Research, Extension, and Education

Research 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.

In comparison to the enormous opportunity that sustainable agriculture represents for farmers and rural communities, federal investment in sustainable agriculture research, education, and extension has been miniscule. Without robust funding for public research that promotes ecologically-based production systems, scientific and technical innovation is stifled, and U.S. farmers and ranchers are unable to fully participate in and benefit from emerging markets for sustainably-produced foods.

NSAC has long been working to secure increased resources for sustainable agriculture research, education, and extension, and continued to do so in the most recent farm bill debate. Significant gains were made in the 2008 Farm Bill and protected in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase research and extension funding for sustainable and organic agriculture, public plant and animal breeding, renewable energy and conservation, minority and beginning farmer outreach and development, agricultural and rural entrepreneurship, and food systems and public health.  Despite the gains, however, there is still a long way to go to both ensure farmers have the knowledge and information they need to implement and maximize their sustainable agriculture systems, and protect these programs in the future.

NSAC will continue to push to ensure the nation’s investment in agricultural research, education, and extension supports sustainable agriculture systems, including organic and other ecologically-based production systems, and involves farmers and ranchers directly in research as primary investigators and beneficiaries.

Get the latest news via NSAC’s most recent blog posts on research, extension, and education.

Learn More About NSAC’s work on sustainable agriculture research, extension, and education!

Recent Actions NSAC has taken on Sustainable and Organic Research

Policy News and Updates

Agroecosystem Research

Our nation’s agricultural landscape has transformed from one that was largely diversified, small-scale, and integrated crops and livestock together without the use of intensive inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides. With the industrialization, concentration and specialization that has occurred on most American farms over the past century, has come dramatic impacts on the surrounding ecosystem.

NSAC has long advocated for programs and policies that support the establishment and growth of more diversified and resilient farming systems, including research on agroecosystems. Agroecology is a field of research which looks at agriculture in relation to the impact on its surrounding ecosystem and landscape, and intentionally focuses on the interconnectedness of these systems using a dynamic, complex, whole-systems approach.

Much of our nation’s publicly funded agriculture research coming out of our Land Grant Institutions focuses on addressing a single issue for a single commodity, without fully contemplating the impacts on the larger broader ecosystem and what ripple effects on other plants, wildlife, or other natural resources may not have been considered.

In addition to creating long-standing research programs focused on agroecology like the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, NSAC was also the lead champion for maintaining priorities within the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative for agro-ecosystems and sustainable systems, and continues to defend this critical research priority today.

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Public Plant and Animal Breeding Research

Everything starts with seeds. Whether you’re an organic farmer looking for seeds that will work with your specific organic growing practices or looking for wheat varieties adapted to your specific growing climate, seeds are the foundation of every piece of food we put on our plate and central to everything crop farmers do. The continued growth of sustainable and organic agriculture and local, healthy food systems across the country – along with farmers’ ability to meet the challenges of climate change and food security – depends on this critical first building block.

Agriculture production that is sustainable in the long-term relies on diverse crop rotations, increased use of perennial species, and the integration of livestock in pasture-based systems. Sustainable and organic agricultural systems require plant varieties and animal breeds that do not depend on high levels of external inputs and that are selected to perform under a wide array of local climate conditions, forage availability, and pest regimes. A diversity of plant and animal genetic resources are also needed to address the growing challenges of global climate change, increasing pest and pathogen pressure, food security, safety and resiliency concerns, and shifting consumer preferences including a rapidly growing market for organically and locally produced food.  These genetic resources are a public good that should be maintained both for our current needs and for future generations.

There has been a steady decline in our nation’s public investment in public sector breeding programs housed primarily within our nation’s land grant university system and USDA research facilities.  Over the past 20 years alone, we have lost over a third of our country’s public plant breeding programs.  This slow atrophy of public funding to support improved plant varieties means that farmers have been left with fewer and fewer seed choices over the years and are ill-prepared to meet 21st century needs.

