‘Sky’s the limit’ in sustainable, alternative agriculture grant programWritten by Christy Hemken
The SARE program was authorized in 1985 and funded soon after, and Smith says it’s been ongoing since. “We try to fund things that are different and not just standard practice,” says Smith, who’s the Professional Development Coordinator for SARE in Wyoming.
Jim Freeburn, who also works with UW’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) at Lingle, is also involved in SARE as the Western region’s Sustainable Agriculture Professional Development Program coordinator. Utah State University hosts the Western Sustainable Agriculture program.
Smith says the grant program encompasses many projects. “Your definition of sustainability might be different from mine or anybody else’s, and sustainability in your environment could be quite a bit different than the guy’s in the next county or state.”
“The application of all the programs varies quite a bit, but it includes anything but business as usual – with the idea of sustainable agriculture, it’s kind of like apple pie, nobody can disagree with you,” notes Smith.
One aspect of SARE is the Farmer/Rancher Grant Program, which involves the producer coming up with an idea, developing it as an experiment or demonstration on his farm, or partnering with other farmers, and then incorporating that into an educational effort.
Another dimension is the Agriculture Professional Grant Program, in which the only difference from the Farmer/Rancher program is that the partners are county, federal, or other agency professionals that handle the funding.
“In agriculture we’ve got to broaden our perspectives a little bit. What we do not want to do is go out of business because things changed and we didn’t adapt,” says Smith. “And that’s where sustainable ag comes into the picture.”
He says it’s all about simple economics on the one hand. “To be sustainable you have to make money. We also have to preserve the quality of our environment, or improve it in come cases, and look after our communities,” says Smith.
He says one of the big differences between standard ag programs with the USDA and sustainable ag program is that the sustainable ag funding almost always puts a lot of focus on small farms and communities, as opposed to simply supporting big farmers. “You can see a little bit of shift in ag programs over the years, particularly lately, as it relates to promoting smaller farmers,” he adds.
Many years ago farmers used to receive the majority of the retail cost of their products. “Now farmers get pennies of the retail price of a product, and there are some opportunities there,” says Smith. “We find a lot of things that help promote farmers maintaining a higher level of return off what they produce.” He mentions beef marketing programs as an example.
In the Farmer/Rancher Grant Program, $15,000 is available per farmer, or $30,000 for groups of three or more. “There’s some serious money here,” says Smith. “You put together a program like this and you can do quite a bit of on-farm demonstration research, as long as you’ve got a good educational program that goes along with it.”
In the Farmer/Rancher program, the producer writes the grant application and receives the money in the form of income. “In order to make it a wash for you without tax consequences you have to spend the money on the program,” says Smith.
Although things such as tractors and large equipment will not qualify for the grant, Smith says expendable equipment may be purchased, as well as special implements that might allow an operation to do something it wasn’t able to before.
“The real focus here is education of a larger audience than just people who are getting the money, like pamphlet production, farm tours and field days,” says Smith. “It’d be a standard Extension type of a program.”
He says the key is to develop something that shows promise of making more money than standard operation. “I could see you using this as seed money for an enterprise that you might take to the Small Business Initiative Grant Program,” says Smith. “Let’s say you want to talk about a kill plant that would allow you to get several producers together to producer meat products to market across Wyoming or, better, across state lines. That’s a really serious shortfall in the beef business in Wyoming and across the West of places to kill your beef. Something like that would be a super place to start.”
“There’s real money and opportunity here for you,” Smith tells producers. He says the new administration hasn’t changed the program much. If anything, it’s added more money. “In the previous administration you had to drag them kicking and screaming into alternative agriculture or anything alternative. If something looks a little bit green, it ought to be better now than it was before, and sustainable ag is definitely on the green side.”
“There are all kinds of things you can do to take advantage of this program,” says Smith, offering another example of biofuels. “If you could come up with ideas that didn’t involve corn and ethanol, I think you’d be moving ahead in the right direction. Buy a digester, for example.”
“The sky’s the limit here,” he says. “The imagination and willpower to get up and go is what it takes to get these kind of grants.”