Coming Soon…

Ever find out about the perfect grant too late to apply? It’s incredibly frustrating, and the most annoying part is that it’s not like there’s anything you could have done differently – there’s simply too much going on for you to stay on top of something that isn’t ranked in the top 50 most urgent items. That’s why we’re working on a service to let you know when a grant you’re eligible for has opened. We’re opening the program to a limited number of farmers in April, and we’ll ask for your feedback as we refine it and add more programs to our database. Within a few months, we should be pulling from a database of over 5000 federal, state and local funding sources. We’ll then email you weekly to let you know which of those programs are open to you in any given week. We’re going to kick this off at $1/month or $10/year for life for anyone who wants to join our limited release in April. In exchange, we’ll ask for your feedback as we add additional features. If you’re interested, enter your info in this link and we’ll be sure to let you know when we launch!

Business or Hobby? How to Set Your Farm Up For Success – Part One

I’ve got some bad news for you. Growing the food is the easy part. There’s a whole world of logistics, planning and frustration that comes between growing great food and making a living doing growing great food.   This is the start of a series of posts about the logistics of running a business. We’ll keep these short and sweet, and end each with resources for tackling these topics on your own or folks you can trust to help you.   What’s the Plan?? Business Plans, Projections and Budgets   When it comes to starting a farm, there is nothing more exhilarating than the freewheeling and experimental stage of business development. However, it is crucial to recognize that this phase can also be a potential money pit.   Running your farm on ideas like “I’m going to grow this and then sell it” or “Meat makes money, let’s raise more pigs” is an excellent way to find yourself scrounging change from your jacket pockets to make the feed bill. To go from “this seemed to work well” to “ this is how I pay my bills” requires business plans, projections, and budgets.   Let’s make one thing clear – it’s impossible to predict the future. And no model survives contact with reality. But that being said, creating these models is incredibly valuable. They provide a structured framework for thinking through various scenarios and allow you to anticipate potential challenges and opportunities.   You can go online and find all sorts of directions for creating a business plan online that advise you to conduct market analyses, create customer prototypes and consider everything from energy consumption to current interest rates. While those will all be important eventually, if you’re just starting the process with a “this seemed to work well” idea, it’s overkill.   Let’s say you have a small strawberry patch and got a good response from your community to running a u-pick. Sit down and look at your infrastructure and space. What would it take to triple your number of plants? How much would it cost to buy plugs and plant them? What amendments would you have to order? Who would you sell to? Are there enough neighbors within a 3 mile radius to buy all your strawberries? How will you let them know you’re open?   Write all this down, do some online research, and then bring your thinking to friends, family, customers and mentors. Ask them to rip your ideas apart. You want them to find the flaws and point out potential problems. Take the feedback into account and use it to make your plans better.   Next it’s time to build yourself a model so you can get a sense of how cash will flow into and out of your strawberry patch. When will you need to have cash on hand to order your plugs? How much will you be paying people to help you plant, cultivate and man the u-pick stand? Ideally, you’ll build this in a spreadsheet so that you can adjust your assumptions up and down to get an understanding of when things fall apart financially. That can be a bit of a challenge, though, so it is one of the services we offer at Good Agriculture. It can be part of your monthly financial services at the premium level, or we can tackle it a la carte for a very reasonable fee if you’re just getting started.   Regardless of how you handle it, a plans, projections and budgets are essential for going from a promising idea to an actual business. Over the next months, we’ll tackle the other aspects of business management so that you can build the framework you need to keep your business running smoothly. Learn about our Financial Management Service

