Agriculture & Food Research Initiative

Program Basics

The 2008 Farm Bill created the new Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), a competitive grant program that provides grants for fundamental and applied research, extension, and education to address food and agricultural issues.  AFRI takes the place of both the National Research Initiative (NRI), authorized in 1990, and the Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems (IFAFS), authorized in 1998.

The overarching grant categories established in the farm bill include:

  • Plant health and production and plant products;
  • Animal health and production and animal products;
  • Food safety, nutrition, and health;
  • Renewable energy, natural resources, and environment;
  • Agriculture systems and technology; and
  • Agriculture economics and rural communities.

USDA significantly changed AFRI in 2010, creating seven general grant categories:  a foundational program, five “societal challenge” categories (climate change, global food security, childhood obesity prevention, bioenergy, and food safety), and pre- and post-doctoral fellowships (see “Implementation Basics” below for more information).

State agricultural experiment stations, colleges and universities, university research foundations, other research institutions and organizations, Federal agencies, national laboratories, private organizations or corporations, and individuals are eligible to apply for grants under the program.

The maximum term of a grant is ten years, and most grants are offered for up to five years.  Reimbursement for indirect costs is limited to not greater than 22 percent of the grant total.  Indirect costs may also be counted as matching grants, provided that the combined total of reimbursements for indirect costs and indirect costs used for the match does not exceed 22 percent.

2008 Farm Bill Changes

The 2008 Farm Bill added five new grant categories to those that already existed under either the NRI or IFAFS:

  • Conventional (classical) plant breeding;
  • Conventional (classical) animal breeding;
  • Renewable energy;
  • Domestic marketing strategies; and
  • Rural entrepeneurship.

The priority grant category for the viability and competitiveness of small and medium sized family farm operations was carried over from IFAFS.  Carried over from NRI is the requirement that all grant categories should emphasize sustainable agriculture wherever applicable.   The new farm bill lengthens the maximum grant term from five years to ten years to accommodate in particular classical plant and animal breeding projects and long-term agro-ecological systems research.

Section 7406 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (FCEA) of 2008 amends Subsection 450(b) of the Competitive, Special, and Facilities Research Grant Act of 196, to be codified at 7 U.S.C. Section 450i(b) and a note to 7 U.S.C. Section 450i.

In addition, conforming amendments are made to Section 1473 of the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act of 1977, to be codified at 7 U.S.C. Section 3319; Section 1671(d) of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, as codified at 7 U.S.C. Section 5924(d); and Section 1672B(b) of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, to be codified at 7 U.S.C. Section 5925b(b).


AFRI has an authorization for appropriations of up to $700 million for each of fiscal years 2008-2012.   In recent years, the annual agricultural appropriation passed by Congress has provided about $200 million for NRI/IFAFS combined.  Whether and how fast that total funding level increases will be a matter for the annual agricultural appropriations bills to determine.  In 2012, Congress appropriated $264 million to AFRI, despite numerous requests from the Administration and research stakeholders across the country for increased funding levels.

Under the new law, 60 percent of the funds for projects that include research will be directed toward grants for fundamental (or basic) research, and 40 percent toward applied research.  Of the AFRI funds allocated to fundamental research, not less than 30 percent will be directed toward research by multidisciplinary teams.

In addition, of the total amount appropriated for AFRI, at least 30 percent is to be used for “integrated” projects that combine research and education, research and extension, education and extension, or all three.

Implementation Basics

The AFRI program is administered by the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA; formerly, Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service) of USDA.Each year NIFA will release Requests for Applications (RFAs) which are available on its website or on the website.

NIFA is releasing seven RFAs through AFRI:

  • Foundational Program:  Smaller, disciplinary, research-only  and integrated grants in program areas established in the farm bill.
  • Societal Challenge Areas:  Research, extension, education, and integrated grants, with opportunities for multi-disciplinary, multi-year, and multi-million dollar grants termed “Coordinated Agricultural Projects” (CAPs), in the following topic areas:
  • Pre- and post-doctoral fellowships:  Research, extension, education and integrated grants available for pre- and post-doctoral students on any of the five challenge area topics, or any of the foundational priorities.

The RFAs also include opportunities for planning grants, conference and sabbatical grants, and strengthening grants.  The RFAs list specific longer-term objectives and annual priority areas.  The RFAs list the due dates for letters of intent and proposals under each of the programs, which vary, and indicate the approximate amount of total funding that is available for each program.  Proposals are reviewed and ranked for merit and relevance by peer review committees, with top ranked proposals selected for funding.

A six month public comment period on the RFA is triggered when an RFA is released.  During the comment period, recommendations for priority topics for the following year’s RFA may be submitted to NIFA by individuals and organizations.

Foundational Program

The Foundational Program RFA (pdf) makes $136 million available in 2013 to fund  research-only and integrated projects in program areas that existed in previous iterations of AFRI and that correspond to congressionally-designated priorities written into the the farm bill.  These programs previously received the bulk of the program funding, so many of the earlier programs that evolved over the past several decades have now been ended as separate priorities, given the decrease in dollars available.  One of those was the Managed Ecosystem program that NSAC has backed for many years, though aspects of that program can now be found in some of the challenge area RFAs.

The new RFA integrates many of the priorities from NRI/IFAFS related to sustainable farming communities under AFRI’s Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities (AERC) program area, including the long-standing Small and Medium-Sized Farms program and the Rural Development program (renamed Rural Families, Communities and Regional Development), and creates the Economics, Market and Trade program from the Agribusiness Markets and Trade program in previous RFAs.  Despite the overall $63 million increase in AFRI for this fiscal year, the total funding for these programs under the AERC program area, remained static at $19 million — which represents two years worth of funding since no RFA was released in 2012.  More information on the most recent Foundational RFA can be found here.

