Here are some common questions about the AGRI Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant (SustAg). If you have questions that are not addressed here, please email them to MDA.AGRIGrants@state.mn.us with "AGRI SustAg Questions" in the subject line. We will post all questions and answers on this page.

General Questions

What is the definition of a farmer?

A farmer is someone who cultivates, operates, or manages a farm for profit, and who grows or raises at least $1,000 of agricultural products for sale annually.

If I currently have a grant, am I eligible to apply for another project?

Yes, you are eligible to apply for another project.

I understand you can only receive one Sustainable Demonstration Grant at a time, but can I submit more than one application (multiple project ideas) knowing it is only possible for one to be funded?

Yes.

Can submit the same project to another funder besides the MDA?

Yes, you can apply to multiple funders for the same (or a similar/related project.) You are required to include that information in the last question of the application.

Does the MDA have a list of past recipients of the AGRI Sustainable Ag Demonstration Grants (SustAg) with any details of the projects that is publicly available?

We have a list of past projects on our website or you can request a list of the titles of all completed projects sorted by category (Alternative Markets & Specialty Crops, Cropping Systems & Soil Fertility, Energy, Fruits & Vegetables, and Livestock).

You may also request copies of up to three applications of previously awarded grantees. These copies will have personal and business information blacked out and letters of commitment or support and budget omitted.

What is your advice to increase my chances of getting my application approved and be awarded a SustAg grant?

40-50 percent of the SustAg applications submitted are approved to be funded. To prepare, read the application questions, evaluation profile, in the RFP and work with your cooperator on plans and budget. You may look at a list of previously awarded applicants with project descriptions, and e-mail questions you still have to the grant manager to be posted on this Q&A. 

Your chances are better if you:

  • answer each question completely or address each point in a narrative and provide a well thought out list of budget items with reasonable costs; and
  • address your answers to review committee members that have different backgrounds and knowledge from you (i.e. clearly describe your points so anyone can understand and follow); and
  • convince the reviewers that you have an innovative, interesting, and reasonable project; and
  • have plans and resources well thought out and you are able to set up and complete this project; and
  • show that other farmers, ag professionals, or those involved in marketing agricultural products will be interested to learn the results of your project.

Is it more likely to be granted money if we request a lower amount?

This grant is a competitive grant, and reviewers will be considering the entire application for funding decisions including funding requested. From the evaluation criteria in the RFP, budget questions that reviewers will ask are:

  • Is the budget appropriate for the project as described? Are the itemized costs realistic?
  • Is the budget detail sufficient to justify the request?
  • Are consulting/purchased service charges less than 50% of the total cost and reasonable?
  • Does the budget clearly explain sources and amount of applicant’s funds?

Could we do a proposal for two different projects under the single goal of diversifying our farming operations in new ways? For example, we are using the strawberries to attract consumers to our operation, but we also plan to grow other crops that share a similar harvest window as strawberries under the single goal of a diversified production venture.

You will only be able to receive one SustAg Grant at a time, and more than one application with different project ideas can be submitted. In other words, the application can be sent in as one big application or as two applications, one for each project.

Project Eligibility

I am working on starting a cricket farming operation, raising them for human consumption. Since I don't yet have a farm started, I am looking for startup money. Can you confirm if I would or would not be eligible to apply for this grant?

Grant funds cannot be used for start-up costs or expansion costs on a farm. The only way this could be eligible is if reviewers are convinced that this project was testing the feasibility of a new enterprise. Also, this person does not currently meet the program's definition of a farmer and would not be eligible to apply as a farmer.

I am trying to develop a very sustainable low input system for growing apples. I want to try to determine the viability of a low/no pruning and low/no spray small scale organic orchard. Is my idea eligible?

Reviewers would be looking to see that you had done some preliminary research that led you to believe that these could be sound horticultural techniques to improve profitable production or significantly benefit the environment.

In short, this grant program is designed to fund innovative farm-level approaches that other farmers will be interested in adopting if they work, and that farmers can avoid adopting if they don't work.

I have a project idea but am not currently a farmer in Minnesota. However, I work on an orchard located in Minnesota, and own a small hop farm in Iowa with a business partner. Would I apply as a farmer or something else?

Recipients must be Minnesota residents or organizations located in Minnesota.