Crushing the Off Season

Here in the northern hemisphere we’re going into the persephone days – colder, less than 12 hours of daylight – for most farmers, it’s the off season.   Depending on what the year was like, you may be dragging yourself to your last delivery, stumbling across the finish line with a sense of relief. You figure you’ll rest for a few weeks, ease into next year and do it all over again. That said, there a few things you can do during these few weeks that will reduce the chances that you’re struggling to reach the finish line when 2024 comes to a close. Take a week to breathe, then start easing into next year with a plan to crush the off season – and the year to come. Figure Out What Happened Last Year   As the off season begins, pause to reflect on the past year. What was it that led to you dragging yourself towards the finish line? What happened on the days that ended in tears or excessive amounts of alcohol? Write those down NOW and make a conscious decision about whether you want to do them again. Trust me, after a couple of quiet weeks, the sharp edges of that pain will fade and you’ll be piling even more onto last year’s insanity. Write down your experiences in vivid detail and pull them out when you’re making plans for 2024.   Onto more practical activities, this is a great time to work through that pile of receipts that may have been sitting in your passenger seat for several weeks or months. Get your bookkeeping up to date and categorize your transactions.   But why stop there? Dive deep into the labyrinthine corridors of financial analysis and unravel the story that lies within. What actually made you money this year? Did you track enough data to figure out a cost of production for each item you sold? If not, what could you change to make that possible for next year? Set Your Goals and Make Plans For Next Year   With your notes and financial discoveries in hand, it’s time to make plans for next year. Start off by figuring out what you’re going to cut. Cross reference your rants about the goats with how much money you actually made – or lost – on the beasts. Consider whether the tears prompted by tweezing tuna spines out of your fingers were worth the amount they brought in. Be ruthless in cutting, because that leaves you with space to refine what does sell and maybe run a few new experiments.   Consider what has worked well and doesn’t make you want to tear your hair out. Can you produce more of those items? If so, where will you sell them? If you sell to chefs, this is a great time to go visit and talk through their goals, what they need more of, and who else they could put you in touch with. If you’re selling into wholesale markets, can you increase your sales? Do you need to shift packaging? Sell your products first, then grow them. Future You Will Thank You   Once you’ve gotten caught up and figured out your plans for the next year, it’s time to give some thought to poor future you. In April, poor future you will be running in circles trying to get everything done and will think that current you was an absolute genius if you take some time right now to get yourself prepped for tax season. Drop your CPA a line and start sending over the documents she’ll need to make sure your taxes are filed on time.   What about that organic recertification that always seems to land on the hottest day of summer? Or the surprise food safety inspection that happens on the day it pours buckets? Future you will think you’re worth your weight in gold if you go ahead and prep those forms and documentation for the year.   What about funding? Are you planning on making any big purchases? Check that your agricultural tax exemption is up to date, and renew it with any suppliers you know you’ll be buying from. What about working with NRCS on an EQIP contract? Take the time to have your agent come out to the farm and talk through your ideas so that your relationship with them is established when application time rolls around.   How about that newsletter that starts out strong and dwindles to nothing each year? This is a great time to plan out your content for the year, pre-write your articles and schedule out social media posts. Go through all the pictures you took on the farm and pick out the best to go up throughout the year. These are just a few of the things I try to tackle in my off season time, but I’m sure the exact list will vary from farm to farm. The important thing is to use this time to build yourself a foundation that will keep you farming sustainably for year after year. Staggering across the finish line isn’t a sustainable way to live, so as tempting as it is to take this time completely off, use it to get yourself caught up and build systems that will get you to the end of the year without being completely drained .

It’s EQIP Season!

