NSAC's Blog

New Opportunities for Sustainable Agriculture Research

April 19, 2017


Checking soil moisture. Photo credit: USDA.


All farmers know that success in agriculture requires more than just a green thumb and a little luck. Farmers rely upon experimentation and research to ensure their lands, crops and animals stay healthy and viable, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a primary source of support for this critical work.

Last week, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), released a Request for Applications (RFA) for over $150 million to support research, extension and education projects related to agricultural and food systems research. This RFA is part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the USDA’s largest competitive research program administered through NIFA. The funding for this year’s AFRI Foundational Program RFA includes an additional $50 million more than last year’s funding levels, which 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) 2017 AFRI RFA outlines several key focus areas for potential grant recipients. Many of these areas provide opportunities that could be of great benefit to the sustainable agriculture community, specifically the focal areas of Plant Health and Breeding, Sustainable Ecosystems, and Rural Economies.

Plant Health and Breeding

This program area includes projects that help to investigate and remediate factors that negatively affect plant productivity. Sample projects might address: food security, stewardship of natural resources, climate variability, organic production, loss of agricultural land, or increasing global competition. Investment in publicly funded (which means that farmers have open and easy access to the research and results) plant breeding research is essential for a sustainable and resilient food system. Publicly funded research is often significantly more informed by direct input from farmers, and is therefore more likely to result in the development of locally or regionally adapted seeds that will work for specific microclimates and production systems.

Funding for the Plant Health and Breeding program area was increased from $33 million in 2016 to $44 million for 2017 proposals; this increase helps to account for the new priorities within the program area. For example, this year’s RFA includes a new program area priority specifically for Pollinator Health (deadline June 28). This new priority, which allots $1 million per project for up to 5 years, will allow for much needed research on how farmers can address the decline of pollinators across the county.

The RFA retains a request for projects that relate to the “Foundational Knowledge of Agricultural Production System” (deadline June 29). This priority focuses on increasing plant resiliency and associated issues such as soil health. NIFA allotted $500,000 per project for up to 5 years for this project area.

For projects that focus on “Plant Breeding for Agricultural Production” (deadline July 19), the funding allocation ($500,000 for projects up to 5 years) remains the same as the 2016 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;
  • Cultivar development;
  • Selection theory;
  • Applied quantitative genetics; and/or
  • Participatory breeding.

In addition to the aforementioned priorities, NIFA is continuing to earmark dedicated funding to specific commodities – this year’s earmarked funds are will support peanut breeding research. While we recognize the importance of this research, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) disagrees with NIFA’s decision to siphon any amount of support for commodity-specific research from such a small amount of plant breeding research funding.

Sustainable Agroecosystems and Data Sharing

Although the allocated funding for the Bioenergy, Natural Resources, and Environment (BNRE) did not change from last year, the FY 2017 RFA no longer includes a dedicated program area priority specifically for cover crops. All projects related to cover crops must now be submitted under the Foundational Knowledge of Agricultural Production Systems priority area of the RFA, which will make funding for cover crop research significantly more competitive.

Additionally, the 2017 RFA has renamed the “Managed Agroecosytems” program area priority, which is now named “Sustainable Agroecosytems” (deadline June 21), however the research topics remain roughly the same. This priority area addresses research related to: Nutrient Cycles and Management, Chemicals of Environmental Concern, Soil Health and Microbial Communities, Ecosystem Services and Agro-ecosystem Management, and Bioenergy and Multifunctional Landscapes.

Finally, the 2017 RFA contains a new program priority called “Networks for Synthesis, Data Sharing and Management” (deadline June 21) within BNRE, which focuses on creating more effective ways of sharing data. Projects in this priority area should therefore focus on better ways 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. This research must also focus specifically on reactive nitrogen or soil health and microbiomes.

Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities

This year’s RFA allocates $17.6 million to social science research on rural communities, a small increase of $600,000 from 2016. This program area focuses on the social sciences and research to examine and improve agriculture, the environment, and rural communities.

The “Economics, Market and Trade” (deadline July 6) 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. Of particular important to the sustainable agriculture community is a call for projects that focus on the economics of coexistence, as well as strategies to address issues with the coexistence of multiple crop technologies (i.e., conventional and organic).

This year, there is a new program priority area for the “Social Implications of Emerging Technologies” (deadline June 1). This area requests proposals for multidisciplinary projects looking to address issues associated with the increased use of technology in the agricultural sector.

The “Environmental and Natural Resource Economics” (deadline June 15) 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;
  • Economic effects or implications of urbanization and land use change;
  • The economics of water resource management;
  • Methodological advances in non-market valuation and meta-analysis of ecosystem 
services valuation; or
  • Economic incentive mechanisms and policies designed to promote resource 
conservation and sustainability.

Similar to the 2016 Foundational RFA, the “Small and Medium-sized Farms” (deadline July 28) program area priority seeks proposals that address issues related to the viability of smaller 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 and small producers;
  • Outreach efforts that create opportunities for veterans to enter farming;
  • New tools for the next generation of small and medium-sized farmers;
  • Feasibility of small to mid-scale processing (including fresh/frozen fruits and vegetables, and small scale meat processing); or
  • Effective marketing strategies by small and medium-sized farms (including production contracts and local/regional markets.

Finally, the “Innovation for Rural Entrepreneurs” (deadline July 27) 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;
  • Factors that contribute to high rates of child poverty, especially in rural communities; or
  • Income inequality and how/why it varies among rural communities.

Other AFRI RFA Opportunities

In addition to the foundational RFA, this week AFRI released another RFA seeking projects directly related to “Resilient Agro-ecosystems in a Changing Climate” (deadline July 13). This challenge area RFA seeks proposals for projects that assess:

  • The impacts of climate variability on the bio-physical and biogeochemical components of food and/or fiber systems in terms of: water quantity and quality, food quality and safety, flood control, soil retention and productivity, microbial communities, nutrient cycling, pest management, pollinator health, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration;
  • Potential adaptation and mitigation strategies that can make food and/or fiber production more resilient and sustainable in increasingly variable climatic conditions; or
  • The drivers, effects, vulnerabilities, or resiliencies of the socio-economic system relative to sustainability of agricultural production in the context of climate variability.

Total funding for this RFA is $6.3 million. Project proposals must be $1.2 million or less per project, with a life cycle of no more than two years. For more details, please reference the full RFA.

Eligibility & Application Information

Deadlines for the various program areas fall between June and August, 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: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension

One response to “New Opportunities for Sustainable Agriculture Research”

  1. Joe says:

    Love to see farmers working hard to maintain and strengthen the American agricultural system! It would be great to see more focus on funding hydroponic or other “soil-less” farming methods in hopes of creating a resilient agro-ecosystem.