NSAC's Blog

REE Readout: Research, Education, and Extension Farm Bill Implementation Efforts

April 17, 2019

Office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Photo credit: USDA.
Office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Photo credit: USDA.

As part of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) ongoing efforts to ensure that farm bill programs are as successful and supportive of family farmers as possible, NSAC provides feedback and recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) following the bill’s passage. Earlier this spring, USDA launched a series of “listening sessions” to solicit public comment on how best to implement the programs and policy changes included in the 2018 Farm Bill.

In late March, USDA’s Research, Education, and Extension (REE) Mission Area hosted its first listening session at USDA headquarters. The REE listening session followed three previous sessions: Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC), Rural Development, and Food Nutrition and Consumer Services.

The REE Mission Area includes: the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and the Economic Research Service (ERS). REE also houses the Office of the Chief Scientist, which coordinates the science that informs USDA’s – and the wider federal government’s – agricultural policies and regulations.

At the REE listening session, NSAC presented formal comments, both oral and written, on our priorities for 2018 Farm Bill implementation. NSAC’s recommendations are detailed below, sorted by program and/or issue area.

Agriculture Food and Research Initiative

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is USDA’s largest federal grant program supporting basic and applied agricultural research and is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Since its creation in the 2008 Farm Bill, NSAC has advocated for increased federal funding for AFRI, particularly research that prioritizes sustainable farming systems, promotes long-term solutions to improving food security, increases profitability of small and medium-sized farms, and enhances human and environmental health.

While the farm bill makes few substantial changes to AFRI, NSAC urges USDA to move forward on several long-overdue administrative reforms that would increase the program’s breadth and responsiveness in addressing key challenges farmers face in their fields every day.

One long-standing issue that NSAC has urged NIFA to rectify is to expand eligibility for AFRI grant funding to all researchers – regardless of their affiliation with the academic, private, or non-profit sector. Currently, NIFA restricts “integrated” AFRI projects to solely those submitted by colleges and universities – which is in direct conflict with the legislative intent and statutory authorization for AFRI. In creating AFRI, Congress sought to support the most innovative and forward-thinking projects from the widest diversity of researchers and institutions, whose collective actions would be required to solve some of agriculture’s most pressing challenges.

NSAC also highlighted the importance of prioritizing plant breeding research that results in farmer-ready varieties that are locally adapted and work in sustainable farming systems. We recommend that the agency create two distinct programs within AFRI – conventional breeding research and plant genetics and genomics. Dividing plant breeding into two distinct programs would help ensure that these different types of research would each have the opportunity to compete, be properly evaluated, and adequately funded.

NSAC also recommends that AFRI maintain a focus on strategies and tools that help small and medium-sized farms, organic agriculture, and other ecologically managed systems. This includes research addressing soil health, water quality, and agriculture diversification.

Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative

The 2018 Farm Bill includes significant victories for organic agriculture, in particular for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), which funds organic research, education, and extension activities. The farm bill provides OREI with permanent, mandatory funding for the first time in the program’s history. OREI will now receive mandatory funding of $20 million in fiscal years (FY) 2019 and 2020; $25 million in FY 2021; $30 million in FY 2022; and $50 million in FY 2023 and each fiscal year afterward.

Given this significant boost in federal grant funding for OREI, NSAC urges NIFA to solicit stakeholder input on how best to prioritize investments in future grantmaking. Stakeholder input should include outreach to organic farmers, scientists, advocates and other stakeholders that can help identify current and future research needs facing the organic sector. We believe that increased engagement will help inform the agency as to which priorities require additional support, and whether new research goals need to be considered over the next several years.

For more information on OREI funding opportunities, see our blog post on the recently-announced Request for Applications for FY 2019 and 2020.

Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program

The 2018 Farm Bill also provides the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) with permanent, mandatory funding. Under the new farm bill, BFRDP is combined with the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (aka “Section 2501”) as part of the new Farming Opportunity Training and Outreach (FOTO) program. BFRDP will remain within NIFA and the broader REE Mission Area.

In addition to receiving new funding and a new program structure, the bill also includes many of NSAC’s recommendations for policy improvements to BFRDP. Key policy changes include: new grant priorities on food safety and succession planning; expansion of educational enhancement team grants to support train-the-trainer activities; clarification that grants can be used for projects serving retiring farmers and non-farming landowners, and a waiver to the matching grants requirement.

In order to build upon the policy improvements made in the 2018 Farm Bill, NSAC recommends NIFA apply a consistent and broad definition of “underserved populations” in evaluating requests to waive matching requirements. This would include projects serving veterans, organic farmers, farmers producing for local and regional market, diversified farmers, minority and women farmers and/or ranchers, and limited resource producers.

NSAC also encourage NIFA to require documentation of beginning farmer involvement in projects under consideration for funding, as well as provide guidance to reviewers on how to evaluate farmer involvement.