Climate Change

The Agriculture and Natural Resources Science for Climate Variability and Change RFA (pdf) makes $5 million available in new grants in 2013 to fund integrated, research, education, and extension projects that seek to reduce agricultural use of energy, nitrogen, and water, and that increase carbon sequestration.  The RFA includes funding for a Regional Integrated CAP that addresses mitigation, adaptation, education, and outreach goals in a region, as well as a CAP supporting research and education activities by conventional breeders to develop new varieties adapted to changing climates.  The latter was a clear result of work supported by NSAC and many member and partner organizations and researchers to obtain farm bill language to make improved support for classical plant and animal breeding an AFRI priority.

Food Security

The Food Security RFA (pdf) made $19 million available in 2012 to fund integrated, research, education, and extension projects that improve food availability and food accessibility, focusing on research that addresses production challenges and that supports the development of sustainable food systems.  Of particular note is an integrated project that supports the development of local and regional food systems that will increase food security in disadvantaged U.S. communities and create viable local economies.

Childhood Obesity Prevention

The Childhood Obesity Prevention RFA (pdf) made $5 million available in 2012 to fund new integrated, research, education, and extension projects that contribute to reducing the prevalence of obesity among children and teens.  The RFA seeks to fund proposals that generate new knowledge, develop effective behavioral and environmental interventions, bring to scale effective interventions and assess their impacts, and increase the number of researchers, educators, and practitioners trained to address the problem of obesity.

Sustainable Bioenergy

The Sustainable Bioenergy RFA (pdf) made $11 million available in 2012 to fund new Regional Bioenergy CAPs and research grants to help meet the goal of 36 billion gallons/year of biofuels by 2022.  The Regional Bioenergy CAPs aim to support the development of regional systems of bioenergy production that reduce dependence on foreign oil; have net positive social, environmental, and rural economic impacts; and are integrated with current agricultural systems.

Food Safety

The Food Safety RFA (pdf) makes $10 million available in 2012 and 2013 to fund new integrated, research, education, and extension projects that seek to improve food safety through the development and implementation of detection technologies, traceability systems, and other strategies, and through increasing the number of food safety scientists.  The RFA focuses on particular pathogens and viruses, and includes research on multiple scales of production and processing.

The complete list of grant programs within AFRI, deadlines, and contact information for program leaders is available online.

NIFA issued a final rule on September 4, 2009, with general administrative rules that apply to all NIFA competitive grants programs, available at

Examples of Past Grant Recipients

In its first year, AFRI offered grants similar to those offered by its predecessors, the National Research Initiative and the Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems.  Examples of grants funded through those programs are listed below.  Examples of grants funded through the new AFRI program offered in subsequent years can be found in the following blog posts: Climate Change awards, Food Security awards, and Foundational Small and Medium-Sized Farms awards.

Managed Ecosystems

The University of Wisconsin-Madison received a $494,000 National Research Initiative grant in 2007 under the NRI Managed Ecosystems program to identify nutrient management practices that maximize grower returns and environmental efficiency for organic production of processing snap beans and sweet corn.Funded as an integrated research project, the researchers also plan to inform and train growers, processors, students, extension educators, and ag professionals on the economic and environment impacts of organic snap bean and sweet corn production.

Agricultural Prosperity for Small and Medium-Sized Farms

In 2006, the University of California-Davis received a $400,000 grant under the NRI Agricultural Prosperity for Small and Medium-Sized Farms program to assess the potential for profit in institutional markets for small and medium-sized farmers, and to determine if institutional markets can increase the use of environmentally sound production practices.Once the findings are complete, the researchers will recommend, through outreach activities including technical assistance, ‘best practices’ that will improve the market access and profitability of small and medium-sized producers.

In 2007, the University of Vermont and partners received a $468,000 grant for research, outreach and classroom education on farmland access and tenure for new farmers, farm succession challenges, and the impacts of tenure and succession arrangements on land use and the environment.

Farm Efficiency and Profitability

Fort Valley State University in Georgia received a $1.8 million grant in 2001, under the IFAFS Farm Efficiency and Profitability program to improve the profitability for small and minority farmers and farm related businesses located in the persistently poor, Black Belt Region in eight southern states.

Additional Resources

The current website for AFRI

Each AFRI national program area has its own program leader or program area contact.  The program leaders and their contact information will be available in each year’s RFA.  Programs that may be of particular interest to sustainable agriculture organizations and researchers, educators, and extension agents include, but are not limited to:

  • Small and Medium-Sized Farms (A1601)
  • Entrepreneurship, Technology, and Innovation (A1621)
  • Rural Families, Communities, and Regional Development (A1621)
  • Economics, Markets, and Trade (A1641)
  • Environment (A1651)
  • Plant Breeding for Agricultural Production (A1141)
  • Controlling Weedy and Invasive Plants (A1131)
  • Soil, Air, and Water Processes in Agroecosystems (A1401)
  • Addressing Critical and Emerging Food Safety Issues (A4141)
  • Effective Mitigation Strategies for Antimicrobial Resistance (A4171)
  • Sustainable Food Systems to Improve Food Security (A5141)
  • Enhanced Implementation of Integrated Pest Management for Vectored Pathogens (A5132)
  • Climate Change Mitigation and Adaption in Agriculture

For a list of all of the programs and contact information, click here.