For example, farmers in many regions of the country currently rely on seeds that were bred for other regions of the country or that no longer meet changing climatic growing conditions and pest and disease pressures.  Without renewed funding for the development of publicly available plant varieties, our farmers will be at a competitive disadvantage and struggle to meet the future challenges related to climate change and food security, and less able to take advantage of economic opportunities within the value-added, artisanal, organic, and local and regional food markets.

In the 2008 Farm Bill, NSAC successfully established “conventional” (classical) plant and animal breeding as a research priority within the newly created Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.  We were also successful at getting report language included that recognizes the importance of public breeding, further defining classical breeding, and encouraging a national program on classical breeding.  And while some progress has been made, AFRI has failed to a large extent, in actually funding classical plant and animal breeding research.

A summit on Seeds and Breeds for the 21st Century Agriculture was held in 2014 which resulted in the first analysis of the state of our country’s plant and animal breeding infrastructure and seed supply in over ten years. As evident during this summit, there continues to be increased concerns about farmers’ limited access to seed, the narrowing of our country’s agricultural plant and animal genetic diversity, consolidation within the seed industry, the decline in public cultivar development (i.e. developing new crop varieties for the public good that can continue to be shared and improved by farmers and researchers), and how these trends are impacting farmers’ abilities to confront the unprecedented challenges of climate change and global food security.

NSAC has continued to advocate for increased funding for publically funded plant and animal breeding, both within USDA’s competitive research grants programs like AFRI and OREI, but also through the Agricultural Research Service and State Agricultural Experiment Stations.


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Small & Medium Sized Family Farms and Rural Economic Research

Independent family farms, the mainstay of American agriculture and our rural communities, are in jeopardy. On one side of the size spectrum, these mid-sized farms are being replaced by very large farms that account for a large amount of total farm product sales. On the other side, mid-sized farms are being replaced by small farms, whose operators often depend primarily on non-farm income. In the middle, and hanging in the balance, are full-time family farms, intermediate in size, which still account for a sizable share of total sales.

Family farms are essential to the vitality of rural communities. Family farmers buy most of their inputs from local suppliers. They sell most of their products in local and regional markets. Many of the business enterprises in rural towns and small cities are farm-connected. A system of economically viable, midsize, owner-operated family farms contributes more to communities than systems characterized by mega-farms with hired managers and large numbers of farm laborers with below average incomes and little ownership or control of productive assets. Replacing midsize farms with big farms reduces middle class entrepreneurial opportunities in farm communities, at best replacing them with wage labor. The result is harmful to society.

NSAC has long worked on this issue and continues to advocate for policies that support the establishment and growth of our nation’s small and medium-sized farms. There continues to be research gaps on what we know about the profitability, scales of economy, viable alternative marketing channels, and other unique challenges that these farms face.

NSAC was the lead champion for maintaining the priority for research on small and medium-sized family farms within the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative when the program was established in the 2008 Farm Bill. NSAC continues to protect this research priority and also worked with our allies in the broader agricultural research community to ensure that social science research on rural communities and the profitability of small and medium-sized farms were topic areas that are eligible for funding through the newly created Foundation for Food and Agriculture, which was established in the 2014 Farm Bill.

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Sustainable and Organic Agriculture Research, Education and Extension

NSAC advocates for for increased funding on organic and sustainable farming and monitors organic and sustainable agricultural research programs to ensure the a fulfilling their missions to serve farmers. We carry this out through our support and advocacy for the Organic Research and Education Initiative (OREI), Organic Transitions Program (ORG), and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. These programs provide funding for organic and sustainable agriculture research that helps organic farmers become more profitable and sustainable, and many of their advancements have had impacts on conventional practices.

To find out more about these programs visit NSAC’s OREI, ORG, and SARE Grassroots Guide to Federal Food and Farm Program pages.

NSAC is also interested in ensuring that there is robust data available on the state of organic production. The National Organic Program (NOP), National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) have all had a hand in the collection and dissemination of data on the state of organic agriculture in the United States. We monitor their efforts and work with stakeholders around the country, including organic producers, certifiers, and advocates to ensure that the data being collected is the data that farmers and the rest of the organic industry need. We also seek to ensure that the data is collected in the most efficient and least burdensome way possible.

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