costs $1600 and the lifetime of that equipment is expected to be 10 years, NE SARE will contribute 1600/10*2=$320 to the cost of the equipment).
Below is a comprehensive list of eligible and ineligible expenses which are also enumerated, with further detail, in the call for proposals.
|Eligible Expenses||Ineligible Expenses|
Another important consideration is how the grant money is dispersed. The NE SARE Farmer Grant is a reimbursement grant, meaning that you, the farmer, must pay the expenses upfront and then submit the invoices to NE SARE. Once submitted, it typically takes less than one month to receive your reimbursements with 2 exceptions: 1) early on in the grant cycle when the service agreement is still being processed; and 2) the last 20% is held until the final report is submitted and approved.
Besides meeting the objectives, “exploring and sharing new concepts in sustainable agriculture (on production, marketing, labor, farm succession, social capital, and other topics) often through experiments, surveys, prototypes, on-farm demonstrations or other research and education techniques”, there are other expectations which you must agree to and meet if and when you decide to pursue a NE SARE Farmer Grant including writing annual and final reports, and having a technical advisor.
Reporting is a necessary component of most grant opportunities and serves many purposes including sharing with your funders, and in this case the public, the progress and results of the project. NE SARE very clearly defines it reporting expectations:
“Reports should describe the progress made on the research project, detail the findings observed, and document any outputs and impacts. All outreach and educational activities should be reported as well as any measured changes in knowledge or awareness, attitudes, and opinions, and/or the adoption of new practices. Publications, photos, and other documentation should be added to the report as attachments to help document and promote the project”.
While reporting can be time consuming the NE SARE Farmer Grant annual reports are, thankfully, done during the (typically) less busy winter months, as noted in a recent NE SARE Farmer Grant webinar. This may also be the case with the final project report depending on when your grant period starts. It is worth noting that the NE SARE staff and your technical advisor are there to help.
In addition to reporting all NE SARE Farmer Grant projects require a technical advisor. A technical advisor can be an “extension educator, NRCS or other government staff, university researcher, nonprofit staff, private consultant, veterinarian, or other technical expert, including another farmer”. The role of the technical advisor is to help you think through the project, analyze the data, and collect your thoughts. They are there to help you be successful in your project from conception, through execution, and reporting.
So, you have an idea, or maybe just a thread of an idea, but really want to explore it and shape it to see if it could turn into a NE SARE Farmer Grant. Reach out to your extension agent, the sooner the better. Your county extension agent can either help you shape your idea or help you find someone who is well versed in theme of your concept. Make no delay because grants are due Nov 17th!
Last updated October 27, 2020