Over the last year, university-led new farmer training projects accounted for nearly half of all funded projects – a significant increase over previous years. This increase raises concerns over whether community-based (CBO) and non-governmental organizations (NGO) – who spearheaded the creation of BFRDP nearly a decade ago – are receiving priority as intended by legislation. We will continue to urge NIFA to better prioritize projects led by CBOs and NGOs in future funding rounds.

Further, we encourage NIFA to proactively solicit applications from organizations working with socially disadvantaged farmers, as well as those providing targeted assistance and outreach to potential applicants serving these communities.

For more information on BFRDP funding opportunities, see our blog post on the recently-announced Request for Applications for FY 2019 and 2020.

Food Safety Outreach Program

NSAC also encourages NIFA to include the policy changes made in the 2018 Farm Bill to the National Food Safety Training, Education, Extension, Outreach, and Technical Assistance Program (aka, the Food Safety Outreach Program) in the program’s upcoming RFA, which is expected to be released later this spring.

These provisions include but are not limited to: repealing the limitation on grant funds prohibiting an applicant from receiving funding after three years; prioritizing projects that focus on beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers, as well as those that serve small-scale operations.

Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program

The new farm bill reauthorizes and renames the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives (FINI) program, now known as the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program. In addition, the bill establishes centers to provide grantees with training and technical assistance, as well as improve evaluation and reporting on the impacts of nutrition incentive programs. NSAC supports the development of these centers, and urges NIFA to solicit robust input from stakeholders with direct experience in developing and implementing nutrition incentive programs.

We also encourage NIFA to look beyond food security and explore the program’s ability to positively impact local and regional food systems. In evaluating the impacts of nutrition incentive programs on producers and food producing communities, we believe that the proposed Information Centers should strive to identify barriers and solutions to increase utilization of locally produced food.

Urban Agriculture

The 2018 Farm Bill creates a new competitive research and extension grant program for the development of urban, indoor, and other emerging agricultural production. Urban agriculture, however, is an area where USDA has had a relatively limited track record.

In order to ensure that the new grant program is effective, NSAC recommends USDA first establish an “Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production,” as well as an associated advisory committee to help guide implementation. Only after these are established should the agency solicit funding for research projects that address urban agriculture. Once the program is established, we also urge NIFA to take a broad approach to the types and scales of research and extension eligible for grant funding.

Plant Breeding

NSAC recommends ARS move quickly to finalize their plan and timeline for completing analysis of existing plant breeding research activities, gaps, and recommendations regarding future breeding research, as directed by the 2018 Farm Bill.

The farm bill also directs the agency to develop and implement a national strategic germplasm and cultivar collection assessment and utilization plan for the National Plant Germplasm System. NSAC recommends that this assessment include specific recommendations and guidance on funding, as well as be made publically available.

Farmland Data

The 2018 Farm Bill authorizes a new farmland data collection initiative, which would increase data on important trends – including farmland ownership, tenure, transition, barriers to entry, profitability, and viability of beginning farmers and ranchers. One component of this initiative would be a follow-on survey to the Census of Agriculture, specifically looking at the challenges facing new farmers. NSAC recommends that NASS begin the planning stages for the inaugural follow-on study expediently, and that the agency explore ways to collect data from farmers no longer farming. Data from retired farmers will be integral to helping NASS understand the challenges farmers face in maintaining a successful and profitable farming business.

We also encourage NASS to solicit stakeholder input on the Tenure Ownership and Transition of Agricultural Lands (TOTAL) survey and to integrate TOTAL into ongoing data collection efforts. Additionally, NASS should also seek input on any additional changes needed in the upcoming survey, and provide further analysis and summary materials.

Next Steps

Listening sessions present an early opportunity for stakeholders to formally weigh-in on USDA’s implementation of farm bill programs and policies. Several farm bill programs underwent significant changes in the new bill, and most were reauthorized and administered in ways that could benefit from additional oversight.

USDA has not publicly released an official timeline for proposed rules or other implementation activities; however it’s likely we will begin to see the first round of proposed or interim final rules reflecting farm bill changes later this year – possibly as early as this spring.

For several farm bill programs, USDA has already begun rolling out FY 2019 RFAs. Thus far, RFAs are published for OREI, ORG, and BFRDP. Enrollment for the Conservation Stewardship Program has also begun. Check out our blog for the latest news on funding opportunities.       

NSAC worked with a range of stakeholders (including farmers!) to ensure that the 2018 Farm Bill provided funding for agriculture research, supported sustainable farming systems, organic, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and provided farmers with the tools to be successful in a changing agricultural economy.

As USDA moves forward with implementing the many changes in the farm bill over the coming months (and years), we stand ready to work closely with them and to bring the voices of researchers, farmers, and other stakeholders to the policymaking table.     

Categories: Farm Bill, Research, Education & Extension

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