September 8, 2020
No matter the scale, location, or type of operation, every farmer faces a variety of challenges on their farms every day – from figuring out how to suppress weeds and minimize pest pressures organically to determining which plant varieties grow best in their region. Many of these challenges are becoming increasingly difficult to resolve and detrimental to farmers’ bottom lines, particularly those caused by climate change.
Research is essential to helping farmers problem solve and underpins every aspect of successful and viable farming, whether it’s a fifth generation commodity producer looking to diversify their crop rotation, or a beginning farmer interested in tapping into the huge unmet demand for grassfed beef.
The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is the largest federal ag research grant program providing support to researchers, educators, and extension specialists to solve pressing challenges facing farmers and society. AFRI provides roughly half of total competitive grant funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
NIFA recently released the Request for Applications (RFA) for AFRI’s “Foundational” Program. The foundational program supports a wide range of research priorities that have been established by Congress through the farm bill. Over $290 million is available for new grants in 2021, $100 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 projects.
As in past years, foundational funds are awarded to projects for periods up to five years. Funding is allocated across the program’s six overarching priorities (mandated by Congress) as follows:
Each of the six priority areas contains sub-priorities that align with the strategic goals of the AFRI program. In addition, this year’s RFA includes an additional $32 million to support cross-cutting programs that address more than one priority area.
The fiscal year (FY) 2020 and 2021 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.
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.
This year’s RFA includes a $22 million boost in funding for plant-based research projects. NSAC has been advocating for the past decade for increased public investments in plant breeding research and are excited to see this much needed boost in funding.
We’re also pleased to see a much needed increased in the total amount of funding researchers can receive to support their critical plant breeding research. Plant breeders can now receive up to $500,000 for cultivar development projects (over 5 years) and up to $650,000 for plant breeding research (over 3-4 years).
All types of production systems are eligible for funding under this program – including breeding for conventional, organic, or “protected systems” which include hydroponics, aquaponics, and vertical farming.
For more details, see page 9 of the RFA.
The Bioenergy, Natural Resources, and Environment program area strives to promote, improve, and maintain healthy agroecosystems essential to the long-term production of agricultural systems. Projects are highly encouraged to partner with existing research networks such as the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network (LTAR), the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER), National Agricultural Library Ag Data Commons, and others.
Several sub program areas under this research priority of keen interest to the sustainable agriculture community, including research on:
We are excited to see a focus on ecosystem services, carbon sequestration, impacts of climate change, biodiversity and resilience in this program area, and encourage researchers and partners interested in sustainable agriculture to consider applying.
For more details, see page 37 of the RFA.
The Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities (AERC) program area looks at economic and social science research to help in decision-making, policy, and implementation to promote rural economies, quality of life, and natural resources. This interdisciplinary program also focuses on commodity policies, crop insurance, and food security and market preferences. Key sub-program areas include those for Small and Medium-Sized Farms and Rural Economic Development.
New this year, is a focus on research projects that evaluate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic across agriculture, especially on domestic and international markets, food supply chain, farmers, youth and rural communities.
Social science researchers interested in issues facing sustainable agriculture will find many other opportunities for critical research, including in these areas of interest:
Issues Facing Value-added Producers and Local/Regional Food Systems
Issues Facing Beginning Farmers and Farmers of Color
Issues Facing Small-scale Livestock Producers
For more details, see page 51 of the RFA.
As in recent years, the RFA solicits applications for two fiscal years – FY 2021 (beginning on September 1, 2020) and FY 2022 (beginning on September 1, 2021). However, applicants who are interested in submitting an application for funding for FY 2022 should check back next year as NIFA expects to release an updated funding announcement.
Grant application deadlines vary by program and are between May and July 2021 for FY 2021 applications, and between August and September 2022 for FY 2022 applications. Additionally, some priority areas require a letter of intent and therefore have earlier deadlines.
See the chart on page 4 of the RFA for specific program deadlines.
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.