Grants offer farmers support for on-farm research

Diane Mayerfeld
Lisa Rettinger of Antigo 
received a SARE grant in 2018 to evaluate the effect of rotating 
chickens and pigs through her apple orchards for insect and disease 

Have you ever had an idea you wanted to try out on your farm, but you just didn’t have the resources to test it?

The USDA-SARE program recognizes the value of research that is designed and implemented by farmers, for farmers, and they are currently soliciting grant proposals in the North Central region. A single farm can apply for up to $9.000, two farms working together can apply for up to $18,000, and three or more farms can apply for up to $27,000.

Since 1988 the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) has sought to advance the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of American agriculture through research and education. SARE has funded more than 120 farmer-led grants in Wisconsin, including research on innovative crop and livestock production and new marketing approaches. In 2019, SARE approved eight Farmer-Rancher proposals in Wisconsin, including projects on soil health, aquaculture, weed and insect management in orchards, and marketing.

You can get the Call for Proposals for next year’s grants on the program website, or you can request a copy by calling 612-626-3113. The Call for Proposals explains in detail how to submit a grant application and provides helpful examples and resources. The deadline to submit Farmer-Rancher grants is Dec. 5, 2019 at 4 p.m. 

Research grants are not for everyone. It takes work to fill out the application, and you only have about a 30% chance of getting funded. In addition to carrying out the project, grant recipients have to file an annual report, include the grant funds when filing taxes, and share their research results with other farmers at field days, conferences, on the web, or through other channels.

But for farmers who have a new idea they are eager to try, a SARE grant can provide the resources to make that possible.

What are the steps to a successful SARE grant application? For a research grant, you need to start with a question that can help improve the environmental, economic, and/or social sustainability of farms in your area. For example, maybe you have heard that diverse cover crop mixes can improve soil health even more than the cereal rye you have been using as your cover crop, but you can’t find good information on cover crop mixes after corn silage. So your on-farm research question is whether it makes sense for you to switch to a cover crop mix.

Next you have to decide what you can measure to answer your overall question. Say you have two major criteria for deciding what type of cover crop is better: economics, and how much the cover crop really benefits soil health.

Both economics and soil health have multiple dimensions, and you can’t measure all of them. So you have to pick one or two measures like cover crop seed costs, cash crop yield, soil sample results, or cover crop biomass for your economic and soil health indicators.

Third, you need a research design that ensures the results you measure are actually due to the variables you are testing. For example, if you plant a cover crop mix in one field and compare it to a rye cover crop in another field any yield and soil health differences you see might be due to differences between the two fields rather than the cover crop treatment. SARE’s publication “How to Conduct Research on Your Farm or Ranch” provides examples of good, practical research design. You can also consult your Extension agent or other experts for help with project design.

That brings us to a fourth ingredient for a strong project: a good project team. Farmer-Rancher grants have to be led by a farmer, but the farmer does not have to do all the work on their own. It’s a good idea to partner with others who contribute their expertise, and don’t be afraid to ask for advice as you put the proposal together!

If you want to learn more, two workshops on grant-writing for farmers are coming up:

  • September 17, in Marshfield.  To register call  (715) 261 - 1230 x 2 by September 10.
  • September 26, in Dodgeville.  To register call 608-930-9850 by September 19.

For more information on SARE Farmer-Rancher grants you can also contact me at 

Diane Mayerfeld

Mayerfeld is the Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator, UW-Extension Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems.

UW Extension