EQIP is one of the best programs out there for small farmers – if you’d like to do something the US government considers a conservation practice, chances are you can get reimbursed for some or even most of the expense.   The catch? Well, it moves at the speed of government. I’m typing this from my farm, where I’m swapping my overhead irrigation every 90 minutes because my EQIP project proposal to increase water pressure and install drip irrigation didn’t get funded this past cycle. I’ll be meeting with my NRCS agent tomorrow to renew the application for this next cycle. And with any luck I’ll get funding, along with a LOT of other farmers, because the Inflation Reduction Act massively increased the funding for conservation practices!   How do you get some of this funding for yourself? Reach out to your NRCS agent ASAP! This program runs through NRCS agents, and building a relationship with yours will pay off. Your NRCS agent visits your farm, talks to you about your long term plans and develops your conservation plan for the property. Then you fill out 4 forms that certify your income, your farmer status, whether your farm includes wetlands, and member information if you have a separate legal entity for your farm.   Different states have different deadlines for consideration in an EQIP cycle, and some states have specific areas of conservation that they focus on. We haven’t found anywhere that pulls all of that info together, so we called some NRCS offices and did the job ourselves. For 2023, the EQIP cycle deadlines are below:   State Funding Areas Deadline Alabama     Alaska     Arizona     Arkansas     California     Colorado agricultural impropvements and private property 1-Dec Connecticut all practices 31-Oct Delaware crop land, wood land, pasture, farmstead 17-Nov DoC conservation related work, infrastructure release act unknown Florida     Georgia all practices 15-Nov Hawaii     Idaho all practices “come and gone” Illinois all practices 12-Jan Indiana     Iowa all practices 31-Oct Kansas all practices 17-Nov Kentucky all practices 3-Nov Louisiana     Maine Actively taking applications for management plans 25-Aug Maryland     Massachusetts all practices 5-Jan Michigan all practices 17-Nov Minnesota all practices 6-Oct Mississippi all practices 27-Oct Missouri all practices 3-Oct Montana     Nebraska all practices 17-Nov Nevada all practices 17-Nov New Hampshire     New Jersey all practices 20-Oct New Mexico all practices 3-Nov New York all practices 3-Nov North Carolina all practices 3-Nov North Dakota all practices 17-Nov Ohio all practices continuous sign up Oklahoma all practices 3-Nov Oregon all practices 17-Nov Pennsylvania all practices 1-Nov Rhode Island all practices 15-Dec South Carolina     South Dakota all practices 3-Nov Tenessee     Texas all practices 8-Nov Utah all practices 4-Nov Vermont all practices 21-Oct Virginia     Washington all practices 20-Oct West Virginia all practices 20-Oct Wisconsin     Wyoming     Now, you’ll notice some blanks in this table – we did our best, but we can’t spend all day chasing down government officials without a client to serve. If you’re in one of the states we’re missing and you know the dates, let us know!

It’s Alive! Tests to Help Understand the Biology in Your Soil

Do you know what’s under your feet? If you’re reading this outside, the answer is no – because it’s estimated that upwards of 90% of the organisms residing in the soil are unknown to science. Healthy soil is a microscopic Times Square of bustling activity and nutrient cycling.   While we have next to no understanding of the species present in the soil, let alone the cycles they participate in, we have some tests we can run which give us some windows into the world of the soil. Think of them as a peeks through various manhole covers present in streets across the planet – they give you a glimpse, but you can’t climb through the manhole to see the full context.   Why are these glimpses important? Well, we may be missing a large chunk of the context for HOW plants grow, but we do have a somewhat better sense of what soil conditions they need to grow well. Obviously as farmers we want our plants to grow well, so the more we know about our soil the better.   Now, different labs offer different tests that tell you different things about your soil biology, and I’ve found that looking at all the tests a given lab offers tells you a lot about their approach to soil health. If a lab offers mostly chemical testing – think levels of NPK, micronutrients, pH and organic matter with a Haney test or a 24 hour CO2 tossed in at the end, that shows that their analysis and recommendations will come through an elemental lens. If they only offer one or two types of tests, then that’s an indication that they’ve either chosen to specialize in that one test, or they think that one test gives them a full view of what’s going on. In short – all tests are wrong, some are useful, and the usefulness of the results you get depends very much on the biases of the lab you do your testing with.   One company I’ve found that focuses on soil biology and offers a nice combination of tests is Earthfort. When you send them a soil sample, you can get insight into ion exchange (electrical conductivity), total biomass of fungi and bacteria, total living carbon, nitrogen carbon and overall nitrogen, biomass of only aerobic fungi and bacteria, protozoa counts and nematode counts.   You may notice one big test that’s not in this list – the Haney test. For many folks, the Haney test is considered the gold standard of soil biology testing. So I asked Earthfort why they offer the tests they do, and got a response that simply cemented my opinion of the company: “We test for soil biology as an indication of soil health, productivity, and function. Tests, like the Haney test, will tell you what is in your soil but not why or how it got there. Microbial interactions are crucial for nutrient cycling through the processes of decomposition, mineralization, nitrogen fixation, nutrient immobilization, and chemical transformations of nutrients present in the soil… so, testing for bacteria/fungi/protozoa/nematodes will help you understand what processes are actually happening in your soil based on the microbial populations and interactions taking place. Knowing your microbial populations is essentially learning about the potential your soil holds versus what is present in that moment.”   Earthfort’s tests will give you a solid understanding of your soil’s biological activity. It’s not a full picture of your soil’s health, but you can stitch the results together to get a decent snapshot of your soil at the time you took the samples, as well as a guess at what your soil is capable of. If you pair these results from Earthfort with some traditional chemical soil analyses and a few plant sap and tissue analyses throughout the course of your growing season, you’ll have as good an understanding as is reasonable to expect – remember, every test result is a peek through a manhole cover, and we’re missing 90% of the information about the world we’re peeking at. But having those glimpses into your soil health helps to set you up for success as a grower.

