Applying for a USDA Grant: An Unforgettable Experience

Reader Contribution by Julia Shewchuck
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My original intent was to write this blog about Part 2, Fencing and Pasture, of How to become a Dairy Goat Farmer, but in the last several weeks I have been so absorbed in a very particular aspect of farming that I just wanted to tell you about that experience. Now, small family farms are not so lucky to receive all those subsidies that big commercial farmers receive for their operations, nor are we covered by crop or other catastrophic insurances, so our incomes are not guaranteed and we have to work hard to cover expenses. Over the last couple of years, we have applied for 1 large and two smaller grants with the goal to finance some special projects. The first year we applied for a USDA Equip grant and got funded. That one helped us build our interior fencing and water lines. The second year we applied for two small grants and got one funded. That one helped us to build our fourth mobile chicken coop. All of those grants were fairly easy to write: write a good essay about the why’s, the goals, the process and include a detailed budget and submit on time. The effort was definitely worth the money we received and which helped our projects.

Applying for USDA Value-Added Producer Grant

So, when in December I read about the USDA Value-Added Producer grant (VAPG), and that individual producers could also apply with a possibility for extra points being a woman or beginning farmer, my interest and ambition awoke. I wanted to apply for that grant to help us develop a catchy and retail worthy packaging line for our goat milk products, and subsequently help with a promotional campaign to expand our customer base specifically for our soaps and body care products.

Now the USDA VAPG is still a matching grant of 50/50, which means that the grant would provide 50% of the capital and we would have to provide the other half. Of that other half, 25% must be cash; the remainder could be in-kind services like product from your farm or your time. Now here is what I learned:

Every grant has a due date. Start early. I started in December and finished on February 20th. The due date was February 24th. To write the grant took me two months of nearly every day reading, researching and writing.

Read the instructions and the underlying law or notices very carefully. Read the fine print. After I went through five rotations of budget calculations I found a tiny provision that said that project income will be used to off-set the amount of grant money to be received. Definitions are not always common sense and nothing is written in an easy to understand way.

Attend a workshop. Research on-line. I found an awesome workshop that the Oregon State USDA office put on and it helped tremendously. I had fully intended to submit the application on-line, but then heard the workshop instructor say, that in all the years that they had received grants, they never received one on-line that was complete. I submitted a hard copy. The instructor also mentioned that it doesn’t give you any extra points to increase your in-kind (non-monetary contribution), so I kept the in-kind match to the exact 25%.

Use the application template, if available. A template helps tremendously in keeping the grant organized and helps you to provide all the needed information. This grant has an application toolkit and a template and I followed it to the letter. I made three copies for several revisions and used them all.

If applying for a federal grant, you must have a DUNS number and a SAM Cage number with an expiration date. To explain what they are would fill three blogs, but it is really easy to get them, it doesn’t cost a thing, it just takes time. Do it early. And those techie people with are just incredibly nice.

Don’t leave the appendices to last, because that’s where the supporting information goes. Collect all needed information early so you have it ready such as tax returns, and especially letters of commitment and support. I left those until the end and had to scramble.

Fill out the required federal forms early and often. They look intimidating and you want to give up before you even fill in one number. Don’t. They just look complicated. And call your local and State USDA office (or other office). They are really a very helpful and nice bunch of people. I made a friend in the State USDA office in those two months.

Write, rewrite and rewrite again. Tell your story. Look very closely at the questions and structure your responses into paragraphs providing the information so it’s really easy for the evaluator to see whether you responded to the question. Tell your story but don’t digress. The evaluator will read a lot of grants. Yours has to stand out, but also has to be easy to read.

You can ask your friends and family for advice and comment, but don’t expect too much beyond editorial comments unless they have been really involved with you from the start. You are the one who has read the notices and procedures, done the research and attended the workshop. Their eyes will glass over by the third page.

When you wake up at 2am in the morning with a thought on the grant, write it down. Chances are your subconscious has just come up with a great idea.

You will be walking, sleeping and dreaming this grant application. At some point you will be cranky and stressed and feel you will never get it all. Your family will think you have lost it. Don’t give up. It will go away. I had to remind myself that nobody forced me to apply for this grant and that it was my own ambition.

At some point, I just had to say “I’m done”. I could have revised this and that, but the changes were getting more minute and I was starting to second guess myself.

The Result

Looking back a week after submittal, I have to admit, the experience was worth it. It made me assess and think through my project. The feeling of finally submitting this grant application was awesome. If, through some miracle, we receive it, it will be just absolutely fabulous. If we don’t, we haven’t lost anything, except for some sleep.

My advice, if you are really, really, really serious about your chances, hire a grant writer, especially if it’s kidding season.

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