It’s Grant and Application Time

Just before tax season and serious planting season is small farmer grants and market application season.  Lots of trees are felled to be able to print all the pages required for farmers to fill out.  While most people have heard of the farm subsidies programs for large conventional commodity crops farmers, few know that there are an increasing number of small grants programs intended to help small and medium-sized, sustainable and organic farmers.

The subsidy program payments are intended to underpin the large farms with a stable base price so that they are not entirely subject to the ravages of a world market they have no control over.  These grants programs for small or non-commodity crops farmers are intended to help them with trying or developing new crops or techniques to produce crops more sustainably. While small amounts of money, usually up to $10,000,  some of the best new ideas in alternative agriculture have been nurtured by these programs.

We have only ever applied for and received one tiny grant.  Way back in the early 1990’s we got a small amount of money to continue work we had been doing on raspberry variety trials and new ways to prune and manage them.  After 21 varieties and some real break throughs in improved trellising techniques what we really learned was that raspberries are not suited for production in the piedmont of North Carolina.  Sometimes research leads to an answer you don’t want, but at least it is some kind of answer.

Our only really good harvest of raspberries, on an innovative swing trellis

Since 1994 we have been participants, co-operators and collaborators on others projects.  But mostly we have been reviewers of many, many grant applications to various competitive grants programs.  We have literally read thousands  of applications!  These programs all operate in similar ways with review panels, comprised of people knowledgeable in various aspects of agriculture.  The difference is they are funded from all kinds of sources; Federal funds, state funds, non-profit groups.

Our specialty is a category usually called “Farmer Grants”, because, well, we are farmers.  We think that peer review is the best and fairest way to decide what ideas have merit or are even possible.  The granddaddy of these is the SARE programs Producer Grants .  Alex helped develop the Southern Region’s call for proposals and reviewed them for seven years.  Using that experience he has worked with the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA to build their Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund grants program.  Betsy founded the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers Research Foundation which gives out small grants for research into various aspects of cut flower production.

One of the reasons we still do these reviews is to continue to build the knowledge base needed to move agriculture forward.  Another is we get to see what the latest and most innovative ideas are in agriculture and sometimes it gives us ideas of new things that will improve our farming system.

Sometimes it’s is frustrating because the ideas are nothing new, or poorly presented.  Sometimes they are asking for money for equipment or projects that we, as good business people, just did out of our own pockets because we knew it was the direction we had to go.  We believe in funding good research or demonstration projects that will benefit the greater farming community, not just one farmers operation.  Many times we just have to bite our lips.

What ever the situation we spend many hours reading and scoring proposals every January and February.  This is followed by more hours with the whole review committee discussing the highest rated applications to narrow it down to the ones that will eventually get funded.  In the end it is a worthwhile process for all.

This years stacks of grants on the office floor

9/13/06 Vol. 3 #26

Yesterday was one of the those interesting days, which occur from time to time, that are a condensed version of our life in one shot.  Up early when it is just barely light to go for a walk because there is a lot to do.  Back for just enough time to have a cup of coffee and check some emails.  This was turkey moving day so I headed out to do that but first started the irrigation in the little tunnels to keep all the Thanksgiving vegetables happy and to take soil samples in the field the birds are about to go into.  Put the fences up around the new area and open the fence that was keeping them in the current field as they watched me intently get the new field ready.  I think they really do know when it’s time to move.  Immediately they move into the lush green cover crop, heads down, making what we call the “happy turkey sound”.  Drag their shelters, feeders and waters into the new field and it is done.  Jump on the tractor to mow down the rest of the six foot tall sudangrass cover crop in the field they had been in so that I can be ready take soil samples there prior to preparing the soil for the winter.  While on the tractor I mow the grass field the turkeys will be in next so the tender regrowth will be just the right height when they move in there in a week or so.  It is 11:00, enough time to shower and change clothes and drive to Pittsboro several meetings.

Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) is one of the hardworking non profits that we work with in multiple capacities, their headquarters is in Pittsboro.  First I met to discuss a new crop insurance program for diversified farmers to see if it would work for us.  We have never had crop insurance because one: it hasn’t been available and two: we are so diversified that if some crop fails some other crop or crops always makes up for it.  We decide we are not a good test case but come up with some other farmers who might be.  The bulk of the afternoon is spent meeting with a group of representatives of organizations who fund non profits like RAFI.  They are learning about sustainable agriculture and where they could fund projects, they are particularly interested in what is happening with our Growers’ Choice poultry cooperative.  I speak, our former plant manager talks about his experience and one of the Latino employees talks (with an interpreter) about the difference between working for us and the large chicken plants (he liked us better).  They are then all loaded on a bus and drive up for a quick tour of our farm, to see more examples of sustainable farming.  It is 4:00 by the time they leave, just enough time to feed and water the turkeys and head into town with Betsy.  We stop at the hardware store for a few supplies and then she goes to Italian class while I walk down the street to have dinner with a class of UNC students studying food.  We talk about farming (why are colored peppers so expensive), and politics (why we are going to Italy for the Slow Food conference), chefs, travel, local food, farming…. this same class will be coming to the farm in a few weeks.  I have to leave early (8:00) to meet Betsy and go to a Farmers’ Market Board meeting.  We are no longer on the board but try to go to as many meetings as we can to keep up and help answer questions that may come up.  10:30 we get home, what a day.

Picture of the Week
The guys strutting for the girls who are paying no attention, typical.