What You Need to Do to Be Eligible for NRCS Programs

Did you know that there are roughly $30 billion available for NRCS programs? The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is an agency dedicated to preserving our nation’s natural resources and working lands. If your farm goals align with the practices the agency wants to promote, you have the opportunity to receive technical assistance or funding to support your work.   Finding Your NRCS Agent   The first step towards accessing the benefits of NRCS programs is to find your local NRCS agent. Each state has at least one, and often several. You can find yours by searching your county name, NRCS office.   Initiating a conversation with your NRCS agent is key to understanding the resources and opportunities available to you. They’ll talk with you about your property, what your goals are and your long term vision. Then they’ll walk you through the programs available and the forms you’ll need to fill out.   In certain offices, the agent may assist you directly in completing the forms. However, in other cases, you might be provided with a stack of forms and directions written in bureaucratic gobbeldygook for how to fill them out.   If you find yourself in need of help during this process and you can’t get a straight answer from NRCS, reach out to Good Agriculture. We’ve filled out a lot of NRCS forms!   Forms and Documentation   To successfully apply for NRCS programs, you’ll need to gather certain forms and documentation. These include:   – An official tax ID, such as a driver’s license, passport, social security card, or employer ID.   – Proof of property ownership, such as a property deed or lease agreement.   – The farm number assigned to your land.   If you don’t have a farm number, you’ll need to get in touch with your local Farm Services Administration office. This is often located in the same building as your NRCS office, and the number is free.   It’s important to note that you’ll need to fill out separate forms for each entity that interacts with the property. This includes yourself, your company (if applicable), and the landowners, among others. Ensuring that all necessary forms are completed accurately is crucial to a successful application.   Application Process and Funding   NRCS accepts applications for their programs year-round. However, there are specific dates when all applications are reviewed and ranked according to local priorities. The distribution of funds is based on this ranking system. Therefore, it’s vital to submit your application within the specified application period to be considered for funding.   Keep in mind that you’ll need to have the necessary funds upfront to complete your project. NRCS will partially reimburse you after the project’s completion. This upfront investment prevents fraud and helps the agency ensure that its goals are met. Some beginning and underserved farmers may be eligible for partial assistance with the upfront costs, but you’ll always have to spend some of your own money first. Reimbursement on the back end can be anything from 50-90% of the project cost.

