February 23, 2015
Successful, sustainable farming systems rely on sound research to provide innovative solutions to the challenges that farmers of all kinds face on their farms every day, today and into the future.
Since 2008, the Agriculture Food and Research Initiative (AFRI), USDA’s largest competitive research grant program, has provided grants to universities and non-profit and private partners to conduct research, education, and extension activities on a wide range of topics. Through the efforts of NSAC and others, those topics now include new and improved crop varieties, the mechanics and structure of efficient local and regional food systems, farm-generated ecological services, and the profitability of the next generation of small and medium-sized farm owners and operators.
AFRI is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
On February 20, USDA announced the availability of nearly $160 million through AFRI, including $116 million for the AFRI “Foundational” program. In addition, special challenge areas will also receive funding as follows:
The challenge area for bioenergy will not be making new awards for FY 2015.
This post focuses on the foundation program. See the AFRI website for a full list of AFRI programs and corresponding RFAs.
The Request for Applications (RFA) for the Foundational program for Fiscal Year 2015 was published on February 18, and application deadlines for submitting proposals range from late March to late June.
The foundational program corresponds to the priorities for AFRI laid out by Congress in the past several farm bills, which were reaffirmed in the research title of the new 2014 Farm Bill. NIFA sets aside only a portion of total AFRI funds for these priorities, using a majority of AFRI funding for special administratively-designated “challenge” areas.
The foundation programs include six priority areas:
Seeds and Breeds
As other federal and state funding sources to support our nation’s public plant breeders have dried up, AFRI has become an even more important source of funding to support the development of new plant varieties and animal breeds. NSAC has been involved in this issue of “seeds and breeds” for several years, and has worked very closely with the administration to ensure that AFRI reflect the statutory priorities to fund conventional (or field based) research that seeks to develop regionally-adapted and publicly available varieties.
Within this year’s Foundational RFA, roughly $30 million will be available to fund research related to plant health and production, with a smaller subset of that funding to specifically support plant breeding research. This research may include cultivar development and participatory breeding, and research that incorporates field-based breeders are encouraged as well. Plant breeders are specifically encouraged to apply for funding in this year’s competition.
Unlike last year, conference grants will not be available to evaluate a region’s specific breeding needs, but instead will be offered to support conferences related to public-private collaboration in plant breeding and plant breeding education, training, and recruitment of the next generation of plant breeders.
Also of note, for the first time, organic production and organic systems are specifically mentioned under both program areas focusing on plant health and animal health. This is an encouraging sign that USDA recognizes the importance of supporting research that is relevant to all types of farming systems, including organic production systems.
Applications for the Plant Breeding program area are due April 3.
Agroecosystems & Environmental Economics
Similar to previous RFAs, this year’s Foundational program will make available $13 million to fund priorities related to natural resources and the environment, including the long-standing subprogram on Agroecosystem Management. This program area seeks projects that develop and evaluate innovative agro-ecosystem management practices and systems for their potential to enhance ecosystem services.
Proposals must address either the connection of biodiversity to production system functionality, productivity, socioeconomic viability, sustainability and the production of other ecosystem services; or new approaches that significantly increase the value of at least three ecosystem services.
A Letter of Intent is not required for this program and applications are due June 1o.
Funding is also available under the Environmental Economics program area to support research projects that examine the relationship between natural resources and the environment with agriculture and rural communities. Research topics may include:
A Letter of Intent is not required for this program and applications are due April 30.
Rural Communities and Small Farm Profitability
Roughly $16 million will be available to support projects involving social science research and economic analysis that informs decision making to enhance the sustainability of agricultural activities in rural areas, protect the environment, enhance quality of life, and alleviate poverty.
Within the Agricultural Economics and Rural Communities program area, potential research topics include the interactions between agriculture, environment, and communities in rural areas; demographic changes and impacts; consumer preferences or behavior; decision-making under uncertainty; crop insurance; availability of credit and financing; market structure and performance; and policy design and impact.
Specifically, within the Small and Medium-Sized Farms priority, funding is available to examine the viability and competitiveness of small and medium-sized farming operations, including projects that assess the impacts of changes in input costs and markets on farm entry, transition, and economic viability; develop effective strategies to aid in the development of local and regional food systems; enhance access to markets by small and medium-sized farms; new tools to ensure that the next generation of small and medium-sized farmers have access to the resources they need to be sustainable.
Within the program area on Innovation for Rural Entrepreneurs and Communities, funding is available to enhance economic opportunity and well-being of small businesses in agriculture, food systems and rural communities (beyond the farm gate), and to enhance the adoption of private strategies and public policy options to benefit the well- being and resilience of agricultural and rural communities.
Research may involve innovation in supply chains, technology transfer from universities to rural businesses, and improving the understanding of factors that enhance opportunities for food and agricultural rural businesses.
No letter of intent is required for these program areas and applications are due April 30.
Grant Types and How to Apply
Most projects are limited to a $400,000 total maximum grant amount for up to four years.
Organizations and researchers who are interested in applying should refer to the RFA to determine eligibility for a specific program area. Research only grants are open to a diversity of applicants, including colleges and universities as well as non-profit and private research organizations.
Integrated grants, which include a research and education, research and extension, education and extension, or all three, are limited to only colleges and universities. However, a non-profit or private organization can serve as a partner to a university on integrated proposals.
NSAC has longed protested this unnecessary and anti-competitive restriction, but USDA continues nonetheless to insist on restricting integrated grants, making AFRI a not fully competitive program and denying meritorious projects from federal research agencies, private labs, or non-profit organizations from the chance to compete for grant funding.
All applications must be submitted through Grants.gov by 5pm EST on the application deadline. Click here to download the complete RFA and application instructions.