USDA logo Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities


This guide is written for anyone seeking help from federal programs to foster sustainable and innovative initiatives in this country associated with agriculture and forestry. Sustainability is commonly understood to embrace the triple concepts of economic, environmental and social viability. Specifically, the guide provides information about program resources pertaining to natural resources conservation and management; sustainable and organic farming practices; value added and marketing innovations, nutrition and consumer food access; economic development for farms, small businesses and urban and rural communities; and renewable energy and energy conservation.

The guide can help farmers, entrepreneurs, community developers, private landowners, conservationists, and many other individuals, as well as private and public organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit. The guide describes program resources ranging from grants and loans to technical assistance and information resources.

The guide can also help USDA and other agency employees become aware and take better advantage of the enormous array of federal programs and resources available to their clients in supporting sustainable innovations in agriculture and forestry. This edition constitutes the guides fifth printing and third complete update, incorporating programs from the 2008 Farm Bill.


How can the guide help you?

We hope to introduce you to programs that can be useful to your work, including some you might not otherwise have thought to pursue. Along with a general overview of each program, the guide explains the assistance the program offers and its purposes, as well as restrictions on that assistance. When possible, we give specific examples of how the program has actually been used to support such work.

This guide includes programs that have existed for years as well as some that are newly authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill. A survey to stakeholder groups helped us identify key programs to include, but undoubtedly some relevant programs escaped our attention.Further, although the program descriptions are accurate as of this printing, aspects of some programs will change. Please conduct Internet searches to obtain updates and applications for programs.


How is the guide organized?

There are two ways to identify programs that can help you:


What kinds of innovations do programs described in this guide support?

Natural Resources Conservation and Management - Increasing numbers of farmers, foresters, and other landowners seek to adopt resource management practices that protect soil, air, water and wildlife on their land in an economically viable way. This guide describes several programs offering landowners help in getting financial and technical support for a wide range of resource management strategies.

Strategies include sustainable forestry practices; intensive rotational grazing of livestock; soil conservation structures; organic or biodynamic farming systems; Integrated Pest Management (IPM); diversified crops and crop rotations; farmland protection, wetland and other habitat restoration; riparian buffers, and many other practices. This guide includes numerous programs that help landowners get information, funding, technical assistance and other resources to support such land management changes and some that help community groups collaborate in this work.

Sustainable Farming Practices As farmers and ranchers move toward more environmentally sound, profitable and socially responsible production practices, they may need information, technical assistance, or other help. Programs exist to assist them with a wide range of issues, from weed management to new crops and livestock enterprises; from the technical challenges or certification costs of making the transition to organic production to understanding economic thresholds of integrated pest management for a particular pest; from tillage to managed grazing. Several programs offer outreach, research, or community assistance, and the 2008 farm bill included new provisions to focus particular assistance on underserved or beginning farmers and ranchers.

Marketing and Value-added Innovations - Many entrepreneurs seek to add value to agricultural and forestry resources. Because earnings in extractive industries (for example, agricultural production and timber harvesting) are generally low and highly volatile, many communities seek to build economic and environmental sustainability by adding value to natural resources through processing, packaging, marketing, distributing the products themselves, or by producing their goods with methods that gain market premiums.

Creating value-added jobs can improve the diversity of a local economy, increase local incomes, capture higher profits locally, and use local natural resources more efficiently and sustainably. This guide describes programs offering financial, technical, marketing, and other assistance for such enterprises.

Nutrition and Consumer Food Access The nations struggle to address the health, fiscal and social implications of obesity has brought a renewed awareness of the importance of affordable, culturally appropriate, safe and nutritious food, including fresh fruits and vegetables. Many families and some communities, in both urban and rural areas, lack access to such food; impediments may be poverty, community isolation, lack of education about nutrition, or other factors. Remedies range from creating market linkages between local producers and consumers to more systemic efforts to address underlying poverty in a community. Localities can use this guide to identify forms of federal economic and technical assistance most appropriate to their needs.

Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Fluctuating fuel prices, concerns about climate change, and the growing awareness of the human and other costs of our nations depending on energy sources from politically unstable regions have catapulted renewable energy and energy conservation into the national spotlight. The 2008 Farm Bill created new programs and embellished existing ones to support energy production on farms and ranches, including biomass production and processing, wind turbines, manure digesters, solar panels, and geothermal. Some programs help build community infrastructure that supports renewable energy or conservation. Others target individual landowners or producers who see entrepreneurial opportunities to create energy or want to reduce the energy cost of their farms or ranches. Whether from the perspective of conservation, production or processing, agriculture has become a focus point for the nations energy and climate change policies, and this is reflected in the programs described in this guide.


What are successful strategies for obtaining resources to support your work in Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities?

