Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative


Funding research, education, and extension to solve challenges facing organic producers

Organic agriculture has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry over the last two decades, and remains today one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture. Organic’s growth has been so strong, for example, that the organic food sector has created jobs at four times the national average in recent years.

Despite robust consumer demand, however, there is still limited research, education programs, and extension resources that support organic systems. Strong investments in research underpin growth in any sector, as all farmers – sustainable, organic, conventional, or otherwise – rely on cutting-edge research to maintain robust and thriving operations. 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 facing organic farmers.

Learn More About OREI:

Program Basics

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

Several legislatively-defined purposes have guided grantmaking since the program 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 and development that emphasizes innovation for working organic farms.
  • Examining optimal conservation, soil health, and environmental outcomes related to organic production.
  • Developing new and improved seed varieties particularly suited to organic agriculture.

Each fiscal year, NIFA prioritizes specific research areas, which are outlined in an annual Request for Applications (RFA). The following types of research projects are generally given high priority, however, priorities can change from year to year. Interested applicants should always check the RFA for further details before applying. Priority project types include:

  • Research and development of on-farm crop, livestock, or integrated livestock-crop for organic farms, including production, marketing, and socioeconomic considerations.
  • Development of educational tools for Cooperative Extension personnel and other educators who work with organic producers.
  • Evaluation, development, and improvement of allowable post-harvest handling, processing, and food safety practices.
  • Strengthening organic seed systems, including seed and transplant production and protection, plant breeding, and selection for organic production.
  • Exploration of technologies that meets the requirements of the National Organic Program and protect soil, water and other natural resources.
  • Development or improvement of systems-based animal production, animal health, and pest management practices.
  • Evaluation and selection of animal breeds and genotypes and breeds adapted to organic systems.
  • Development of new undergraduate and/or graduate curriculum in organic agriculture.
  • Identification of marketing, policy and other socioeconomic barriers to the expansion of organic agriculture and the development of strategies to address them.

There are several types of grants offered through OREI that are capped at various amounts. These include:

  • Multi-regional grants address critical issues that cut across multiple regions. Maximum award: $2 million
  • Regional grants address issues that may be limited to a single region. Maximum award: $1 million
  • Targeted grants are narrower in scope or locality specific. Maximum award: $500,000
  • Curriculum Development grants lend assistance in the development of new undergraduate or graduate curriculum in organic agriculture. Maximum award: $250,000
  • Conference grants involve workshops or symposiums designed to bring together scientists and other stakeholders around advancing or understanding organic issues. Maximum award: $50,000
  • Planning grants provide assistance in developing future proposals that require multi-regional and regional coordination. Maximum award: $50,000

Refer to the most recent RFA for additional details on each of these grant types.

Eligibility 

A variety of private and public organizations are eligible to apply for grant funding through OREI. All applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with organic producers for both the design and implementation of the proposed project. State agricultural experiment stations, all colleges and universities, other research institutions and organizations, federal agencies, national laboratories, private organizations, corporations, and individuals are eligible to apply for OREI grants.

Projects must include a local or regional advisory panel throughout the duration of the grant. The advisory panel helps identify and prioritize research, education, and extension goals and should include organic producers and/or processors.

Fieldwork for proposed projects must be done on certified organic land or on land in transition to organic certification. A certified organic setting is not required for clinical trials for animal health research.

Proposals should not have significant overlap in objectives and scope with proposals submitted simultaneously to the Organic Transition (ORG) program by the same applicant.

The Program in Action

OREI has had a significant, positive 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 distributed 198 grants worth over $170 million. Awardees of OREI project grants have been diverse, and include universities like Oregon State University, Clemson University, and University of Wisconsin; NGOs like the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES); and agencies like the Colorado Department of Agriculture and the Agricultural Research Service.

Recently funded projects include:

  • Conference Grant: MOSES received an OREI grant to convene their “Mapping the Future of Organic Research 2051” (“Organic 2051”) conference. Organic 2051, hosted February 2019, brought together 100 members of the organic community to strategize around the goals, needs and plans for organic systems for the next 30 years. Organic 2051 aims to address market, policy and other socioeconomic barriers to the expansion of organic agriculture in the U.S. and develop strategies to overcome them. (Awarded: $50,000)
  • Cultivar Development: Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) partnered with Oregon State University on their project to increase grower access to improved vegetable cultivars adapted to organic systems as part of the . The overall long-term goal of NOVIC3 is to increase the proportion of U.S. agriculture that is managed organically. To achieve this goal, OSA and Oregon State aim to provide organic growers with greater access to improved vegetable cultivars that are adapted to organic systems. (Awarded: $1.99 million)
  • Weed Management: The University of Maine undertook a project to develop and demonstrate how advanced weed management practices integrating seedbank management and stacked cultivation can decrease weed populations and increase profitability. Part of their research involves engaging a network of farmer experts, equipment manufacturers and suppliers who use and share data to improve weed management. (Awarded: $1.95 million)

Learn more about OREI and other organic programs in action:

How to Apply and Program Resources

Each year, NIFA publishes a Request for Applications (RFA) for OREI, usually in the spring, which provides details on funding priorities and required application materials. Applicants are typically given at least 60 days to prepare their application, though this window may change from year to year. Applicants are required to register and submit their applications electronically via Grants.gov.

Both new applications and resubmitted applications can be considered for funding. Applications are first reviewed for compliance with the administrative requirements of OREI (as outlined in the RFA), and then a peer review panel will rank those that comply based on the scientific merit and relevancy of each proposal.

OREI requires a 100 percent match if the project provides “a particular benefit to a specific agricultural commodity.” However, NIFA may waive the matching requirement if the agency determines that the:

  • Results of the project, while of particular benefit to a specific commodity, are likely to be applicable to agricultural commodities generally.
  • Project involves a minor commodity, the project deals with scientifically important research, and the grant recipient is unable to satisfy the matching fund requirement.

This means that OREI funding can be available for applicants unable to meet the match, if they qualify for the waiver or include multiple commodities. Additional details on OREI matching requirements can be found on the NIFA website.

Additional instructions on how to apply can be found on the NIFA website.

Read about the latest news about sustainable agricultural research 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.

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. The 2002 Farm Bill provided $15 million in mandatory funding over five years, or $3 million for research grants each 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.

Unfortunately, due to Congress’s inability to pass the subsequent farm bill on time, the program’s authorization and funding expired on Sept 30, 2012, and no funding was available for FY 2013. The 2014 Farm Bill (passed in February 2014) restored program funding, providing $20 million in mandatory annual funding for OREI for FY 2014 through 2018.

Following a robust advocacy campaign by NSAC and our allies in the organic community, permanent mandatory funding was secured for OREI in the 2018 Farm Bill. Funding levels in FY 2019 and FY 2020 will start at $20 million per year, ramping up to $50 million in permanent baseline funding by FY 2023. Permanent baseline funding ensures that OREI will no longer have to negotiate funding from scratch every five years when a new farm bill is revisited. The organic sector now has much-needed assurance that continued research funding will be available to address the ever evolving pest, disease and other challenges facing organic farmers.

The 2018 Farm Bill also repealed the strict matching requirements imposed by the previous farm bill for most competitive grant programs – including OREI, and expanding research priorities to also include soil health.

Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative Funding Levels

Fiscal Year Total Funding (in millions)
2019 $20
2020 $20
2021 $25
2022 $30
2023 $50

Please note: The funding levels in the chart above show the amount of mandatory funding reserved by the 2018 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 7210 of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, amends Section 1672B of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, to be codified at 7 U.S.C. 5925b.


Last updated in April 2019.