USDA’s Increasing Land, Capital, and Market Access Program was a historic funding opportunity for community-led land access initiatives across the country. The National Young Farmers Coalition mobilized a rapid response effort to ensure organizations working on land access, particularly BIPOC-led and low-resource, knew about the funding opportunity and had support to apply. Between mid-September and mid-November 2022, the Coalition conducted outreach to 339 organizations, supplied grant writers to 19 organizations to apply, and successfully advocated for a three-week extension to the program to increase equitable outcomes.
On August 24, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced $300 million in funding for projects that will increase land access for underserved farmers, including funding for innovative ways to connect available land to underserved producers who have challenges in accessing land, or restore lands into the hands of those who have been underserved.
This was a significant victory in our campaign to win funding for equitable land access at the federal level.
Recognizing the immense opportunity but also the lack of awareness and capacity on the ground, The National Young Farmers Coalition (Young Farmers) team mobilized a rapid response effort to conduct outreach and offer grant writing support services to organizations to ensure equitable access to the program.
As part of our rapid response effort, we:
- Supported 19 applications requesting over $130 million. We recruited a team of 15 grant writers and a national project director who led applications for 19 organizations and conducted reviews for 11 additional organizations. The 19 supported applications involved 91 partner organizations, covered 30 states, and together proposed over $130 million in funding (more than a third of total funding available.) 95% of supported applications were led by BIPOC organizations.
- Advocated and secured a deadline extension. We submitted a letter on behalf of 99 partners asking USDA to allow more time for equitable access to program funding. We received an extension of three weeks which was a game changer for organizations applying.
- Spread the word. We conducted outreach to 339 organizations to ensure program awareness and supported 92 organizations with technical assistance, including 60 phone conversations to answer questions and support potential applicants.
- Planned for grant reporting support. We set aside rapid response dollars to support successful applicants with grant reporting during the five-year cycle of project funding.
Through our outreach, we found an immense interest on the ground for land access funding but also a lack of capacity for, and knowledge of, submitting federal grant applications. From a survey we conducted of 96 organizations in September 2022 after the funding announcement, we found that:
- 83 were interested in applying;
- 34 said they needed significant support to apply;
- 22 wanted to apply but didn’t have capacity to meet the deadline; and
- 40 said they had time to apply but would benefit from guidance and review.
Of the 99 organizations who signed our letter in October 2022 requesting an extension of the program deadline, we heard:
- 50 were aiming to apply by the Oct. 28th deadline but would benefit from more time;
- 27 would only apply if there were an extension;
- 8 did not have capacity to apply this year but would in the future; and
- 9 were working on land access issues but did not see how their work would fit into this grant opportunity.
Despite being granted the extension from USDA, many barriers remained for organizations in applying for this funding—particularly low-resource organizations who have not received federal funding in the past. To make land access funding (and all federal funding) more accessible in the future, we recommend:
- Increasing total funding to meet the on-the-ground needs. Land is expensive and $300m is not enough to meet the enormous need. For local organizations, the cap of $2.5 million was often not enough to secure land and carry out programming. We are asking Congress to make an investment totaling $2.5 billion over ten years in equitable land access in the 2023 Farm Bill.
- Streamlining and clarifying the application process. For many organizations, the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) was impossibly complicated. This NOFO was also highly repetitive and difficult to ensure all requested information was included in the final application. Organizations shouldn’t need technical support to navigate the NOFO.
- Longer application windows. Organizations need ample time to put together thoughtful, competitive applications. This program in particular asked for the target audience to be involved in the conception of the program idea, and for collaboration among multiple organizations. This engagement takes time and applications should be open for at least 90 days to accommodate collaboration.
- Expanding eligibility. Many entities working on land access do not have 501c3 status, including cooperatives, new projects, and for-profit farms. It can be difficult for these groups to find eligible entities to apply on their behalf.
- Increasing clarity around use of funds. The opportunity to apply for federal USDA funding to purchase land is a historic milestone. Many organizations were eager to utilize these program funds to directly purchase land and then transfer ownership to target farmers or to implement innovative strategies, such as buy-protect-sell. More clarity is needed to help applicants understand how federal funds can be used for land purchase and where federal regulations may need to be adjusted to clear the way for innovative and streamlined use of funds for land purchase, which is the most direct path towards providing growers with long-term, secure access to land. It was also not clear whether other innovative models, such as revolving loan funds, would be legal uses of federal dollars.
- Ability to opt-out of USDA technical assistance. One of the key requirements of this funding opportunity was increasing knowledge of USDA programs among target producers. Many organizations applied for this funding because they have an innovative land access strategy outside of USDA programs or whose farmers are not currently served by USDA and are pursuing other strategies. USDA should recognize that not all land access projects will involve USDA programs. Based on the criteria, we do not believe projects that do not include USDA program education will be competitive.
- Make advance payments available (not on a case-by-case basis). Many organizations were afraid of cash-flow implications of a reimbursement grant. USDA confirmed advance payments would be made available on a case-by-case basis on a webinar but this was not widely known. Program access would be expanded if this were clear and guaranteed.
- Increased USDA technical assistance. Many applicants waited weeks to have their questions answered, if at all. USDA should increase capacity to support applicants and answer their questions so that organizations like ours do not need to fill this gap.
As a first-of-its-kind program, we believe the Increasing Land, Capital, and Market Access Program can act as a pilot that can be improved upon and will hopefully inform future USDA program development. But because funding for this program came from American Rescue Plan Act dollars, we will need to secure new funding in the farm bill to ensure this program can continue into the future.
Access to land is the number one challenge facing the next generation of farmers in the United States. Given the systemic challenges in finding secure land tenure, this barrier is even greater for BIPOC farmers. Land is deeply intertwined with all aspects of farmers’ success and impacts more than agricultural communities. Land access is critical to the health and well-being of our environment, economy, and marginalized communities.