Funding Sources Info – Or Is ‘Free Money’ Worth It?

For those who could not attend, a brief recap of several of meetings across ENY Liz Higgins of the Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program (ENYCHP) held to discuss the reality of hunting and gathering funding for starting or expanding ag businesses.

By Liz Higgins and Sandy Buxton

My phone rings on a regular basis with a future client asking questions about grants available to help them start farming. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is often not what they want to hear.

There is no such thing as free money. And money which may appear free, rarely is. A business owner must choose a funding source which complements the business and does not create a distraction or drive the business in a direction outside of the business plan.

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Something to consider is investigating and accessing smaller, targeted pools of money for projects. NYCAMH has a grant program for equipment which improves safety for small purchasing items, such as this squeeze chute for working with livestock. Credit: Sandy Buxton

Several months ago, Liz Higgins of the Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program (ENYCHP) held several of meetings across ENY to discuss the reality of hunting and gathering funding for starting or expanding ag businesses. While many wannabe or expanding farmers seek grant money, it is rarely the boon they hope for.

When seeking an infusion of capital for projects, business owners first need to understand where it can come from and what the strings are. The three most common forms of government or quasi-government money are: Grants/Cost Share, Loans, and Tax Incentives.

Grants/Cost Share – the most popular – provide money which, generally, doesn’t need to be paid back. It can help subsidize adopting a good practice, reduce barriers for entry/expansion into a new area or grow jobs. For example, NRCS has a program assisting farmers with grants for hoop house structures for growing season extension.

However, these programs are generally reimbursement oriented, meaning the business must outlay the cash for the project BEFORE they receive the money. They have contractual obligations to provide deliverables and numerous paperwork requirements. There is also a long time frame from application to disbursement of funds.

Sources to check: SARE Northeast, NYS Beginning Farmer Grant (due annually in January), USDA Value Added Producer Grant, NYS Consolidated Funding Application, NRCS EQIP Cost Share Program

Loans – can come in several forms; subsidized loans offer money at lower than market interest rates. Guaranteed loans reduce the risk of a lending institution by standing with the farm business owner which makes money more available and accessible, possibly at a lower interest rate. While the money does need to be paid back, it is usually on a long timeframe and arrives before or coinciding with the purchase.

Sources to check: FSA Microloans, Operating, Direct and Guaranteed loans; Dirt Capital; NYS and USDA loans for farmworker housing; USDA SBIR

Several of the resources highlighted in this article are worth checking into for more detailed information:

Beginning Farmers
Small Farms
New Farmers Grant Fund Program for NYS residents/businesses
Northeastern SARE
New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health for NYS farmers only

Tax Incentives – are available at the federal, state and local levels. Programs may reduce the cost of purchase/bill (sales tax exemption, property tax exemption) or refund money (energy tax credit, farmer’s school tax program).

The process is less arduous due to much of the information already being collected. The information is reported and if you qualify, you get the benefit.

Sources to check: ask your tax preparer, cooperative extension educator, town assessor, USDA REAP Energy Efficiency; NYSERDA;

Additional sources of funds come from areas typically tapped by new businesses: crowd-funding and friends and family. When utilizing the friends and family connection, the assistance may not be actual cash but may be supplies, labor, expertise and network connections. If you decide to actually borrow money from someone, show them your business plan, create a repayment plan, and schedule. Treat it professionally. The habit will serve you well going forward and reassure your ‘lender’.

I do not recommend asking for a co-signed loan. This makes your co-signer legally obligated to repay the loan while they have NO oversight over you and the money. Such a choice has destroyed the credit standing of many people.

Crowd funding (Indiegogo, Kivazip, Kickstarter, etc) is something many of our younger farmer entrants are taking advantage of.  Like a grant, this money does not have to be paid back, as sponsors donate to your project. Much of the general population is supportive of farmers, and are willing to help if they feel connected.  However, the most successful crowd-funded projects already had a crowd of supporters who feel connected to that specific business.  It is challenging from a new and unknown business to stand out.

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Other funding programs may provide money to host a speaker to talk about non-traditional practices, such as this pasture meeting with Troy Bishopp. Credit: Sandy Buxton

Before taking any federal money, grants or loans, it is important to note some of the restrictions that can impact the project. A recipient cannot be delinquent on any federal, state, or local taxes or debt, as you may not be eligible for many publically funded grants or loans. This includes student loans. An eligible recipient also cannot be in violation on many local, state or federal laws. This includes environmental, labor and safety laws. You must be fully in compliance and remain that way for the course of the project.

If you ‘take’ federal money, you may also be obligated to use a bid process to make purchases or perform work with approved contractors, not always according to your choice. The reporting requirements also must be met or you risk your reimbursement. When approved for a grant, no work or purchases can be done until the contract is signed. Any costs outside of this time frame are not reimbursable. The final payment will also be held until there is independent confirmation the work has been completed satisfactorily.

There are many ways to approach gaining access to funds to accomplish changes, improvements or expansion on farms. Think through the options and decide what is right for you, your time frame, and risk tolerance. The effort you, the owner, need to put into the source of funding (grant/loan/incentive) should be proportional to the value of benefits received and achievable with your resources. Spending an enormous amount of precious time on a grant project competing with a huge pool of candidates may not make the most sense.


Elizabeth (Liz) Higgins

Elizabeth Higgins is an Extension Ag Business Specialist with the CCE Eastern NY Commercial Hort Team, serving fruit and vegetable growers in 17 counties. She is a veteran of multiple federal disasters (Katrina recovery in Louisiana and Irene/Lee in the Catskills) and has experience in working with individuals, businesses and communities to identify and use disaster programs. She can be contacted at

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