Free Money


Farm Notes

How is THAT for a story title? I bet it caught your eye. If you saw that headline in the newspaper or on television you might think, “There is no such thing!” 

But there IS free money out there, especially for farmers. Grants are available through the USDA, state-funded programs, independent non-profits, and at the county level. In fact, it is a little mind-boggling how many opportunities there are; it is almost a job in itself to navigate them all. 

Why do I bring this up? Because the vast majority of farmers I know will not apply for a single penny. Certainly, that is their prerogative. The reasons I have heard range from not wanting to deal with the government or share business information to not wanting the hassle of paperwork. Many refuse to “take a handout.” 

All of which makes me shake my head in disbelief and frustration. 

Running a small business in this or any economic environment is an uphill battle. Improvements or equipment upgrades cost real money. And while the banks are always happy to lend money based on the value of your farm, agricultural debt just keeps ticking up nationwide.  

Debt is just one of the many major stressors that contribute to overall poor health, higher rates of substance abuse and self-harm, and puts the ability to retire out of reach for many farmers. It also prevents younger generations from becoming farmers in the first place. 

And while it is true there is a fair amount of paperwork involved with most grant applications and follow-up; I see it as time well spent. For example, if it takes me 10 hours to fill out paperwork for a $30,000 grant, I am essentially getting paid $3,000 per hour. Doesn’t sound so bad now, does it? 

Over the last 15 years, I have applied for and won over $250,000 in grants for our farm. Some were indeed “free money”, others were interest-free loans, and most required that we were investing either our own money and time or preserving jobs. In each of these instances, I worked with an agency that had my farm’s best interests in mind and was keen on making sure the funding was spent as it was intended. 

Our very first win was a massive lesson in the positive impact of grants. We won a modest $20,000 grant (of which one-third we had to repay, interest-free) that allowed us to purchase a batch freezer, buying more of our neighbor’s milk and churning it into ice cream. The return on the investment of the added equipment allowed us to quickly buy a delivery truck, small retail display freezers, and a pushcart, all of which also contributed to return on investment.  Instead of tying money up in equipment, we were able to purchase packaging, ingredients, and design labels, literally “churning” out income for our farm with little to no debt. My eyes were forever opened. 

Now, here is the second reason I am bringing this all up: It is grant season RIGHT NOW. The USDA just announced an enormous funding opportunity for specialty crop growers. The Herkimer County IDA has funding that is perfect for equipment purchases. The Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center has multiple grants targeting everything from marketing to grazing practices to supply chain improvement. Workforce Development is always looking for ways to improve worker safety and enhance training. These opportunities are truly just the tip of the iceberg. 

Not sure where to start? Every farmer reading this should pick up the phone and call their local extension office and ask for some guidance. Or call your FSA agent or USDA Rural Development office and ask what opportunities are available. If you are in Herkimer County and want to know more about funding for equipment, call the IDA offices at 315-866-3000. You can also email me at and I will give you all the encouragement in the world!