The Small Farmer Viability Curve

Small farming can be a meat grinder. Yes, it’s an amazing job – there’s nothing more satisfying than growing the literal sustenance that people in your community depend on.   But it’s brutal. The work wears on your body, the hours wear on your energy and the lack of a safety net wears on your nerves. You have to be the labor, the accountant, the marketer, the tech service and the admin assistant. It’s not sustainable. It’s rare to find a small farmer who’s made it past the five-year mark, let alone one who’s made it a decades-long career. Surviving as a small farmer requires figuring out how to systematize and scale enough to get some of the work off your plate.   There’s something of a viability curve to the small farmer experience, and today I’m going to talk through what I’ve seen in my 7 years of farming. In our next post, we’ll talk about ways for small farmers to speed through or bypass the crappier parts of the viability curve.   Barely Surviving   This is where most small farmers are. Including myself if we’re going to be honest – my farm has hovered between barely surviving and having some breathing room for years. I’m a co-founder of Good Agriculture, but I’ve also hired Good Agriculture to support my farm and help it climb towards thriving.   If you’re barely surviving as a farmer, you’re in constant hustle mode. You’re not truly covering your expenses, and something like a vehicle malfunction, a tax bill or a bad stretch of weather has you watching the bottom line with a pit in your stomach.   Before I co-founded Good Agriculture, barely surviving meant jumping from support to support like a video game character – this person will front money to cover the tractor repair, and if I hold off paying this bill until that crop is harvested then the money will be there. It means leaving things undone – yes, it would be way more efficient to spend the $100 to build better nest boxes, but there’s neither the time nor the $100 to do so. It also means that you make bad decisions because you don’t have the time or money to step back and look at the bigger picture.   In 2020, my farm lost its lease during our most successful year ever. I found a vacant property and raised $85,000 to clear it, put in essential infrastructure, and plant out a half-acre of strawberries. And then things started to go wrong. I knew the clock was ticking to get plants in the field with enough time to have a season, so I kept pushing. I didn’t have my colleagues at Good Agriculture to help me take that step back and analyze my options. In retrospect, the 2021 season was doomed from the day that the compost showed up and was 40% fresh wood chips. I’d have been better off to stop and make a more realistic plan. But I didn’t have the space to make that decision, and I fought until I ran out of money.   As a small farmer, you want to spend as little time as possible in this space of barely surviving. The amount of stress that comes from living in this space is insane, and it forces you to make decisions in less-than-ideal conditions. If you’re in this space now, you’ll have to figure out how to pause long enough to plan, to take a step back and look at the whole of your situation. You need to get far enough away from the chaos of surviving to find a path to a sustainable future. Spending years in barely surviving is why most small farmers wash out within 5 years.   This year, when this season’s strawberry yields were a third of what I’d projected, I spoke with my team at Good Agriculture and made the choice to shut down the season and put the field into cover crop. That saves me most of my labor costs for the next 5 months and gives me the chance to put in new plants this fall and take one last shot at a successful strawberry season next year. If I kept trying to make the field produce, I’d guarantee running out of money and shutting down for good.   Breathing Room   When you get to breathing room, you’re still vulnerable, but things are moving smoother. You can count your on-farm hours each day on two hands instead of three, your expenses are covered, and you’re paying yourself something. You can take a step back without worrying that everything will burn down in your absence and begin to truly plan out how to build a stable business.   I’d gotten my farm to this point in 2019. It wasn’t perfect, but the rent was getting paid on time and I saw a path towards taking a salary for myself for the first time since I started the farm in 2016. The thing about having breathing room, though, is that you’re still vulnerable. In my case, I was one bad landlord away from being back underwater.   Then the relationship with my landlords started deteriorating after I’d already put winter crops in the ground – including a quarter acre of u-pick strawberries. By spring we were communicating through lawyers, and I was fighting to both harvest what I’d planted and figure out where the hell I was going to move a 7-acre farm. If I’d had any sense, I would have folded and shut down the farm back then. But I’ve described myself as slightly more stubborn than exhausted for years, and I wasn’t about to let go of the dream that had been within my grasp.   If you had a business plan when starting your farm, you’ve learned that no plan survives contact with reality. Once you’ve caught your breath, it’s time to revisit those plans, figure out what worked and what didn’t,

