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$180 Million Available for AFRI Research Grant Projects

June 6, 2018

Dr. Seth Murray, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research corn breeder from College Station, talks about his work during a field day. Photo credit: Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Li Zhang.

Dr. Seth Murray, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research corn breeder from College Station, talks about his work during a field day. Photo credit: Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Li Zhang.

Farmers face a variety of challenges on their operations every day (e.g., figuring out how to suppress weeds, minimize pest pressures organically, and determining which plant varieties grow best in their climate). Many of these challenges are becoming increasingly difficult to resolve and detrimental to farmers’ bottom lines, particularly those caused by climate change. In order to stay resilient, American family farmers rely on publicly funded agricultural research to help them continuously problem solve and innovate.

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), is the largest federal competitive grant program providing support to researchers, educators, and extension specialists to solve pressing challenges facing farmers and society. AFRI provides over 60 percent of total competitive grant funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Last week, NIFA released the Request for Applications (RFA) for AFRI’s “Foundational” Program. The foundational program supports a wide range of funding categories that have been designated by Congress through the federal farm bill. Over $180 million is available for new grants in 2018, $30 million more than last year as a result of increased congressional appropriations for AFRI. The additional funding will allow NIFA to fund a higher percentage of eligible research projects submitted as well as a more diverse range of research topics.

The fiscal year (FY) 2018 AFRI RFA outlines several key focus areas for potential grant recipients, several of which are focused on advancing sustainable agricultural systems. Details on these focus areas and additional information on the RFA follows.

Plant Health and Breeding

This program area includes projects that help to investigate and remediate factors that negatively affect plant productivity. Sample projects work to address challenges such as: food security, stewardship of natural resources, climate variability, organic production, loss of agricultural land, or increasing global competition. Public investment in plant breeding and plant health research is essential for food system resiliency.

In 2017, Funding for the “Plant Health and Production and Plant Products” program area was increased to $44 million from $33 in 2016. This year’s RFA maintains that increased funding at about $44 million. While the funding remained flat, this RFA includes two new program areas.

The RFA retains a request for projects that relate to the “Foundational Knowledge of Agricultural Production System” (deadline August 9). This priority focuses on increasing plant resiliency and associated issues such as soil health, and its scope includes crops, grassland, and forests as well as conventional, organic, and vertical farming. For this project area, up to $500,000 per project for up to 5 years is available.

For projects that focus on “Plant Breeding for Agricultural Production” (deadline July 25), the funding allocation ($500,000 for projects up to 5 years) remains the same as the 2017 level. This priority looks for projects that support breeding efforts to improve crop productivity, efficiency, quality, performance and/or local adaptation. Applications must address one or more of the following:

  • Pre-breeding and germplasm enhancement;
  • Locally adapted cultivar development;
  • Selection theory;
  • Applied quantitative genetics; and/or
  • Participatory breeding.

This year’s RFA also includes two new priority areas within the Plant Health program area. These include “Agricultural Microbiomes in Plant Systems and Natural Resources” (deadline September 26; up to $750,000 available for up to 4 years), which focuses on research to help fill major gaps in microbiome functions across agricultural production systems and natural resources. In addition, there is a priority area called “Agricultural Biosecurity Coordination Network” (deadline September 27; up to $1 million available for up to 5 years) that aims to facilitate greater sharing of knowledge and technological expertise amongst stakeholders across sectors.

Sustainable Agro-ecosystems and Data Sharing

Funding for the Bioenergy, Natural Resources, and Environment (BNRE) increased from $15 million in 2017, to over $21 million for the FY 2018 RFA. This increase is probably due to the inclusion of two new priority areas within the program area.

Like 2017, the RFA contains The Sustainable Agroecosystems priority, called the “Managed Ecosystems” program area prior to 2016 (deadline August 1; up to $500,000 available for up to 4 years). This priority area includes projects to improve soil health and agricultural resilience as well as projects to development management practices and farming systems that improve productivity while enhancing ecosystem services.

This RFA also contains the Networks for Synthesis, Data Sharing, and Management (deadline August 8; up to $500,000 available for up to 5 years), which works to foster communication that promotes collaboration among research, education, and extension faculty and research agencies and institutions with common interests across disciplinary, geographical, and organizational boundaries.

In addition to those priority areas, the BNRE program area also contains a Bioenergy and Biobased Product Feedstock Logistics priority area (deadline August 1; up to $1 million available for up to 4 years) that works to increase the diversity and effectiveness of equipment and systems to harvest, collect, store, pre-process, and transport higher amounts of biomass.

BNRE also includes a priority area on Agricultural Microbiomes in Plant Systems that will work with the same priority area under the Plant Health program area to create crosscutting solutions to challenges in both areas.

Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities

This year’s RFA allocates about $22.9 million to the Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities (AERC) program area, which is about a $4 million increase in funding to the program area. AERC focuses on the social sciences and research to examine and improve agriculture, the environment, and rural communities. This year, AERC includes a few new priority areas, in addition to those included in the FY2017 RFA.