I work with a community garden that donates all produce to local food shelves. Does this make us ineligible for this grant? If it does, are there similar opportunities for community gardens?

The community garden is not producing food with the intent to sell so it does not meet our definition of a farmer as written.

We are looking to develop an eco-system of local farmers in Minnesota and connect these farmers and their produce (vegetables, livestock) to grocery stores, co-ops, end restaurants and end consumers using our technology. The end goal is farmers use our system to get online visibility and the use of reviews and ratings promotes them to have market access to other consuming participants at a fraction of the cost.

This project doesn’t fit the Sustainable Agriculture Program. One of the key aspects is on-farm, demonstration grants with an emphasis on farmer leadership.

There are a few other grant programs within the Agriculture Marketing and Development Division; they may be a better fit. These include the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and the Value-Added Grant Program.

We are examining the potential for using woody biomass fuels to provide heating for poultry houses in Minnesota. Do you believe that renewable biomass heating projects would be eligible for this grant program? And if so what type of costs is the program aimed at covering?

Research on the potential/long term economic benefit of using renewable biomass heating of poultry houses on Minnesota farms does sound like an eligible project. You should clearly explain what you expect to learn from this demonstration and what others will learn from it in your application. This grant program funds the costs to conduct research or a demonstration on one or more farms and share findings with the public, particularly the farming community. Please see reports about energy projects our program has funded, which are available in the Greenbook. Eligible costs include testing/analysis of samples, staff or consulting time for project work, printing or other communication/outreach costs, supplies and/or materials, travel, and rental or lease of farm equipment needed to do the project. The cost of purchasing a biomass fuel burner would not be eligible, but you could use grant funds to rent equipment.

I understand that SustAg grant funding wouldn’t pay for specific equipment or installation costs, I wonder if it would fund any feasibility studies or consulting work for other farms that might want to investigate biomass energy systems for their own farms? The intent is to demonstrate to other poultry growers the potential in terms of energy savings and health benefits to the animals of a biomass energy system.

The SustAg program does not prohibit feasibility studies. The costs for a SustAg grantee to hire a consultant to conduct a feasibility study to examine the potential of using specific biofuels to provide heating for a farm livestock operation would be eligible. When we think about it, a SustAg project is in itself a feasibility study, but usually is practical and not theoretical. The review committee typically looks favorably on projects that have done due diligence in terms of a literature review and plans an impactful outreach event to disseminate project results. However, we cannot anticipate how reviewers will react to funding a feasibility study as a major budget item.

Would my project be eligible if it was previously done in another region of the state?

Yes, similar projects in parts of the state where the practice or system is still considered new or innovative are eligible. Reviewers are looking for interesting ideas that may or may not work to increase energy efficiency or profitable production or benefit the environment.

I would like to submit two applications to test two different ideas on farms in my region of Minnesota and in Wisconsin; is that allowed?

Applicants must live or work in Minnesota and demonstrations must occur on farms located in Minnesota.

An applicant is eligible to receive only one AGRI Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant at a time. Current grantees or past grantees with completed grant projects are eligible to receive additional grants to either continue the project or for a new idea.

I operate an urban farm that sells over $1,000.00 annually of fish and various types of herbs and greens that are produced using an aquaponics farming method. Would I be eligible to apply for a SAD grant as a farmer?

Yes.

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Eligible Items

I would like to conduct a grant project on methods of establishing cover crops within a watershed. I do not farm any land in the watershed but was wondering if I could ask for compensation for control of enough acres to do the grant project within the watershed to help increase the overall impact of this project?

Yes, compensation to the farmer for use of the farmer’s land for the length of time to conduct the grant project is eligible and should be included in the budget.

Can I spend grant money on equipment rental or use of my own equipment?

Yes to both. You can charge reasonable per acre or per hour charge (e.g., woodchipper, skidsteer use).

Is the purchase of seed stock (nursery transplants) eligible for use of grant funds for a SustAg project?

Because seed is eligible as a supply, a seedling or the common method of planting a certain type of plant needed to conduct the project will be eligible. Bare root flowers, fruit tree stock, and grape and blueberry cuttings/runners/starter plants are eligible and have been funded in the past for the amount needed to conduct the research or demonstration project.

