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USDA Research Investments Explore Profitability & Viability of Small and Medium-Sized Farms

August 20, 2019


Rogers Farm Forage and Crop Research Facility, Maine. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.
Rogers Farm Forage and Crop Research Facility, Maine. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced awards totaling $5.8 million for 16 research projects that will support research on the continued viability and profitability of small and medium sized farms. These grants were awarded as part of the Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities (AERC) program area of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s (AFRI) 2018 Foundational program.

The AERC program area focuses on ways to address on-farm challenges, as well as the promotion of sustainable social, economic, and resilient rural communities. Given the increasing consolidation of farm operations across the United States, small and medium-sized farms have an especially important role to play in strengthening and supporting rural communities.

AERC’s small and medium-sized farm research grants are focused on developing new models and technologies to help farmers increase their operations’ viability and competitiveness. There is also a particular focus within AERC on research into scaling up fruit and vegetable production, overcoming market constraints, and alternative crop and marketing enterprises.

Awarded projects in fiscal year (FY) 2018 included mostly land-grant institutions and universities from all regions of the U.S., including Puerto Rico. Major research themes included but were not limited to: organic vegetable production, livestock (dairy), and conservation and succession of woodlands. Highlights from notable projects are included below. For a complete list of FY 2018 projects click here.

Rural Coalition – Scaling Up Rural Resilience

The Rural Coalition, a grassroots member-based, non-profit organization, received $50,000 for their project, Scaling up Rural Resilience Research Forum: Best Farm Business and Conservation Practices for Minority, Veteran and New Entry Producers. The forum will convene a diverse representation of farmer and farmworker leaders across the country to discuss best practices that address challenges facing underserved farmers.

The project’s objectives include:

  • Creating awareness and preparing historically underserved farmers and ranchers to navigate new opportunities and challenges in accessing USDA programs.
  • Expanding shared knowledge of conservation, production and cooperative practices through a review of previous research and field findings from farmer-researcher teams from diverse locations.
  • Identifying and refining strategies diverse groups have derived in their program work to address opportunities, challenges faced, and barriers to participation and progress for minority, veteran, and new entry producers, especially young farmers and farmworkers.
  • Assisting participants to develop a collaborative research plan to further field test ideas they are employing to enhance technical assistance toolboxes and better equip farmers they serve to grow agriculture as the basis for resilience in their rural communities.

Rural Coalition will focus on ongoing work around the theme of scaling up with contributions from young, new entry producers and farmworkers, as well as veterans transitioning to farming.

University of Florida – New Market Opportunities

Small and medium farms often face unique challenges affecting their adoption of best management practices (BMPs) and their ability to increase or maintain profitability and environmental stewardship. This project, Improving Profitability and Environmental Stewardship for Small and Medium-Sized Farms by Identifying New Market Opportunities, seeks to bridge this information gap.

With an award of $499,889, researchers at the University of Florida will be identifying specific needs of small and medium farms and designing customized BMP policies and programs that are economically viable and have a greater likelihood of adoption by these farms. The main objectives include determining small and medium-sized specialty crop farms’ barriers and opportunities for adoption of specific sustainable practices, along with market information that affect BMP adoption and profitability. The project will also determine consumers’ current perceptions and attitudes towards sustainable agriculture and their willingness to pay for various BMP labels representing different practices. Additionally, implementing an Extension program to enable small and medium-sized growers develop skills and utilize decision tools will also be considered.

The results of this multi-year project aim to help small and medium-sized farms’ gain extra income using new market opportunities.

University of Idaho – Supporting Women Farmers

There is a striking gender disparity across U.S. agriculture. According to USDA Census data, women farmers operate fewer and much smaller farms compared to farms operated by men. Women farmers especially rely on off-farm income for their livelihood. Therefore, there is a need for research and technical support for women farmers in achieving agricultural goals.

The University of Idaho’s researchers will use a series of tools to explore the root causes of women’s disadvantages in farming and ranching to better understand these discrepancies. The main goal of this research is to not only better understand the barriers that affect women farmers, but to design tools that will help support them to navigate these hurdles.

This research will involve a series of focus groups to solicit feedback from women farmers on their experiences so that regional differences can be identified. The project, “Women Farmers on the Rise in the U.S. and Idaho: Understanding and Supporting Women Farm Operators,”  which was awarded $499,999, will comprise of a written survey for 650 randomly selected women operators in Idaho to allow the researchers to delve deeper into questions that emerge from the national-level analyses. In collaboration with Extension, recommendations coming out of this research will be publicly disseminated.

Mississippi State University – Heir’s Property Collaborative

The Southern Region Heir’s Property Collaborative is a project done in collaboration with the Southern Rural Development Center (SRDC), its research and Extension land-grant university (LGU) faculty partners, the Southern Extension Risk Management Education Center (SRMEC), Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (S-SARE) program, the North Central Extension and Research Activity (NCERA2172), and relevant non-LGU stakeholders. The collaborative was awarded $199,992 to establish integrated work groups across research disciplines, states, and Extension to address issues related to heir’s properties (i.e., land tenure and land loss) in the South.

The main objectives of this collaborative is to:

  • Survey the South’s LGU system and non-LGU partners identified to determine existing resources (Extension and research) and identify gaps in materials available to assist individuals, families, and communities struggling to address heirs’ property issues.
  • Catalogue resources identified and develop a repository to host materials.
  • Estimate the regional impacts of underdeveloped land and depreciating housing stock resulting from heirs property issues on farm production and associated family finances, in order to improve regional estimates of the extent of heirs’ property.
  • Convene partners and stakeholders to examine data and develop an integrated research/Extension plan to address the issue on a regional level.

North Carolina A&T State University – Competitiveness of 1890 Institutions

North Carolina A&T State University was awarded $50,000 to convene a conference on data-driven approaches to further engage 1890 land-grant universities in competitive programs at NIFA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU). These issues will be explored under the direction of the Association of 1890 Research Directors, at a conference entitled, “Data-Driven Approach for Enhancing Participation of 1890 Land-Grant Universities in Competitive Funding Programs.” 

The purpose will be to ultimately ensure that greater federal support of issues affecting underserved populations is achieved through improving the competitiveness of 1890 universities. This will be done by identifying strategic priorities that align with the collective institutional strengths of the nineteen 1890 universities, stakeholders’ needs, and national priorities.

A three-pronged approach will be undertaken and involves:

  • Using advanced data analytics to examine the historical research funding portfolio of the 1890 land grant universities in order to assess their collective strengths and identify gaps.
  • Collecting and sharing of data on perceived strengths, needs, challenges, and opportunities through an institutional survey administered to all 19 members of the 1890 land grant universities.
  • Hosting a conference on data-driven approaches to engaging 1890 land grant universities in competitive programs through sharing of data with major partners like NIFA, NSF, NIH and APLU to capture their insights and perspectives.

These will be utilized to help address disparities in various agriculture and food sectors and to promote diversity and inclusion.

Additional Information

The FY 2019 AFRI Foundational RFA recently closed, but the FY 2020 RFA, which was published concurrently with FY 2019, remains open through next Spring. The AERC program focuses on small and medium-sized farms has been expanded to include a new focus on creating opportunities for young, beginning, socially disadvantaged, veteran, or immigrant farmers and ranchers. This includes tools addressing farm succession, transition, entry, and profitability for small and medium-sized farms.

For more information on the AERC FY 2019 and FY 2020 RFA visit NIFA’s page or our previous blog post. For a complete list of FY 2018 projects click here.


Categories: Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension


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