Similar to the 2017 Foundational RFA, the “Small and Medium-sized Farms” (deadline August 23; up to $500,000 available for up to 4 years) program area priority seeks proposals that address issues related to the viability of family farms in an increasingly competitive market. This area seeks proposals related to a variety of challenges such as:

  • Effective strategies to meet the need of socially disadvantaged producers;
  • Outreach efforts that create opportunities for veterans to enter farming;
  • Research on land tenure, as well as opportunities and obstacles to land access and land transfer for younger farmers;
  • New tools for the next generation of small and medium-sized farm owners and operators;
  • Feasibility of small to mid-scale processing, including fresh/frozen fruits and vegetables, value-added processing for institutional buyers, and small scale meat processing);
  • Effective marketing strategies by small and medium-sized farms (including production contracts and local/regional markets;
  • The role of health insurance reform and access on the preservation of family farms and entry and retention of beginning farmers and farmworkers; and
  • The impact of regulations on farm-to-retail food distribution.

The “Economics, Market and Trade” (deadline August 30; up to $500,000 available for up to 4 years) priority area focuses on the application of economics in the areas of: agricultural market structure and performance; international trade; agricultural production and resource use; consumer behavior; farm labor and immigration and policy; agricultural policy design and impacts; technology development and adoption; and science and innovation policy.

This year the program priority area emphasizes policy, including the economics of crop insurance and commodity programs, trade policy, immigration policy, and intellectual property rights.

This RFA also includes the program priority area for the “Social Implications of Food and Agricultural Technologies” (deadline September 27; up to $500,000 available for up to 4 years), which was first added to the RFA last year. This area requests proposals for multidisciplinary projects looking to address the social, ethical, cultural, and legal implications of technological innovations in the agricultural sector.

The “Environmental and Natural Resource Economics” (deadline September 13; up to $500,000 available for up to 4 years) priority looks at the interrelationship of natural resources and the environment with agriculture and rural communities. This section calls for projects that look at:

  • Economic impacts or implications of agriculture, resource conservation and management on the environment;
  • Economics of conservation and environmental policies affecting agriculture and rural communities; and
  • Use of ecosystem service valuation to improve environmental policy design.

The “Innovation for Rural Entrepreneurs” (deadline July 31; up to $500,000 available for up to 4 years) priority area focuses on evaluating the institutional, social, or economic factors affecting decision making and policy development to enhance the growth and well-being of rural communities. This year, the program area priority has a new request for proposals that focus on challenges faced specifically by women and minorities in the field. In addition, the program calls for projects that look at:

  • Expanding local and regional food systems;
  • Determinants of household and community food security; and
  • Access to rural health care, including telemedicine and issues related to the opioid crisis.

In addition, this RFA has several new priority areas. The “Economic Implications and Applications of Big Data in Food and Agriculture” (deadline August 30; up to $500,000 available for up to 4 years) invites proposals that address how data can work to influence markers and food value chains.

NIFA has also partnered with ERS to create a priority area called “Center for Behavioral and Experimental Economics for Agri-Environmental and Risk Management Policy Research” (deadline September 13; up to $1 million available for up to 4 years). This will establish and fund a new center that will work to advance the use of behavioral and experimental economics to conduct research on how policies and programs can influence food and agricultural policies related to risk management and conservation.

This program area also has a new “Valuing Environmental Benefits from Natural Resource Conservation Programs” priority (deadline September 13; up to $500,000 available for up to 4 years) that encourages projects that shed light on how conservation practices work to provide ecosystem benefits. This is of great importance to the sustainable agriculture community and should help to quantify the impacts of crucial conservation methods.

Perhaps a drawback of these exciting new priority areas is that they make the field for grant funding increasingly more competitive. Although there was a modest increase in funding for the program area, all the additional priorities will make this competitive program even more difficult for stakeholders that lack economies of scale in their institutions and organizations. We urge NIFA to continue to be mindful of equity concerns throughout the grant review process.

2018 RFA Improvements

Each year, NSAC provides NIFA with suggestions on how to improve program RFAs to enhance the work of the sustainable agriculture community and further the mission of NIFA. This year’s RFA contains many improvements and incorporates some of the suggestions that NSAC provided to NIFA from FY2017. Based on those comments, the 2018 RFA:

  • Continues to include specific reference to potential research topics relevant to organic production systems within the Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities program area, in addition to other relevant AFRI Foundational programs;
  • Includes increased mention and pays specific attention to soil health, although it is not its own priority area;
  • Allows for and increases attention to research on plant microbe interactions on nutrition uptake, nutrient use efficiency, and crop competitiveness; and
  • Mentions “climate change” in the purpose of projects, as opposed to solely climate variability in 2017.

Other AFRI RFA Opportunities

In addition to the foundational RFA, AFRI recently released another RFA for the newly created “Sustainable Agriculture Systems” program area. The Sustainable Agriculture Systems program will focus on both rural and urban communities. Projects must suggest “transformational changes” that could be made to the U.S. food system within the next 25 years, and should advance societal benefits that improve quality of life across food and agriculture value chains. Total funding for this RFA is $80 million and NIFA aims to award 8 grants of about $10 million each. For more details, please reference the full RFA.

Eligibility & Application Information

Deadlines for the various program areas fall between July and September, but some priority areas require a letter of intent and therefore have earlier deadlines. All information related to dates and priority area-specific funding can be found in the Foundational RFA Document.

To further help inform which research is prioritized and ultimately funded, interested farmers and “agvocates” might consider serving on an AFRI peer review panel. All competitive grants offered by NIFA must go through a peer review process to identify high priority proposals to fund. For more information on serving on a peer review panel, see the RFA or check out our Advocacy Toolkit.

For more detailed information on AFRI, including eligibility and details on how to apply, please see NSAC’s Grassroots Guide on AFRI.                                                

Categories: Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension

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