Note: Funding the planting of a significant part of an orchard or field of flowers to start a new business or expand your current business will not be allowed.

I would like further explanation of what is included as labor costs “beyond normal farming operations” under eligible costs. Would the labor for "normal farming operations" include the planting and care of the plants and the setting up of the components in this study?

No, farming labor time doing grant project work is eligible. While your non-grant project farming labor time doing work on the rest of your farm is considered "normal farming operations". Labor spent on project work can be assigned to the budget (if you will have a control plot, it is part of a demonstration or experiment, so you can include labor working on the control plot). Costs for labor for time spent doing the rest of your farming duties are not eligible for grant funds, so you will need to track time solely spent at working on the approved grant project.

You should clearly explain what you expect to learn from this demonstration and what others will learn from it in your application.

If a piece of equipment that costs more than $1,500 is needed to conduct my research or demonstration project, do you think there is leeway in the RFP for the grant to pay for $1,500 of the purchase and the remainder of the cost is my (the grantee’s) responsibility?

We will approve the use of grant funds for $1,500 towards the purchase cost of an eligible piece of equipment, if the review committee approves it. We suggest that you provide sufficient justification that the equipment is needed to conduct the research or demonstration project, is not general-purpose farm equipment, or can be rented reasonably easily in your application.

I am considering doing a project about how much does diverse types of cover crops and grazing benefit the soil in our region of MN. The project would involve soil testing and tissue sampling experiments. I am considering fencing in 80 acres so that the cattle could be turned out into the field.  How much of the grant money could be used for fencing materials? Would fencing be considered long lasting general equipment? Could some of the grant money be used to purchase cattle (calves), and seed, and if so how much?

Calves and seeds would be supplies and fencing would be in the equipment budget category because it is durable. 

Seeds, fencing, and calves can all be eligible costs for a grant project depending on the situation and grant project proposed. This grant program does not fund general farming costs or enterprise startup expenses, so an applicant will need to show that this is not the case. To be an approved cost, an applicant will need to convince the reviewers that the project costs are needed to conduct the project (i.e. calculating profitability, answering a question, demonstrating or researching a new method or approach) and hold the outreach event.

Also, your budget details will be very important to the committee's evaluation of your requested funded costs and whether they approve them or not. Write your application to reviewers which have diverse backgrounds and education (Reviewer Scoring Criteria is on page 8).  For example, I anticipate that the reviewers will ask:

  1. What is this producer's level of experience? Does he/she already raise livestock?
  2. 80 acres seems like a lot of land for a demonstration of this kind - why is this many acres necessary? What kind of fence is the producer looking to fund (perimeter fence? permanent interior paddock fence? portable poly break wire and step-in posts?) What will happen to the fencing after the study is completed?
  3. What is the justification for using public funds to buy livestock when the applicant will have the benefit of future cattle sales, and is this item more appropriate for a loan than a grant?
  4. On the question of a supply item like seed, you will need to justify the amount you are requesting with information about the species you are using, rate per acre, and cost per acre for each.

If the fencing is approved as special purpose equipment, the maximum grant request for equipment is $1500 per item, so the cost of a type of fencing above $1500 would need to be paid by the grantee.

You may also want to look at the AGRI Livestock Investment Grant, which is administered by the MDA and funds 10 percent of the costs to improve, update, and modernize livestock operation infrastructure and equipment, including fencing.

For more information on grazing, you can contact the MDA's Kelly Anderson (kelly.anderson@state.mn.us or 320-634-7354), or the Sustainable Farming Association.

We would like to install a root cellar in order to prolong the season for certain crops and extend the local farmers market. Would a root cellar be considered "building construction" and thus be ineligible for SustAg funding?

Eligibility will depend on how the root cellar will be used for a Sustainable Agriculture Demo Grant project. If it will be used for research including economic analysis, comparing methods, and demonstration, then it will be eligible as special purpose equipment (if bought whole) or as supplies if the farmer is going to build it. The chances of funding depends on whether the reviewers are convinced that the project costs are needed to conduct the project and the project is answering a question or demonstrating/researching a method that other MN farmers may be interested in.

Our grants team has some experience with the cost of root cellars. If the root cellar is needed for season extension to increase marketing season and benefit their farm business, then the AGRI Value Added Grant may be a better fit.

