Organic Agriculture Research & Extension 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, education, and extension to solve challenges facing organic producers

Organics have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry over the last two decades and are one of the fastest growing sectors of agriculture – the organic food sector has been creating jobs at four times the national average in recent years. However, a major challenge facing organic producers is the lack of sufficient, appropriate, and relevant research, education programs, and extension resources. A strong investment in research underpins growth in any sector, as all farmers – sustainable, organic, conventional, or otherwise – need cutting-edge research that is easily accessible and relevant to their farming systems.  The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) helps fill the void of knowledge by supporting research projects that specifically address the most critical challenges that organic farmers face in their fields every day.

Learn More About OREI!

Program Basics

OREI is administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and is a competitive research program that funds research, education, and extension projects to enhance the ability of organic producers and processors to grow and market high quality organic agricultural products.

Several legislatively-defined purposes have guided grantmaking under the program since it was first established in 2002. These include:

  • Facilitating the development and improvement of organic agriculture production, breeding, and processing methods;
  • Evaluating the potential economic benefits of organic agriculture to producers, processors, and rural communities;
  • Exploring international trade opportunities for organic commodities;
  • Determining desirable traits for organic commodities;
  • Identifying marketing and policy constraints on the expansion of organic agriculture;
  • Conducting advanced on-farm research that emphasizes innovation for working organic farms;
  • Examining optimal conservation and environmental outcomes related to organic production; and
  • Developing new and improved seed varieties suited to organic agriculture.

Each year, NIFA may prioritize specific high priority research areas, which are outlined in the Request for Applications (RFA) that is released each fiscal year. The following types of research projects were given priority consideration for FY 2014, but these priorities can change from year to year, so check the RFA for a particular year for further details:

  • Projects that emphasize innovation for organic farms in production, marketing, and socioeconomic issues;
  • Development of educational tools for Cooperative Extension personnel and other educators who work with organic producers;
  • Projects that evaluate, develop, and improve allowable post-harvest handling, processing, and food safety practices;
  • Projects that strengthen organic seed systems, including seed and transplant production and protection, plant breeding, and selection for organic production;
  • Projects that explore technology that meets the requirements of the National Organic Program and that can control weeds and pests while maintaining healthy water resources;
  • Development or improvement of systems-based animal production, animal health, and pest management practices; and
  • Projects that catalog, characterize, and/or select animal genotypes and breeds adapted to organic systems.

Awards of up to $2 million are allowed for standard grants; $100,000 for conference and analytical grants; and $50,000 for planning grants.


A variety of private and public organizations are eligible to apply for funding through OREI, but there must be farmer involvement in both the design and implementation of the proposed research project. State agricultural experiment stations, all colleges and universities, other research institutions and organizations, federal agencies, national laboratories, private organizations, corporations, and individuals are able to apply for OREI grants.

Projects must have a local or regional advisory panel and many projects involve farmers in on-farm research. The advisory panel should be involved with the project throughout its life and help identify and prioritize research, education, and extension goals.

Fieldwork of proposed projects must be done on certified organic land or on land in transition to organic certification. Additionally, farmers are encouraged to serve on the peer review panel that evaluates the scientific merit and relevancy of proposed projects. Interested farmers should contact the National Program Leader listed in the RFA for additional information.

The Program in Action

OREI has been around for almost a decade, and is having a real impact on the profitability and productivity of organic farms of all kinds across the country – whether they specialize in organic fruit, fresh market vegetables, grains, livestock, or cotton. Since 2004, OREI has made 111 grants worth over $84 million. Over that same period, organizations in 37 states received grants with Washington State leading the way with 11 total grants and New York State receiving the largest dollar amount at over $8.1 million in grant awards.

Recently funded projects include:

  • Cornell University researchers partnered with local farmers and nonprofit organizations to develop regionally adapted heritage grain varieties and information on growing practices needed to meet the growing demand for organically and locally produced wheat — particularly among the region’s bakeries, breweries, and distilleries. Read more about this project on the NSAC blog.
  • The Farmers Legal Action Group used grant funds to develop a farmer’s guide to understanding organic contracts – specifically as they related to USDA’s National Organic Program regulations and certification.

See additional examples of funded projects on our blog:

How to Apply and Program Resources

From 2004 to 2008, USDA administered OREI jointly with the Organic Transitions Research Program (ORG) to form the Integrated Organic Program (IOP).  Starting in 2009, NIFA began releasing two separate Requests for Applications, one for each program, which can be found on the NIFA website.

Both new applications and resubmitted applications can be considered, including integrated research, education, and extension grants as well as conference and analytical grants which support workshops and activities to identify the research needs of organic producers and advance the understanding of organic issues using a systems based approach.

Applications are first reviewed for compliance with the administrative requirement of OREI. Those that comply are ranked by a peer review panel utilizing a point system.

The new matching grant provision written into the 2014 Farm Bill applies to OREI grants. 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 the research was on a minor commodity, was important scientific research, and 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” roll 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.

Additional information on how to apply can be found on the program website

Read about the latest news about OREI on our blog!

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

Over the past decade, OREI has invested millions of dollars into research that has helped farmers grow and market organic agricultural products and has helped to underpin the tremendous growth the organic sector has seen over the past ten years.

OREI was first created in the 2002 Farm Bill thanks to the advocacy of NSAC and the Organic Farming Research Foundation — an NSAC member and longtime OREI champion — and was provided $15 million in mandatory funding, or $3 million for research grants per year. Due to the program’s early success and consistently high demand, the 2008 Farm Bill increased mandatory funding for OREI to $78 million over the next four years, and provided roughly $20 million each year to fund new and continuing projects.

Unfortunately, due to Congress’s inability to pass another farm bill on time, the program’s authorization and funding expired on Sept 30, 2012, and no funding was available for Fiscal Year 2013. The 2014 Farm Bill finally passed in February 2014 and provides $20 million in mandatory annual funding for OREI for Fiscal Years 2014 through 2018. This is the same level of funding it had from 2010-12 under the 2008 Farm Bill. The 2014 Farm Bill did not provide any funding outside of 5 years, so the program will need additional funding to continue to make grants beyond Fiscal Year 2018.

This missed year of funding was truly a missed investment into the organic research that would have otherwise been funded. With this built up demand for research funding for organic projects, we expect future funding cycles to be extremely competitive.

Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative Funding Levels

Fiscal Year Total Funding (in millions)
2014 $20
2015 $20
2016 $20
2017 $20
2018 $20
5 yr $100
10 yr $100

Please note: The funding levels in the chart above show the amount of mandatory funding reserved by the 2014 Farm Bill for this program to be provided through USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation.  However, Congress does at times pass subsequent appropriations legislation that caps the funding level for a particular year for a particular program at less than provided by the farm bill in order to use the resulting savings to fund a different program. In addition, OREI is subject to automatic cuts as part of an annual sequestration process established by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Therefore, despite its “mandatory” status, the funding level for a given year could be less than the farm bill dictates should the Appropriations Committees decide to raid the farm bill to fund other programs under its jurisdiction.

Authorizing Language

Section 7211 of the Agricultural Act of 2014, amends Section 1672B of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, 7 U.S.C. 5925(b).

Last updated in Sept 2016.