Organic Broadcaster

Producers agree VAPG application process worth effort

By Audrey Alwell, MOSES

Applesauce, tea, and maple syrup are among the goodies growers are making with the help of the USDA’s Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program. The program awards funds to producers who want to grow their businesses by turning raw commodities into value-added products, expand marketing opportunities, or develop new uses for existing products. The application process takes a lot of time and thought, but grant recipients say it’s time well spent.

“While the VAPG is an extremely detailed competitive application, the process of completing it requires applicants to really think through the objectives and vision of what they want to accomplish,” said Dan Cornelius with the Intertribal Agriculture Council, based in Wisconsin. “That process by itself almost makes the application worth the effort.”

Cornelius is working with the recently established Intertribal Maple Syrup Producers Cooperative on a feasibility study to see what the market potential is for tribal maple syrup production. The cooperative just received a $35,000 grant to help fund this study, which has a total project price tag of $70,000. The VAPG program requires 1:1 matching funds, which can include “sweat equity.” The cooperative is using in-kind staff time along with funds from the Shakopee Mdwekanton Sioux Community to meet the matching funds requirement.

In 2014, the VAPG program provided $25 million worth of grants to 247 producers. The 2014 Farm Bill includes a lump sum of $63 million in mandatory VAPG funding over the life of the bill (2014-2018). Congress also appropriates additional annual discretionary funding for the program. The USDA uses both mandatory and discretionary amounts to fund the program each year. Funding and application dates for 2015 hadn’t been announced when this issue of the Organic Broadcaster went to press.

“I’ve heard the earliest it could be released is January,” said Deirdre Birmingham, Grants Advisor at Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. “But, we’ve heard that before, and then it is released in July.” Birmingham advises producers not to wait for the 2015 application period to open before starting an application.

“Start now using the last set of application materials. The rules stay the same far more than they change,” she explained. “People need lots of lead time, and winter is the best time to work on these.”

Birmingham knows firsthand how much work goes into a VAPG application. She applied and received a grant several years ago to expand her farm’s cider operation. She said the application can take weeks to complete. “Quite a bit of information is needed,” she added.

Through Michael Fields, Birmingham provides counseling and grant-writing help to growers
working on VAPG and other federal grant applications. She helps applicants choose the appropriate grant program and makes sure they meet the eligibility requirements. She also reviews, critiques and edits grant proposals, working with applicants by phone and email.

Dan Kelly, Blue Heron Orchard in Missouri, called her “a true cyber mentor.” He said he appreciated the help she gave him on his 2014 VAPG application after his prior year’s application was turned down. He’s using his $60,998 grant to process organic apples into applesauce, baby food, apple fruit leather, hard cider, apple butter, syrup, vinegars, and dried apples.

“Applying for grants is quite a challenge,” Kelly said. He said the application process helped him clarify what he wanted to do to expand his operation. “For me, the VAPG became a business plan. I was amazed that by working through my project to expand my markets, my vision became clearer.”

Birmingham agrees. “It really makes you think through your value-added business,” she explained. “Who doesn’t need to do more of that? You gather information, make contacts, and organize your thinking and your planning—all that is beneficial.”

Jane Hawley Stevens is using a Value-Added Producer Grant to process these bags of herbs into boxes of tea bags. Photo by Four Elements Organic Herbals

Jane Hawley Stevens of Four Elements Organic Herbals, a certified organic farm near Baraboo, Wis., found the VAPG application process helped her plan out the details necessary to repackage and market her herbal tea in bags.

“You have to pretend like you’re doing it already,” Stevens said, referring to how she envisioned every step of developing and packaging her tea products right down to stocking them on grocers’ shelves. She received a $283,948 grant in 2011 to produce a line of herbal teas in bags and market them through grocery stores in the Midwest. Her herbal teas previously had been packaged in canisters that she sold at local food co-ops. The market research she did for her application revealed that 85% of consumers at grocery stores wanted their tea in bags. She used that statistic to help procure the grant.

Getting the grant was a “monumental task,” Stevens added. “It was like writing a book, and I wasn’t even the one doing the writing—I had a grant-writer.” She started her application in January 2010 and completed it in August of that year. Stevens’ grant application was more involved since it was such a large-scale capital investment. The USDA offers a simplified application form for working capital projects requesting less than $50,000.

Stevens has been “spending down” her two-year grant over the past three years—she applied for an extension in 2013 to complete the terms of her grant. She said she had to do “a lot of banking” to make sure she had a line of credit to pay her share of the matching grant.

“I’m spending a lot of money to make this work,” she explained. “It’s a real challenge, but it has definitely been the right thing to do. But, it is still way more work than I thought it would be.” As she looks to the future, she’s hopeful the grant has given her “enough wind under my sails so I can fly.”

Audrey Alwell is MOSES’ Communications Director and Managing Editor of the Organic Broadcaster.

From the January | February 2015 Issue

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