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The Endvicks are working with their local Natural Resources Conservation Service office to get funding for fencing and a watering system for their grass-fed beef herd. Danielle recommends working with Michael Fields Agricultural Institute grants advisor, Martin Bailkey, to write successful grant and conservation program applications. Photo by Danielle Endvick

Grants-advising program can help farmers accomplish business goals

By Danielle Endvick

Farmers need a broad skillset. From animal caretaker to agronomist, marketer to veterinarian, we wear our fair share of hats. One role that rarely comes to mind for most, though, is grant writer.

I was working as an intern at a statewide agricultural newspaper in 2008 when I first stumbled upon the alphabet soup of grant opportunities available to farmers: EQIP, REAP, FMPP, VAPG, etc. At that time, the idea of writing a grant seemed daunting and beyond my reach, certainly something to be left to the professionals. It ended up being over a decade before I finally set foot into my local NRCS office and set the ball in motion on some conservation-focused grant opportunities for my farm.

That hesitant mindset is something the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (MFAI) has set out to change. The nonprofit, based in East Troy, Wisconsin, offers a grants-advising service that is working to empower farmers by linking them with grant and cost-share resources that can help them attain their farming or ag-related business goals.

“We don’t write the grants for people, but do help review proposals and navigate the world of resources available to help grow their farm or business,” said Margaret Krome, MFAI policy program director.

The free service, available to farmers, farm organizations and institutions in the Upper Midwest, is supported by Farm Aid, Wisconsin Farmers Union, and North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE).

Martin Bailkey, MFAI’s grants advisor, said a key aspect of the program is educating about what grants can and cannot do.

“There are a lot of grants out there that cover a lot of ground,” said Bailkey, a seasoned grant writer and proposal reviewer. “But they don’t necessarily represent easy money for someone who wants to renovate their barn, buy farmland, or cover the costs of daily operation for a farm.” While he sympathizes with folks seeking such resources, especially given the current economy, Bailkey often points such inquiries toward USDA low-interest loans.

MFAI’s service helps potential applicants craft proposals around a bigger picture. “The intention behind most grants is not to make one lone farmer more profitable, but rather to leverage outside funds for the benefit of a larger group,” Bailkey said. “A lot of the bigger USDA grants are really community-focused. Some are also targeted at the larger causes of community food systems, conservation, or sustainable agriculture practice.”

Framing Your ‘Ask’
Common mistakes in grant proposals include applicants not fully following application instructions or a failure to align a proposal with the intended outcomes of that particular grant program.

“Once we help identify which grants might fit a project, a key step is helping people think about how to frame what they’re asking for,” Bailkey said.

Bailkey helps applicants identify appropriate programs, assists in drafting thinking points, and reviews proposal drafts. He also manages a list-serv that informs recipients of upcoming application periods and deadlines.

Prior to serving on MFAI’s staff, Krome worked on appropriations for the Sustainable Ag Coalition and Midwest Sustainable Ag Working Group (which later merged into the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition). In those roles, she saw a need for grant-writing training and educational resources for farmers and other rural stakeholders.

“It was clear to me that especially immigrant farmers and historically underserved farmers needed more than just ‘here’s how to write grants,’” Krome said. “We realized we needed to offer help navigating resources and to help them think through how to develop a good project, stakeholder partners, and assets so the project stands the best chance of being successful.”

Among the grants MFAI frequently recommends to clients are opportunities offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, State Departments of Agriculture, State Extension Offices, and foundations.

“There are many opportunities out there, especially for farmers interested in conservation,” Krome said. “We encourage folks to connect with their local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to learn more about things like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which are intended to support working farmers who are using good conservation practices.”

Given recent climate challenges and difficult market conditions for many agricultural commodities, now may be the ideal time to think about how a grant or low-interest loan could help you rethink certain aspects of your farm business.

“We want people in this period of tough finances to not despair that they can’t get a conventional loan but instead go meet with the Farm Service Agency staff and explore what other kinds of funding are available,” Krome said.

Best-Kept Secret
MOSES In Her Boots Coordinator Lisa Kivirist is one of many farmers who has taken advantage of the MFAI Grants Advising program. She calls it a best-kept secret.

“It’s a great free resource that helps farmers stop grant chasing and instead take a strategic look at funding opportunities that meet the needs of their farm and business vision,” Kivirist said.

Kivirist’s advice for other farmers is to start the grant-writing process early, building in enough time to review and improve upon the initial draft with feedback from the MFAI advisor.

“We can all cooperatively tap into these resources to help our farming community,” Kivirist said. “These programs are not just about funding one specific thing on your farm; they’re about bigger solutions for everyone. Talking to someone like Martin can help put that lens on it.”

Do yourself a favor, and don’t wait a decade to take advantage of MFAI’s grant resources or to walk into your local NRCS office. Make 2020 the year you set your farm up for success.

Learn more about MFAI resources. For more information and to sign up for the MFAI list-serv for program announcements, contact Martin Bailkey at 608-698-9478 or email.

Danielle Endvick is the Communications Director for Wisconsin Farmers Union.

From the January | February 2020 Issue


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