Branching out, wearing different hats, having a finger in every pie, putting a lot of irons in the fire – whatever euphemism you use, farmers these days are almost required to do more than simply grow food and harvest it. Value-added products are one way of diversifying and increasing revenue streams, but setting up a specialty food business can be daunting, especially economically.

Luckily, there are funding sources out there to help producers start or expand such businesses in the form of grants. Covering the topic of “Grants for Your Specialty Food Business” is Alex Piasecki from Seal the Seasons, who hosted a webinar in collaboration with the Specialty Food Association.

Seal the Seasons is a business that touts itself as “the farmers market in your freezer.” Based in Durham, NC, Piasecki and his partners started the business “because we believe that smaller farms need protecting and that consumers need access to what they’re growing.” They currently partner with farmers in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, the Southeast, the Great Lakes region, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest.

“Grants are a really valuable way to raise funds for your business,” Piasecki said. “You need to balance equity, loans, grants and debt – they’re all valuable for different things.”

He added that grants are part of a broader strategy to fundraise – and are not always a quick fix.

He shared his experience with grants, including being a multiple-cycle winner of a USDA Local Food Promotion Program grant, first in 2015 (which he started his business with), and then again in 2019 and again in 2023. In total, he was awarded over $500,000.

Piasecki has also been awarded two grants from the Kroger Zero Hunger Zero Waste Foundation (for over $300,000 total). There have been various other small grant programs he’s pursued and won too, such as the Chobani Incubator and Burt’s Bees Natural Launchpad.

What Are Grants?

Grants are capital typically awarded to an organization that is working on a project with a specific scope and execution plan. They are typically offered to stimulate innovation, economic activity or recovery efforts.

“They focus more on a project than on the business as a whole,” explained Piasecki. “And they typically require quite a bit of effort to apply and report on – and the cash distribution is not immediate.”

Most grants go through a “lifecycle.” The pre-award phase is the funding opportunity announcement and application; the award phase features the award decisions and notifications; and finally, the post-award phase has the implementation, reporting and closeout of the grant.

Tips for Grant Seeking

Piasecki offered several tips for those seeking out grant funding:

  • Cast a wide net – There are thousands of grants available, and at some level, applying for them is a numbers game
  • Ensure you meet the criteria – Read the criteria carefully to ensure your project is a good fit before investing your time
  • Narrow your focus on a set number of grants – Your time is valuable; pick the grants that you have the most competitive case for
  • Pay attention – New grant offerings are being announced all the time
  • Use your network – Talk to those you know or work with that have won grants – a solid introduction to a grant manager can go a long way
  • Treat grant partnerships like relationships – Grant periods are often 18 months and can extend for multiple years – be the kind of applicant that grant managers can imagine being partnered with for the long haul

“Remember that smaller grants can often be repeated; it helps to set up long-term partnerships that bear fruit for many years afterward,” Piasecki said. “You want a relationship that is communicative but not overbearing.”

Seeking out specialty food grants

Tips for Grant Writing

Additionally, Piasecki shared these tips for what to do when it comes time to apply:

  • Set up a draft shared document – The best proposals require reviews, rewrites and comments from a variety of perspectives
  • Create an “important words and phrases” document – Grants are written intentionally and the best proposals repeat the language used in the grant description
  • Have a big vision – Grant managers are looking for bold proposals that create the impact they’re seeking with grant dollars while also being a proposal that is feasible
  • Have a clear, comprehensive and concise plan – It’s critical to follow up a big vision with a clear execution plan; include a project plan with rough dates and timeframes along with a budget
  • Use letters of support – Your grant proposal will likely benefit other vendors and/or customers – have them write letters of support to submit with your application
  • Submit before the deadline – No one wants technical issues getting in the way of submitting their hard work

“You’re telling a story and have to have a big vision to make the grant be successful,” Piasecki said. “Largely, writing has been trial and error for me; I did not take a grant writing class.”

He noted, however, that some programs allow for grant writers to help you out. Post-award, he and his team also evaluate their grant writing to see what proved successful.

Grants to Look Into

For those interested in pursuing specialty food grants, one of the easiest places to start is the USDA. They offer the Local Food Promotion Program, Regional Food System Partnerships and Organic Certification Cost Share Grants.

There are also Small Business Administration grants and loans, Small Business Development Centers, Women Business Centers and Farm-to-School Purchasing Grants, which are growing in popularity.

“There are many, many more,” Piasecki said of the opportunities. “Google and searching locally are your best friends.”

by Courtney Llewellyn