Building a Regenerative Farm – Paying Your People

In a previous post, we talked about having volunteers on the farm. But what about paid workers? How much should they earn? This is a tricky question. Of course, a farm is a business, so if we can reduce our expenses as much as possible, we can increase our profits, and either invest them back into the business, or take them out and use them for our personal endeavors. In this sense, we should pay our workers as little as possible to keep costs low. But of course, no one would do that, because we all know “you get what you pay for.” Underpaying laborers is a quick ticket to dissatisfied and unproductive and even disgruntled workers. They don’t work as hard, they make more mistakes, they show up late (or not at all sometimes), or they just take other jobs. If they really think they are being cheated, they might even do some damage to the farm. But on the flip side, workers who feel respected and well-paid are content with their jobs. They are eager to show up to work, put in the extra effort to see things to completion, double-check to make sure they got it right, put up with the inevitable frustrations and accidents and bad luck. They are proud of their work, and keep a sharp eye on the other workers, and even on you, because they want the farm to succeed. So, in this sense, we should pay our workers as much as possible to keep productivity and satisfaction high. Well shoot. We can’t do both. What do we do? I’m going to take the stance that we should try as much as possible to pay our workers a living wage, at a minimum – plus a bit extra over that if at all possible, to keep them happy and satisfied. You may not agree with me, but at least hear me out, and see where and how you disagree. I’d appreciate your feedback on this topic. First off, what’s a living wage? This is an important term. Technically defined, a living wage is “the hourly rate that a person in a household must earn to support his/herself and their family.” This wage varies widely depending on how many adults and children are in the household, how many adults are working, and where they live. If you’re unsure what the living wage is for your city or county, you can use the MIT Living Wage Calculator (https://livingwage.mit.edu/) As you can tell, the living wage is higher than the state minimum wage, because it incorporates the assumption that everyone working 40 hours a week should be able to afford food, shelter, a vehicle, health insurance, and other basic living expenses. Is this reasonable? I think so. While it’s possible for people to get by with less, should they have to? You might argue that most farm workers are unskilled labor, that the work doesn’t require any education or certification. But I honestly think there is no such thing as unskilled labor. Like we discussed in the post on volunteers, if your workers are truly unskilled, then your farm is probably in shambles. They might not need a college degree, but good workers certainly have skills and knowledge and training, and ideally, a little intuition and wisdom too. If we want our farms to be successful, they need to be fully integrated with the ecosystem. This is just a natural fact. Sure, we can try to bend nature a little bit here and there, but at the end of the day, the farm runs best when it is in harmony with the rhythms of its environment. But I’m not just talking about the physical environment (the earth, the weather, the soil), but every other aspect of the ecosystem – social, economic, scientific. Everything we do is give and take. We want to both use the resources available to us and invest back to them. We use the earth, but we also invest in the earth. Likewise, we use and invest in our employees, we use and invest in the economy, we use and invest in technology. Now if you’re still with me on a philosophical level, that’s great. But you might not be with me on a practical level. For many new farms or operations, paying workers a living wage is just not feasible right now. I get you. Once again, a farm is a business, and a business isn’t built overnight. Getting it to a point of stability and productivity takes time, planning, analysis, patience, faith, and a little bit of luck. So what do you do if you can’t afford to pay your workers a living wage yet? There are a couple of options, but I want to stress that they should all be temporary solutions– means to an end. First, you can trade food for labor, at a suggested rate of $3/hour. In other words, provide meals for your employees, which is the equivalent of paying them an extra $3 dollars an hour over an 8 hour day. Second, you can provide housing as a trade for labor, at a suggested rate of $8/hour. Both may seem like pretty good deals for you, but again, these are not permanent solutions. Especially in the case of housing, these arrangements create some massive power imbalances. Workers become dependent on you, and this can also lead to some of the dissatisfaction mentioned above. The goal is to be able to pay workers enough that they can source what they need away from the farm from other aspects of the local ecosystem. They should be investing their wages back into the local economy too. And here again the farm benefits the ecosystem. Ok, great, so let’s say you’ve got some trades in place, and you’re building your business– how long should you expect to take to get to a place of stability and productivity? Well, are you starting from scratch? or transitioning an existing business? If

Volunteers and “Free Labor”

