Reflections on 2010 Value-Added Producer Grants

Posted on 04/20/2010 at 12:00 AM by Christa Hartsook

Blog entry written by Michael Boland, professor at Kansas State University and director of the Arthur Capper Cooperative Center.

I just finished reviewing my stack of Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) grants this year. This is a time consuming process. I have served as reviewer since 2002 and try to use the same approach every year although the process has evolved. When the VAPG program was first started, Congress had passed legislation and then an appropriation to begin the program, but USDA did not have the human resources to immediately start the administration and management of the program.

Things are much easier today as a reviewer!  We first check for possible conflicts of interest to ensure fairness and then have six to eight weeks to get our reviews done. I first read each grant application and then put it aside. Typically I wait a week or two before I start actually scoring the grant based on the criteria from the Federal Register. I have served on past panels for other grant programs and I know that I tend to appreciate it when reviewers are able to communicate exactly what their thoughts are. For me, my bias tends to be I either really like the idea or do not like the idea discussed in the grant. Then I can communicate clearly to the panel. Because each grant is reviewed by multiple reviewers, I also state my bias so the panel understands my reviewer perspective.

When I begin scoring, I look at the criteria and try to understand how the applicant matches up to the criteria. Grants that lay out the objectives against the criteria through an orderly process such as using an outline or labeling process make my job as a reviewer much easier. The more difficult it is for me to locate the information, the more worry I have that I lose track of a good idea and so the more clearly the idea and information is conveyed, the better job I can as a reviewer.  Proposals that appear to have been written just before the deadline are often more disorganized and harder to evaluate because of the disorganization.

After reading all the proposals, setting them aside to pause and reflect, and then coming back to them and scoring them, I set them aside again. Then I go back and check my written comments to make sure that I have communicated clearly my thoughts about the proposal and make sure that my scoring appears consistent across all applicants. Then it is time to send the reviews in. Generally, I take one full day to read and reflect; several days to do the actual scoring and then a ½ day to double-check everything.

The biggest issue always seems to be evaluating the end user commitment to buy the value-added good. That, or lack thereof, is always a big issue. The applicants are very knowledgeable about the production of the product and the potential end uses. The biggest issue is finding someone who is willing to say they will commit to buying it when the product is ready. That is always the biggest challenge in evaluating a VAPG grant because it is also one of the most important ones. There is specific criteria that discusses what this end-user commitment should be and we have to evaluate these letters and what they contain. Producers who have had some experience in this area have a track record with a local retailer or producers involved in a processing cooperative have customer commitments while many individual producers applying for the first time may not know what the expectation is here.

Linked to this is whether the producer has thought through the process of ramping up production so that supply and demand are aligned. It is one thing to produce a product but another to have thought through how a producer can meet the challenge of meeting expected growth in demand.

The qualification of the applicants and their management is another aspect we evaluate. In general, producers are not comfortable discussing their qualifications and are fairly modest individuals. Yet, we have to make a determination about the qualifications of those doing the producing and the management team. I find it useful to see specific objectives that have been achieved from management in a previous life or how networked the producers are within their local community and state.

There were some really good ideas this year. As always, one never knows what others think about the ideas. There was more of a diversified geography in my reviews this year which if true for other reviewers, would suggest that the program is becoming more widely known. That would bode well for the future of the program!

Categories: Grants