Our proposed SustAg project will include bringing an expert to MN to conduct project activities. Are International Travel Costs (time, airfare, etc.) of a consultant eligible for SADG funding?

State grant requirements and AGRI funds do not explicitly restrict use of grant funds for international travel costs. Therefore, international travel costs incurred by a contracted consultant should be eligible for SustAg funding if the reviewers, MDA grants staff, and Commissioner understand the direct need for the proposed travel to conduct the project and approve it in your application.

You will also need to submit documents that show these travel expenditures were tied to the purpose of the grant project in payment documentation submitted with your Annual Report to the MDA. If your application is approved, we will inform you of the process to use to be able to use grant funds to pay for international travel costs before these expenses are incurred.

The RFP says that certain long-term equipment doesn’t qualify, but we plan to diversify by building raised benches for U-pick strawberry production that would cost around $2,500 per bench between building materials, potting soil, labor, and etc. to build. Of those things, which would qualify to be awarded grant money, especially since we’d plan to build as many of these benches as we can afford?

Raised benches would be ineligible to be awarded grant money if they cost more than $1,500 each, unless you would pay for the expenses above $1,500, and as long as the raised bench purchase is a key part of the project. Building materials and labor costs are eligible expenses. Potting soil and plant costs do not need to be considered as part of the bench expenses since they are not special purpose equipment like the raised beds.

Reading the RFP I noticed that the acquisition of high tunnels is not allowed under this grant, and I’m wondering if there would be exceptions to this rule?

As the RFP states, greenhouses and high tunnels are ineligible expenses for reimbursement. However, they may be rented as needed to conduct the project.

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Budget

What is an acceptable wage, in dollars per hour, for our family members to use for payment by the grant while working on the grant project?

The wage rate you request should be the usual rate of pay for someone doing that job. We think that $15.00 to $20.00 per hour would be reasonable rate of pay for someone doing some regular farm tasks like sowing and weeding or light construction that does not require certification or expertise. Time spent applying inputs, collecting data or electrical work, for example, would command a higher wage rate. If you, or someone you know, is qualified to do statistical analysis of the project data, then the rate of pay for this work would be $30.00 to $35.00 per hour.

We are applying via our university and were wondering how overhead can be justified within the budget. Can we budget overhead? The university’s standard where possible is 12 percent of the total request, and the university will match it. The overhead is mostly returned to the grantees, but a percentage may be used to leverage further research by university faculty.

In the ineligible costs section of the Request for Proposal (RFP), indirect costs are not specifically listed as ineligible but this is implied in the eligible costs section. Under eligible costs in the RFP, wages for time spent directly on the grant project are eligible. Therefore, all the costs listed in the budget should tie directly to grant project work. This would include personnel, equipment and supply costs, so indirect costs are not eligible. You may add wages of other personnel by function for the approximate number of hours they work on the grant project. For example, an appropriate number of hours in wages by a bookkeeper for keeping track of this grant’s expenditures and preparing financial reports, or for another person to do administrative type grant project work, such as organizing the outreach event, may be listed in the personnel table of the budget. You may also include costs of supply item(s), as long as the purchase can be tied to the grant project and the cost is reasonable (example, 1 bundle of glossy paper to print a flyer).

I am not sure how to develop my budget in the application. I am concerned that the actual expenditures will be different from the amounts I put in the budget. How does that play out?

In the grantee’s annual financial and progress report, we expect the grantee to report their actual grant project expenditures. We know, and allow, small deviations from predicted costs as long as the grant project work plan is followed in good faith. If larger changes to the budget or work plan are needed because of circumstances out of the grantee’s control, challenges encountered or things learned as the project is proceeding, we ask that the grantee requests these changes ahead of time or at least as they become evident. These requests are approved a vast majority of the time.

If our project is selected and awarded how are budgeted award dollars distributed? Are they paid according to the amount designated in each year, at the beginning of the year? Is the grantee paid at the beginning of the project or at the end of the project?

SustAg grantees can request up to ten percent of annual funds up-front each year of their project, as outlined in their approved budget. You must indicate in the Budget section of the application if you are requesting advance funds. If you do not request advance funds, all payments will be made on a reimbursement basis. Advance funds must be reconciled within one year of each request. Additional payments will not be made until advanced payments have been accounted for. The MDA reserves the right to not honor requests for initial or subsequent advanced payments.