Volunteers on your farm could either be the best thing that happens to you, or the worst. Like most things in life, the difference between the two is– “it depends.” There are a lot of factors that determine the outcome of the experience, but before we get into all of them, let’s discuss some of the pitfalls and get a few of the common misconceptions out of the way. First off, if your farm sells in any market other than direct to consumer, volunteers are a potential food safety risk. And unless you’re set up as a non-profit, volunteers can be a significant legal liability if someone gets hurt and decides to sue. And once your farm has reached a certain scale, bringing in someone who doesn’t know your systems isn’t worth the hassle – you’ll spend more time training them than they’ll spend helping. But if you’re a new farmer, or you’re selling direct to consumer and have people interested in volunteering on your farm, the thinking usually goes like this: Volunteers are free labor, so even if it takes them an entire day to do something that a regular worker could do in 5 minutes, it’s still a good deal. Right? Well not exactly, because there are a lot of hidden costs that come with bringing a volunteer onto the farm.  First of all, volunteers require supervision. Like any new worker, you’re going to have explain a lot of the specific ways that things work on your farm, and then you (or someone else) is going to have to watch them closely to make sure they actually do what they are told (not always a guarantee). So for every hour that a new volunteer is working on your farm, it’s also going to cost you or someone else an hour of their time to supervise them. What else could you be doing with that time? You might be able to multitask, but if so, you’re not going to be done anything really that important.  Secondly, most volunteers require training. Now this is similar but slightly different from the explanation part from supervision, because you’re not just telling them where the tomatoes are and where the fertilizer is, but also what a tomato plant looks like, what fertilizer does, how to scoop it out and spread it properly, and so on. This kind of training can be very hands-on and tedious. It’s even more frustrating when you have to train someone twice (or thrice), because they forgot how already. That’s ok if the volunteer is going to be with you for a while, but often they just don’t show up consistently enough (they get tired of it, and they aren’t getting paid, so why not skip a couple of days?) Now you might be thinking, “Ok, what about something simple, like spreading mulch or planting seeds?” Sure, that might not take very much training, but as farmers we take for granted how much knowledge and experience we have. It’s hard for us to step back and put ourselves into the shoes of a beginner. Even something as simple as that can still be screwed up (and believe me, I’ve seen it done). It seems like common sense– don’t bury the plant in mulch, but also don’t just sprinkle a light dusting of mulch around the edges– but these things are not obvious to many volunteers.  Or even worse, volunteers mess something up so badly that it takes you more time to fix it than to just have done it yourself in the first place. I’ve seen volunteers plant seeds in rows that are so curvy you’d think they were doing an art project. So then months later it takes even more effort to harvest and weed. Or if you ask them to weed around the plants, and they end up pulling the plants up themselves! Not every volunteer is that bad, but hey, you are rolling the dice. These points so far may be unsurprising. Of course volunteers are going to require some education, that’s why they reached out in the first place! They told you they are fascinated about farming and want to learn from you, to follow you around and listen to all your wisdom! That’s all well and good, but a lot of people want to learn how to play the guitar too, until they try it for a while, and realize that it’s just “not for them.” So at this point you’re probably saying to yourself, “Alright, I get the picture: volunteers bad, regular workers good… But what about that part at the beginning about how volunteers can be the best thing to happen to you?” Well that’s a good point. Because it’s not all doom and gloom. So now that’ve we mentioned some of the issues and cleared up some misconceptions, let’s talk about the opportunities.  For one, volunteers don’t have to be free, or untrained, or as fleeting as a rain shower. You can get  volunteers who have already done some farming, and pay them a lesser amount that is commensurate with their experience level and their status as a learner. You can enter into a contract with them that lasts months (an entire season or two), instead of days. You can even set up an internship program. You can set up an arrangement like WWOOF, in which you trade them housing and food in exchange for their labor. While these seem promising, there are still some caveats to be aware of. These arrangements can solve the issue of people leaving before they are able to get trained up and start working autonomously, but there still isn’t a guarantee upfront of whether you will get a good worker or not. You might be able to ask for references, but you might not. And regardless, in all these situations, there is still a lot of turnover. It’s just the nature of non-full-time employment. And this can put a burden on the really good workers

