Agriculture & Food Research Initiative

Important Update:

Please note that the Grassroots Guide has not yet been updated to reflect changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill, which was passed and signed into law in December 2018. We are in the process of updating the Guide and expect to publish an updated version in the spring of 2019. In the meantime, please use this guide for basic information about programs and important resources and links for more information, but check with USDA for any relevant program changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill. Also, check out our blog series covering highlights from the new farm bill. 

Funding research to address key problems of regional, national and international importance in sustaining agriculture

An important and inevitable aspect of farming is confronting the many challenges that every farmer will face at some point on their farms. These challenges can range from figuring out how to suppress weeds or minimize pest pressures organically to comparing which plant varieties grow best in any given growing condition or climate. Farmers rely on publicly funded agricultural research to help develop solutions for the challenges they face in their fields every day. Publicly funded research also informs food system issues related to nutrition, food safety, and public health, as well as a plethora of social and environmental issues. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is the largest federal research program that provides competitive grants to researchers to solve pressing challenges facing farmers and society.

Learn More About AFRI!

Program Basics

AFRI is the largest competitive grants research program offered by USDA and is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – formerly known as the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). AFRI provides grants for fundamental and applied research, extension, and education to address key challenges that farmers, rural communities and consumers face including farm efficiency and profitability, renewable energy, urban and agroforestry, aquaculture, rural communities and entrepreneurship, human nutrition, food safety, biotechnology, and conventional plant and animal breeding.

AFRI grant programs solicit research, education, and extension proposals on the following research topics:

  • 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
  • Agriculture economics and rural communities

In addition to these “foundational” programs as prescribed by Congress in the farm bill, AFRI also solicits grant proposals under five “societal challenge” programs on a variety of topics chosen by the Administration, including climate change, food safety, food security, childhood obesity, sustainable bioenergy, and water issues. AFRI also offers pre- and post-doctoral fellowships relating to the topic areas listed above.

More information on the specific priorities under each of these sub-programs within AFRI can be found in the Requests for Applications, which are published on the NIFA website.


The eligibility for AFRI programs is linked to the program of interest. For non-integrated grants (research only, education only, or extension only) eligibility extends to state agriculture experiment stations, colleges, universities, federal agencies, other research institutions, national laboratories, private and nonprofit organizations, and corporations. Integrated research, education, and extension program eligibility is currently restricted by NIFA to colleges and universities only, in contradiction to the eligibility rules mandated by the farm bill. See the individual program RFA for additional details on eligibility and restrictions.

The Program in Action 

Since its creation in 2008, the AFRI program has invested over $1.5 billion into researching solutions to the many problems farmers face in their fields every day, along with the challenges that agriculture and our society is likely to face into the future. According to the most recent data available, AFRI has funded over 1,204 research projects in all 50 states between 2009 and 2011.

AFRI research grants have ranged from multi-million dollar projects that engage multiple research institutions across a region to smaller grants to individual researchers looking for an answer to a single, discrete research question.

Within the AFRI grant portfolio, 66 projects totaling $21 million have been funded through 2013 to support research topics that address the profitability and viability of small and medium-sized family farms.

Examples of how researchers across the country have used the AFRI program include:

  • Wisconsin researchers are using AFRI funding to analyze the key ingredients in community and regional food systems and the role local organizations play in these food systems.
  • A multi-institutional project led by University of California researchers received an AFRI grant to work on developing new varieties of wheat and barley that will tolerate changes in climate.
  • Researchers at the University of Idaho received AFRI funding for a project researching how to increase prosperity for small farmers through sustainable livestock production, processing, and marketing.
  • University of Vermont researchers received funding to study the connections and interactions between people (including farmers, consumers, and residents of rural communities), place (rural communities and others connected to farming communities), and prosperity (farm income, health of local communities, and quality of life for farmers and farm families).
  • Kansas State University researchers received funding for a study on the ability and willingness of small and medium size farmers to intensify on-farm conservation efforts to provide carbon offsets for an established carbon market in the Midwest.  In order to do so, the project will develop a natural resource farm management tool that assesses potential for carbon sequestration, and will also examine small and medium size farmers’ willingness to intensify cropping practices in order to participate.

How to Apply and Program Resources

Each year the AFRI Requests for Applications (RFA) are published on the NIFA website – generally sometime in the late fall or winter. Proposal guidelines and submission deadlines are outlined in the RFA.

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.

Peer review panels are assembled for each AFRI subprogram within the Foundational and Challenge Grant RFAs. This panel is comprised of researchers and other experts in the field for which the program is soliciting applications, and reviewers meet in person to evaluate and rank each proposal based on relevance and scientific merit.

Farmers, non-profit researchers and other stakeholders are encouraged to participate in the peer review process and should contact the National Program Leader listed in the RFA or visit the AFRI website to find out more information on how to apply or serve on the peer review panel.

Read about the latest news about agricultural research on our blog!

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

The 2008 Farm Bill created the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which took 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 2008 Farm Bill added five new grant categories to those that already existed under either the NRI or IFAFS, including:

  • Conventional (classical) plant breeding
  • Conventional (classical) animal breeding
  • Renewable energy
  • Domestic marketing strategies
  • Rural entrepreneurship

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 2008 Farm Bill lengthened 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.

The 2014 Farm Bill made additional changes to AFRI. It adds additional priorities related to zoonotic diseases, the effectiveness of conservation practices in addressing nutrient losses, and the economic costs, benefits and viability of producers adopting conservation practices.

The 2014 Farm Bill also reauthorizes the program and continues the authorization for appropriations of up to $700 million for each of Fiscal Years 2014 through 2018. In recent years, the annual agricultural appropriation passed by Congress has provided over $300 million for AFRI, increasing steadily since the program was first created in 2008. Whether and how fast that total funding level increases in the future will be a matter for the annual agricultural appropriations bills to determine.

Under the 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.

AFRI Program Funding 

Year Annual Funding (in millions)
2013 $275
2014 $316
2015 $325
2016 $350
2017 $375

For the most current information on program funding levels, please see NSAC’s Annual Appropriations Chart.

Authorizing Language

Section 7404 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 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).

Last updated in September 2016.