Home Wine Business Editorial Finance Money on the Table: Taking Advantage of Grants for Business Improvement

Money on the Table: Taking Advantage of Grants for Business Improvement

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Federal, state and local governments often offer grants
to support business expansion and improvement.

By Paul Vigna

 

Cathy and Dan McLaughlin

On February 9, 2024, Cathy and Dan McLaughlin addressed an audience at the North Carolina Winegrowers Association Conference. The McLaughlins, founding board members of North Carolina Fine Wines, spoke on the topic of securing grants to advance winery work and agricultural efforts. 

One of the many tips they offered was based on a harrowing episode where they spent months with an application and prepared to submit it on deadline day. Then a storm knocked out their power and their PDF file was too large.

Everything worked out for the couple, who also run CLINNEAM, a company that provides research and marketing services for the beverage industry. But it taught a valuable lesson.

“Submit early,” Cathy told those in attendance, adding wryly, “Sometimes the best learning experience is the one where your heart rate is going really fast and you’re saying, ‘Oh my God, we said we’d never do this.’”

That was an admittedly close call. But overall, the McLaughlins have reaped the benefits of the grant process. Their successes include a 2022 award-winning documentary called “Healthy Hope,” assembled with grant money, touting the medical benefits of the Muscadine grape in fighting some of the effects of cancer, and a series of just-released videos on North Carolina’s six American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) also funded by grant money.

Grants.gov

The McLaughlins spent part of the 45-minute session breaking down federal grants, details of which can be found at www.grants.gov, noting that the feds offer the biggest set of grants with the most money on the table. They made the following points about the federal site:

  • It might take some time to become familiar with it. They recommended that you go to YouTube and go through the tutorials there. Subscribe and you’ll get notifications of new tutorials as things get updated (which is almost constantly with this large system.) “Use them,” they stressed. 
  • Grants.gov provides a link on its site that takes you through each of the steps you’ll use to apply. In the individual grant itself, you’ll see tabs (Overview, To Apply, Other Requirements, Contact and Events) with information pertinent to that particular grant. 
  • There is almost always an overview “webinar” on the grant for that year. Typically, you can submit questions ahead of time or ask questions during the broadcast. “I always learn something from attending them because people ask really good questions,”  says Dan.
  • If the big meeting doesn’t get your question answered, then call or write the listed contact and see if you can’t get clarification with them directly, Dan said, adding, “Tell them, ‘This is what we are looking at doing. Is this something that deserves merit? Can you give us some feedback on it?’ They’ll work through that process with you and [help you understand] what you need to provide.” 
  • When you see a date for a new grant, don’t put off acting on it. What might seem like a lot of time really isn’t. (See anecdote above.)
  • If you see a federal grant where you have missed the deadline, put the date into a calendar for next year, since these grants usually are cyclical.
  • Be prepared for frequent password changes, as often as every 30 or 45 days.

Of course, state, county and local grants are also available — if you know where to look. 

Cathy suggested one group to get acquainted with is your local Tourism Development Authority (TDA). “They usually have money for marketing and things like that. Sometimes they do shared marketing projects. Private grants might also be available, often through power companies and internet service providers.”

Cast a bigger net

The couple had checked the federal site the previous day and found approximately 1,800 grants in the system — around 110 of those for agriculture. But, Dan stressed, “Don’t just look at agriculture.

“You are more than just agriculture. You’re construction. There are energy grants out there. You can look at solar. You can look at geothermal if you’re trying to do that.”

Other grants could help with training new staffers or housing them or others who work on your property.

Get acquainted with Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG), they advised, which renew annually and offer as much as $250,000 to help agricultural producers introduce “value-added activities to generate new products, create and expand marketing opportunities, and increase producer income” (according to the VAPG site).

While the submission process for any grant can be time-consuming, the payoff can be worth it. For example, three Virginia wineries were recent grant recipients, according to a CBS19 report in November 2023. Horton Vineyards will be using its funding to expand marketing activities and processing capacity. King Family Vineyards will direct its money toward expanding the Crosé product line. And Keswick Vineyards is planning to use its grant to expand offerings and attract more customers. 

(Be aware that some, but not all, grants are matching. In these cases, according to the news story, each winery owner will be providing matching funds to build on their production and retail.)

Practical advice

You’ll generally hear back between 60 and 90 days past the deadline, the McLaughlins said, but sometimes it’s a much longer wait.

Here are a few final tips they offered:

  • Start the process by seeing if you are eligible, which can save time down the road. Also, check the most recent year or two and see who was awarded a particular grant — and for what reason — to see if your specific need matches what was given out. 
  • Contact one or two individuals who received a grant you want to apply for and ask how it went, whether it took much time and who helped them with their application. 
  • Align the terminology in your application with the language of the grant. Often there’s success just in how you word what you want. 
  • If you are collaborating with others, make sure each person is writing their own submission letter rather than sending in a template. It shows, Dan said, that everyone involved is committed to the project.
  • The feds will more likely want to give out a higher number of grants, so if you get a lesser amount than hoped for the first time, get one thing done and then apply the next year for more.
  • Write in simple terms and succinctly answer questions. Being creative doesn’t win points here.
  • Have a friend not in the business look your application over and make sure they understand what you have written.

In short, grant money can help business owners tackle dream projects or just improve operations. The application process can be fraught, but help is available. It’s worth a bit of time to investigate what’s being offered. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be among the next recipients.  

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Paul Vigna

Paul Vigna is a writer and editor in Harrisburg, Pa., who has been covering East Coast wines for 16 years. He was the first winner of the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association’s Birchenall Award in February 2018. You can find him at www.pennlive.com.

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