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USDA Awards $32 Million for Rural Development and Food Security Research

May 6, 2016

Agriculture Research Service (ARS) plant pathologist examines sorghum seeds. Photo credit: USDA.

Agriculture Research Service (ARS) plant pathologist examines sorghum seeds. Photo credit: USDA.

Success in agriculture requires not only hardworking farmers and ranchers, but also innovative researchers, agronomists, and other scientists. As the U.S Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) largest competitive grants research program the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program awards grants for experiments and research projects that address a variety of challenges faced by farmers, rural communities, and consumers.

Earlier this week USDA announced $32.1 million in awards funding for two research program areas of AFRI that focus on the unique challenges of small-medium sized farms and sustainable producers.

$15.6 million of the funding was announced for the Agriculture and Rural Communities foundational program, which supports four AFRI program areas: Innovations for Rural Entrepreneurs, Small and Medium-sized Farms, Agricultural Economics and Rural Communities- Environment and Natural Resources, and Agricultural Economics and Rural Communities- Economics, Markets and Trade.

$16.5 million of the funding is dedicated to AFRI’s Sustainable Crop and Livestock Production Methods program, which helps producers to enhance food security. This funding is part of AFRI’s Food Security challenge area, which has awarded more than $219 million in grant funding since 2010.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has long championed greater support for sustainable production methods, public-seed breeding, and small-medium farm issues within AFRI. As part of our ongoing efforts to support grant funding in these areas, we have highlighted some of the most interesting sustainable agriculture projects from this year’s grantees:

Small and Medium-Sized Farms:

These grants support research to provide farmers with market assessments and tools to help them make smarter decisions about risk management, supply chains barriers and accessing new markets. Ten such projects were selected for funding in this round of applications, including:

  • Alabama A&M University received $480,000 to establish turmeric as a high value medicinal crop to sustain small farms in Alabama. The research project will screen turmeric growth, quality, and yield; perform market assessments; and educate farmers on effective marketing strategies for fresh turmeric.
  • Tuskegee University received $480,000 to develop agroforestry-based cropping systems for small and medium-sized landowners in the southeastern U.S. This project will develop sustainable alley cropping and silvo-pasture systems that promote long-term soil productivity and generate both long-term and short-term yields from crops, livestock and trees.
  • Tufts University received $479,194 for research on overcoming supply chain barriers to expanding northeast ruminant meat production. This project will measure the current aggregate capacity to slaughter and process all animals sold for market in the region, seasonal variability in access to meat processing, the spatial distribution of processing infrastructure, and the biological capacity to expand grass-fed beef production in areas where demand and infrastructure exist.
  • North Carolina State University received $469,771 to build university market opportunities for small and mid-sized growers and to strengthen local food systems. The university will partner with six other campuses serving minority communities with the objective of identifying the current status of food supply chains on those campuses.
  • Syracuse University received $478,342 to assess intermediated marketing channels for beginning farmers and ranchers to enhance farm viability. This project will examine how using intermediated channels (such as food hubs, co-ops or other distributors) affects farm profitability, as well as assess market risks and the effectiveness of current technical assistance programs that support beginning farmers using these channels.
  • University of Wisconsin received $425,000 to research domestic fair trade for farms that fall in the “Agriculture of the Middle” scale, where labor is not adequately compensated in the marketplace. This project will conduct case studies to investigate the distinct labor markets within three supply chains: dairy, perennial fruits, and annual vegetable production. The investigation will consider a full range of system drivers affecting labor markets including farmer-led, consumer-led and supply chain-led factors.

Innovations for Rural Entrepreneurs

Research for rural development supports 60 million rural Americans across the country. A total of 25 projects were selected for research to support rural development, with eight projects specifically designated for the Innovations for Rural Entrepreneurs category. Two entrepreneurial projects are highlighted below:

  • University of Vermont received $494,110 to research how to expand rural economies through new markets for farmers and retailers. This project will focus on how using farm fresh food boxes will bring additional direct marketing opportunities without the time investment or food waste of a farmer’s market. The university will partner with Washington State University and the University of California to build extension and research teams for the project.
  • University of Wisconsin received $498,212 to map opportunities for converting start-ups into cooperative enterprises. The research will assess the survival rate of cooperatives relative to other firms, map existing cooperatives and identify businesses with the potential to transform to a cooperative, ultimately enabling regional cooperative development for sustained rural entrepreneurship. 

Food Security

The fourteen projects under AFRI’s Food Security challenge area address methods for improving crop production in the face of pests, diseases and a changing climate. The research projects cover topics including: using advanced technology, such as spatial imagery and improved plant breeding; managing intensive data collection; and analysis for the purpose of improving agricultural yields of wheat, beef, vegetables and honey bees. Several projects also focused on ways to mitigate the environmental impacts of over-fertilization, greenhouse gas emissions and lack of cover crop use.

  • University of Kentucky received $120,000 to enhance wheat breeding through the selection of disease-resistant varieties that also function well in a variable climatic environment. This project will develop robust wheat varieties that are able to resist disease in the context of significantly warmer temperatures, and will provide information to breeders on how to routinely incorporate climate change into a breeding program.
  • University of Maryland received $2,397,840 to improve honeybee colony health by validating and refining best management practices (BMP). The goal of researchers is to test and promote the adoption of BMP derived from five years of data collected through the Bee Informed Partnership on colony management practices. The project will help to develop colony management practices that are regionally, economically, culturally and operationally appropriate.
  • Michigan State University received $2,327,840 to develop an improved production system for high-value crops (typically vegetables) at risk from downy mildew, a devastating disease. This project will track downy mildew occurrence in cucumber, melon, pumpkin, squash and basil crops across the country, as well as breed varieties of basil, spinach and cucumber that are resistant to downy mildew.
  • South Dakota State University received $2,382,840 to integrate crop-livestock production systems in the Great Plains area using long-term data on soils, crop performance and environmental parameters. This project will increase awareness and engagement among farmers toward adopting integrated crop-livestock operations, which can improve crop productivity and provide ecosystem benefits such as restoring grasslands.

Agriculture Food and Research Initiative

The $31.6 million in funding for these research grants is to be drawn from $325 million in available AFRI funding from fiscal year 2015.

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, AFRI also solicits grant proposals under five “societal challenge” programs. These grants are variable and cover a range of topics as chosen by the President’s Administration, examples may include: 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.

AFRI is the largest competitive grant research program within USDA and is administered by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture. Although funding for AFRI has steadily increased since its inception in 2008, it has consistently been funded at less than half of its intended allocation under the farm bill. To find out more about AFRI, please refer to NSAC’s Grassroots Guide.

Categories: Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension

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