This guide lists numerous programs that can help advance innovations in sustainable agriculture, forestry, entrepreneurship, conservation, and community development. Following some sensible and logical steps will help increase your chances of targeting programs for your needs and writing successful proposals.


What are the hallmarks of a well conceived project?

A successful federally funded project — whether a research proposal, conservation plan, marketing or other proposal — is no different from any other good project. It has tightly defined purposes; a clear strategy to accomplish them on a realistic timeline; the necessary people, money, and other resources; a basis for evaluating the process when done; and an effective means of communicating results.

Many projects are improved by a thoughtful effort to build supporting coalitions. A funder will look favorably on, and may require, local matches of funding. Remember that funding matches usually can also come in the form of existing staff salaries and other "in-kind" contributions, as well as actual dollars.

In designing a good project, be sure that you have included the right people in the planning process itself. Every participant should not only care about the idea, but also be prepared to contribute to its execution. Some questions to consider in developing your proposal include the following:


How can you identify potential federal programs?

Once you have a good idea of what your project should look like and what resources it requires, it is time to explore federal programs and figure out what programs, if any, can help you achieve your goals. Besides this guide, there are many ways to locate resources potentially useful to you. Ask colleagues doing similar work about who has funded their work, and make use of reference sections in larger public libraries, most university main libraries, and the development office of any large university. These reference sites often have many useful directories, some dealing with private sources and others with federal ones. Many references are available on the Internet.

Just a few sources include the following: the National Directory of Corporate Giving; Directory of Research Grants; Funding Sources for Community and Economic Development; Government Assistance Almanac; Government Giveaways for Entrepreneurs; Guide to Federal Funding for Governments and Nonprofits; and the Guide to Federal Funding for Education.


Many resources are available on the Internet, including:

Many other private and public resources at the state and local levels are not covered in this guide. Contact your State Department of Agriculture, State Forester, State Rural Development Office, local Extension Office, local conservation office and Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) coordinator to explore those possibilities. Also, asking yourself who might have a stake in the outcomes of your work might suggest additional potential funding sources.


How can you decide which programs are most appropriate for your needs?

Identifying programs in this guide and from other sources whose purposes and available resources suit your objectives is an art form. Instead of wasting your time chasing programs that have incompatible goals, a little methodical research will help you assess how well your project fits within various programs.

You may want to talk with program staff, people previously funded, or organizations that have worked with a program to decide whether there is a fit and if so, how to argue for it. It comes down to asking good questions and thinking strategically. For example:


What are some tips for submitting successful applications?

Once you have designed a good project, prepare it for submission to any program to which youre applying so that it stands the greatest chance of being approved. Read the Request for Proposals (sometimes called Notice of Funding Availability or other titles) several times, even though it's in small print! Carefully follow directions explained in the RFP, including any format requirements.

Identify the central points you want to make, including how your proposal addresses a programs key goals. Be precise and accurate; do not be tempted to exaggerate the need or over promise results. Use clear, concise language to make your application or proposal readable. It is smart to have your application reviewed by someone whose editing skills you trust. Is it clear? Readable? Grammatically correct?

Pay close attention to formatting, deadline, nonfederal monetary match and other stated requirements. Be sure that your budget is accurate, clear, and is accompanied by a budget narrative to clarify any points you think could be misunderstood by reviewers. And, of course, do not be daunted by having to readjust your proposal for each program to which you submit it.

Make sure you understand the review process. Is it based on a review by only a few people, or will the review be more comprehensive? If the contact person makes funding decisions, get to know their preferences. Call program staff if you have questions about the application process. Of course, always be pleasant in discussing your project.

Give yourself more time than you think you'll need you'll need it! Many application processes are complex, and even simple ones require time to work out matching contributions, get letters of support, share your proposal with partners and readjust your text accordingly. Increasingly, federal grants are submitted electronically. Although a visit to will explain the process, some extra steps are required that take time. Be sure you submit the proposal in plenty of time (a day or two in advance) if submitting it electronically, as lines sometimes back up for electronic submission.

Finally, but very importantly do not be discouraged! Many successfully funded grants and applications for federal resources are the result of earlier failed attempts. Understanding why your earlier efforts were rejected is likely to help in future ones. Be sure to ask.


Getting a copy of the guide

To obtain a free copy of this guide, please contact ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, at:
P.O. Box 3657
Fayetteville, AR 72702
Phone: 1 (800) 346-9140
Fax: (406) 494-2905


Workshops on using the guide

The Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (MFAI) offers workshops to help use this guide. The workshops cover how to envision and design sound projects; identify programs offering resources; and maximize your chances of submitting successful proposals.

For more information, contact Margaret Krome, MFAI Agricultural Policy Coordinator, at:
1 (608) 238-1440

Last Updated May 16, 2012

Please note: Building Sustainable Farms, Ranches and Communities is also available for download in PDF format.

PDF Icon800KB ~ 118 pages

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