The remainder of grant funds are dispersed on a reimbursement basis. All grantee requests for reimbursement must correspond to the approved grant budget. To receive grant payments, grantees must provide proof that grant project work has been done by submitting details of each purchase on receipts or invoices, and proof that the vendors have been paid.

Could we request a range of money instead of an exact amount? For example, if each long-term equipment costs $1,500, if we get $7,500 we could acquire 5 of them. If we get more or less money, we could build more or less.

You will need to request a specific grant amount.

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Timeline

Could you give me an idea of when selections will be announced, and when we should plan for an earliest start date?

All applicants will be informed whether their application is approved or not by the end of February. Successful applicants will be required to participate in a new grantee conference call in March, and projects can start Late March/Early April.

There is a time lag from planting to harvesting (plant year 1 to first economically viable harvest in year 3). How long can a project be extended to?

The maximum length of the SustAg grant contract is 3 years from the start date of your grant contract. Most projects in your round will start sometime in March of 2022 and the grant contract will end by 1/31/2025. If you are awarded a grant, we could work together and with MDA Finance to tweak your start and end dates (due to extenuating circumstances) that will fit with your project better, up to 6/30/2022 to 6/30/2025.

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Technical and Farmer Cooperators

Can I work with a Cover Crop Specialist as my technical cooperator?

As long as you are not paying them to do the entire project for you, (they can be paid an hourly rate for involvement with the project) and they are not a family member, yes, a Cover Crop Specialist could be a technical cooperator. They should have technical expertise that will strengthen the project including but not limited to soil science, biology, agronomy, horticulture, entomology, engineering, marketing, finance, data collection, or statistics.

We are currently commercially producing microgreens on a small scale and have been looking at various hydroponic methods of growing. We are interested in evaluating the feasibility of a small-scale, indoor vertical hydroponic system. Who would be the 'best' people to choose as Technical Cooperators?

We recommend contacting the Horticulture Department at the University of Minnesota, as they may be able to recommend faculty with expertise in this area. We also suggest you ask the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships or University of Minnesota Extension for suggestions.

Do I need a technical cooperator? What if I don’t have a technical cooperator?

The Request for Proposal requires that farmers involve at least one technical cooperator and that any/all include a letter of commitment within the application.

Where would I go for technical assistance with research and design of the field experiment and writing the grant application?

These can also be your Technical Cooperators: University of Minnesota (U of MN) Extension staff, U of MN researchers in the field of your on-farm research project, Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP has five regions covering Minnesota), Soil and Water Conservation District representatives, Sustainable Farming Association (SFA), Land Stewardship Project (LSP) staff, local USDA Farm Service Agency, an instructor at a Community College, etc.

I have two technical cooperators lined up that will assist with this grant project (if funded). From reading Greenbook articles, many of the approved applicants have several technical cooperators listed. Will my chances of approval be higher if I add other technical cooperators in my application even though their contributions to my project are quite small?

The reviewers do not score more points or give extra points for entering more collaborators than required in the application. If the applicant thinks they will benefit from using more technical cooperators, he/she should include them in their application. However, one good cooperator whose expertise complements yours may be better.

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Match

Will you explain how to figure in the match when I am going to do my SustAg project on a portion of my own land that I am setting aside the next 3 years? My project will cost over $25,000.

You are allowed to request more than $25,000. However, the amount requested over $25,000 will need to be matched $1 for $1 for total project costs above $25,000. For example, if the total project cost adds up to $45,000 for three years, the applicant may request a $35,000 award and plan to provide a $10,000 match. Some of this match may be provided by the value of the land set aside and the remainder with payment of grant project expenditures using the grantee's funds.

Note: the value of the land set aside to conduct the project is the only type of non-cash match that is allowed.

As a state institution we have tuition generated revenue, but also legislatively appropriated funding.  Would we be able to use operational funds as a match?

Sources of the cash-match may include non-state funds in form of cash, loans, other grants, liquid capital assets dedicated to the project. Per the RFP, non-state funds are defined as “funds that were NOT obtained through the budgeting process of the MN legislature or granted by a State agency.” So long as the matching funds come from tuition generated revenue, use of operational funds will be considered non-state funds and is allowable as a match.

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