Agritourism grants for your operation

When it comes to grants for agriculture it’s best to think about buzzwords: sustainable agriculture, alternative energy and biofuels have plenty of buzz. Innovative marketing strategies, value-added and farm viability might also work.

Dickens the Clown entertains the crowds Applefest.

With a long evolution toward direct marketing approaches starting with the farmers’ markets reborn in the 1970s, there is an unfortunate downward slide for grants in agri-tourism in that the plain truth is buzzwords, over time, lose their buzz. They fail to excite lawmakers responsible for the budgets that can make money available in the form of grants, but that doesn’t mean that the issue is dead. Some states, like New York, still award annual grants geared for starting up an agritourism venture under tight guidelines. (New Yorkers can start their search online at the Cornell University Grant Opportunities Web site at http://media.cce.cornell.edu/hosts/ag foodcommunity/gantopp.html.

Bluegrass band Stone Soup performs at Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard’s Applefest event.

It starts, of course, with a good idea. You want a new patio and some picnic tables and chairs to adorn your farmstand, or you simply want a farmstand and a paved driveway to get started on directly capturing consumers’ dollars. You need funds for a brochure or signage along a busy highway, or you want, perhaps, to turn a cornfield into a maze and attract customers. These ideas sound good. Now, where is the money to get it going?

Let’s first think about grants in general. If your first thought following the word grants is “not-for-profits,” you are almost right. Grants are certainly not exclusive of not-for-profit organizations, nor is the government the only source for grants, but the not-for-profit label does hint at a simple guideline: grants, since they are commonly furnished by tax dollars, favor ideas that benefit the general public. Not many grants out there are guided by the concept of paving the way for an individual to make money.

With that in mind, grants for a new facility—a new barn, for example—are harder to find than one that combines your marketing needs with a research project at a local college. The Northeast Region Sustainable Agriculture Research And Education (SARE) grants available in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., are a good example. (They are also available in the north-central, southern and western regions.)

PHOTO COURTESY OF FLY CREEK CIDER MILL & ORCHARD.

A holiday gift basket workshop draws visitors to Applefest.

SARE grants fall into the categories of research and education, professional development (geared for agriculture extension services), on-farm research and sustainable community innovation. There is a category for producers, too, supplying between $1,000 and $15,000 per project, but the trick is to tie the proposal to either research or a demonstration project.

The average grant in the Northeast Region last year was $5,200, with a capping of $10,000. While the grants cover a wide range of innovative farming practices from pest management to no-till farming, and they are designed to cover marketing projects, it just isn’t likely that you can call putting in a patio very innovative, anymore, says Cornell Cooperative Extension Agent Monika Roth, who has studied agricultural marketing options for 30 years and lectures nationally on the topic.

For starting out in agri-tourism, Roth and others say, “think small.” That doesn’t mean don’t dream big—that’s up to you. However, almost any large agri-tourism effort starts modestly, testing the market one customer at a time.

The New Jersey Department of Agri-culture has also measured its efforts. In 2006, agritourism added an average of $27,093 to the income of farmers who gave it a try, according to a study conducted by the New Jersey Agricultural Statistical Services and the Rutgers University Food College Institute.

One in five New Jersey farmers are involved in agritourism, the study showed. In total agritourism added $57.5 million to farmers’ bank accounts in New Jersey and created an additional $33.3 million for non-farm businesses, such as hotels and gas stations.

These are the kind of numbers that convince those in charge of state budgets to keep grant funds available, Walker says. Farmers in any state can access those kinds of figures through the USDA’s Department of Statistical Services. (For New England farmers, one office in New Hampshire provides this service under the name of New England Agriculture Statistics Service.)

In Massachusetts, the buzzwords now familiar to farmers is “farm viability,” which is also the name of the state’s financial program offering farmers up to $75,000 for “diversifying,” among other reasons, if they surrender development rights for a period of up to 10 years, the number of years and the size of the acreage linked to the size of the payments.

Payments of up to $25,000 means farmers surrender development rights for five years; up to $50,000 requires a 10-year covenant; and grants up to $75,000 requires a covenant covering at least 135 acres for 10 years. All these plans require farmers to submit a farm viability plan.

Selling development rights is not a grant, but Massachusetts, which well knows the value of agritourism, has no direct program to help farmers diversify to consumer market approaches. However, Massachusetts ranks among the highest in percentage of farm incomes that come from direct marketing—a fact they do not hide.

Said one expert, who grew up in Iowa but now works for the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, “where I grew up, 13 cars a day went by my family farm. In Massachusetts, 13 cars drive by a farm every minute.”

The state, however, steers farmers towards experts who can either help with a business plan or research new ideas. Otherwise, “we steer them USDA value-added grants,” he said.

It’s a possibility, but drawing applicants from all 50 states and awarding approximately 1,000 grants a year means a federal value-added grant, which ranges from several $300,000 grants down to $10,500, is a long shot.

States agriculture departments, on the other hand, pride themselves in marketing. For that, they know that a group effort has a big payoff.

In Maryland, for example, the state is revamping its marketing approach, this year promoting agritourism in an unlikely place: movie theaters. But, it targets the right audience, said Mark Powell of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. In one duplex in one month, Powell said, 60,000 people viewed one of its ads promoting “Maryland’s Best.” And who saw these ads? Local, affluent mothers—women who make shopping decisions, have children and, perhaps, money to spend.

Behind the scenes, state agricultural departments write press releases, produce brochures, conduct marketing studies and produce Web sites that connect consumers to farm produce. Almost every state does this and all of them relying more and more on Internet communications to get the word out. But this year, Powell said, Maryland tried promoting it’s message to movie-goers, too.

It helps. Not all farmers are naturally talented at marketing and most are too busy to create Web sites and place ads in newspapers. One survey found that in Maryland, consumer interest in buying locally produced farm products jumped last year from 55 to 76 percent, Powell said.

When looking for a friend-in-need, state agricultural departments are, indeed, the place to look. They are quick to find experts, help write business plans and do research. They are quick to form interest groups, that can, in turn, represent regional interests and apply for grants for a collective, rather than one individual. Many experts agreed with Roth, who said, “think small.” The New Jersey Department of Agriculture is even more strident than that, issuing a cautionary pamphlet called, “Is Agri-Tourism Right For You?”

Of course, there are many pros listed. It is an environmentally clean addition to a farmer’s income. It requires, “relatively,” small capital investment. It creates employment, helps establish new networks and offers opportunities for educating the public. But, the cons are important, too. If nothing else, they serve as an important checklist, which you can use as a self-assessment. Are you ready to switch from the purely agricultural lifestyle to one demanding your time and ability to handle the public? Are you good at communicating, at marketing or managing more employees? These are questions worth asking.

After that, “The variety of agritourism experiences that can be offered is huge. Farm lodging, tours, farm-based recreation, pumpkin patches, U-pick farms, festivals, wine tasting, restaurants… the list is impressive.” As Roth wrote in a recent essay, “Visitors are willing to pay for these experiences as long as the price is reasonable and they find value in what is being offered.”