Value-Added Producer Grants

What they are, who’s eligible and how to apply   So, you want to apply for a Value-Add Producer Grant?    I haven’t met a small farmer who isn’t interested in the Value-Add Producer Grant (VAPG). Who wouldn’t? Free money from the government to turn your raw products into something people will pay more money for? Sign me up!    It’s not quite so simple, unfortunately. In this post we’ll dive into what you need to know about applying for this grant.    To get approval for a VAPG project, you need to be doing one of the following things that enhance the value of the product:     If you’re a hemp producer, you’ll have to proceed with caution – you’re not completely ineligible, but the feds don’t want to fund anything with CBD, hemp oil or products for human use. Building materials and textiles are good to go, but you won’t be able to relieve pain or alter perceptions on the government’s dime.    Speaking of things you can’t do on the government’s dime, there are several categories of expenses that will get your application tossed out on arrival. You can’t use VAPG for infrastructure or most equipment, or to pay yourself (or anyone else) for the raw product you’re transforming.    Types of VAPGs   There are two types of VAPG applications – planning and working capital. A planning grant covers the money needed for a qualified third-party consultant to conduct a feasibility study and create plans for creating your value-added business and marketing your product. So basically, you can’t pay yourself to do the work and your brother probably isn’t qualified to do it either. (And if he were, you might run afoul of conflict-of-interest rules.) But other than that, planning grants are a fairly simple application, at least compared to the working capital grant. (And if you’re looking for a qualified third party to do your feasibility study and create business plans, look no further than Good Agriculture!)   The working capital grant, on the other hand… way more complicated. There are two types of working capital applications. If you’ve been producing your product for less than two years, you’ll be in the Emerging Market category, and you’ll require a feasibility study and business plan specific to your product. If you’ve been producing more than two years and have sold successfully, you don’t need a feasibility study but you will need a business OR marketing plan.    The exception to the above is if you want less than $50,000 – if that’s the case, you just need to demonstrate your expected increases in customer base and revenue.    Matching Funds   Now, here’s the hard part – matching funds. Unfortunately, the feds aren’t handing out free money – they want you to have some skin in the game. They’ll give you half the money you need for your value-add project, and you have to tell them how you’ll come up with the other half. This can be in the form of cash, a loan, or a line of credit. There are a few things you can do to reduce the amount you have to come up with, but at the end of the day you have to bring some cash to the table. And you have to spend that cash BEFORE you get any grant funding.    Here’s how you can limit that amount:     Ok, so you know what you want to do and where the match will come from. Next hurdle – are you eligible? Answer – probably. Applicants have to be individual agricultural producers or entities that are owned and controlled by agricultural producers. Applicants can also be nonprofits that represent agricultural producers, cooperatives of agricultural producers, or majority-controlled producer-based businesses.    Once you’re sure your project is eligible and your entity is eligible, it’s time to consider how to structure your application. It goes without saying that you have to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s, and any sort of federal application is going to be loaded with somewhat redundant and confusing forms and directions. Your state representatives should be useful here – go to the main VAPG page, select your state, and you’ll get the email address and phone number for your state representatives.    Scoring   Assuming you get everything correct, this is how your application will be scored.    Technical Feasibility, Operational Efficiency, Profitability and Economic Sustainability (0-30 points)   For this section, you need to demonstrate that this project will expand your customer base and increase your revenue as a producer-owner. If you’re not a producer-owner, you need to show that the money you make will flow to future owners. And this can’t just be your assurances – you need to reference third party data and information that specifically supports your project or similar projects. You should also discuss the jobs you’re creating or saving.   Qualifications of Project Personnel (0-20 points)   Here, you’ll need to identify the people who will be working on the project and show that they’ll be capable of completing the work. If you have consultants or third parties lined up, detail their capabilities. If you’re planning to hire for the project but haven’t identified an individual, you should include a job description with the required qualifications.    Commitments and Support (0-10 points)   This section evaluates the commitments of producers involved in the project, those of third parties, and those from end users. On the producer side, you’ll get more points when there are a larger number of producers involved, especially if they’re all significant contributors to the project. Third parties are evaluated on their ability to fulfill their contributions, and end users are evaluated based on the amount they’ve committed to purchase. Include copies of letters of intent or contracts related to the commitments and support you’ve received for the project.    There are no minimum or maximum number of commitments, but they do need