December 11, 2015
Yesterday, December 11th, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the availability of millions of dollars to help solve some of the most pressing challenges facing organic farmers today.
This grant funding will be competed through the Organic Agriculture Research, and Extension Initiative (OREI) — the largest federal competitive grant program focused exclusively on organic research, education, and extension. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) recently released the Request for Applications (RFA) for OREI for the 2016 Fiscal Year, which makes available $17.6 million in grant funding to support organic research.
We appreciate USDA’s timely release of the RFA this year, which is three months earlier than in 2015, as well as an extended application window. Applicants will have three months – until March 10, 2016 – to develop and submit applications for funding. Last year, applicants only had two months during which to prepare and submit applications. NSAC has long supported consistent release dates and reasonably long application periods to allow researchers to assemble the critical partnerships with non-profit and academic institutions and flesh out the details required of submitted research proposals.
New Program Changes for 2016
This year’s RFA itself has been left relatively unchanged from last year. USDA has added “cover crops research” to the list of priorities and has expanded the emphasis on the research priorities of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Both are issues that NSAC has requested.
The RFA retains several provisions previously advocated for by NSAC that we continue to support. These include the retention of planning and conference grants, language clarifying the eligibility of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to apply for grant funding, language clarifying the matching funds requirement, the emphasis on public cultivar development, and a systems-based approach to livestock production.
NSAC’s comments on the FY2015 RFA can be found on the Our Work page.
Organic Research Priorities Included in the Farm Bill
OREI funds research that assists those who have already adopted organic production systems on their farms. The federal grant program has eight legislatively defined goals covering the biological, physical and social sciences. Each year NIFA prioritizes several research areas within these broader statutory priorities.
For 2016, there are eight priority areas within OREI, including priorities on plant breeding for organic production systems. The RFA specifically calls for research proposals that seek to:
Strengthen organic crop seed systems, including seed and transplant production and protection, and plant breeding for organic production, with an emphasis on publically available releases. Breeding and selection characteristics for organic systems may be different from those in conventional systems. Goals of organic seed systems proposals can include, but are not limited to: disease and pest resistance, stress tolerance, quality and yield improvement, and genetic mechanisms to prevent inadvertent introduction of GMO traits through cross-pollination. This priority includes cover crop breeding for enhanced performance in organic systems. Projects dealing solely with cultivar evaluation do not fit under this priority.
NSAC and our members have long worked on the issue of “Seeds and Breeds” – and have called the public’s attention to the critical deterioration of our nation’s public plant and animal breeding research infrastructure. This research has typically been a key role of our nation’s Land Grant Universities, which have long served the public and farmers to develop improved varieties of seeds and animal breeds that are specifically adapted to a region’s unique pest challenges and growing conditions. Last year, NSAC member Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA, held a national summit on this topic and issued a report with key findings and recommendations for a path forward in revitalizing our nation’s public plant breeding infrastructure.
OREI is open to individual researchers and a wide range of organizational applicants, including NGOs. Partnerships are encouraged between different types of eligible organizations including NGOs that work with organic producers. NSAC is pleased to see the partnership emphasis maintained and will be working with our member organizations to get the word out to researchers and farmers within the organic community.
Centers of Excellence
OREI is one of several competitive grant programs at NIFA that is subject to the 2014 Farm Bill’s Center of Excellence language (COE). The COE criteria will be used as a tiebreaker for equally qualified projects. In a situation where two projects are found to be equally qualified, but there is not enough funding for both and one has included a COE justification in their application, the COE justification will be considered.
Integrated Project proposals are the only projects type eligible for a COE designation. Conference, Planning, and Curriculum Development proposals are not eligible for a COE designation.
Additionally, the COE justification that can optionally be included in the Project Narrative must fit within the page limits already provided.
Matching Funds Requirements
As a result of the 2014 Farm Bill, the matching requirements for all competitive grant programs changed. NSAC opposed this change but appreciates the flexibility USDA has built into the requirement to allow organizations that are not exempt from these requirements to partner with an exempt organization in order to receive an exemption to securing matching funds.
Previously, the matching requirement could be waived if the project was likely to benefit agriculture generally rather than for a specific commodity or specific state; or if it was on a minor commodity, was important scientific research, or the applicant could not provide the matching funds. The 2014 Farm Bill changed this to limit the wavier to situations where one of the entities that is part of the project is eligible to receive capacity funds (i.e. a land grant or non-land grant college of agriculture). That partner must have a “substantial” role in the project.
The match can also be waived one year at a time for projects whose focus is consistent with the priorities of the National, Agriculture Research, Education, Extension, and Economic Advisory Board (NAREEEAB) as explained in the 2014 Research, Education and Economics Action Plan
It is concerning that unlike previous years, no NGOs were successful in receiving an OREI grant in 2015. One reason for this could be that the recent changes in matching grant requirements are disadvantaging NGOs from applying for funding as the lead research institution. It’s possible that more NGOs are choosing to partner with exempt organizations (mainly Land Grant Universities) rather than apply as the primary research institution, but without further analysis of grant partners, this conclusion cannot be reached.
We are very concerned with this trend, and will be working with our NGO partners in the research community, and the farmers they serve, to apply for grant funding this year.