Sustainable Agriculture Systems Research Program

Using public sector research to help farmers improve the sustainability of their farming systems

Farms, especially small to mid-sized and highly diversified ones, face many unique challenges in addition to those shared with other farmers. For example, farmers in sustainable and organic production must manage pests without highly-toxic chemicals and many struggle to access crop and animal varieties suited to their climate, markets, and production systems. Because they face unique challenges, sustainable farming systems require unique, research-based solutions that demonstrate long-term outcomes.

Public sector agricultural research has underpinned the success of our nation’s farmers for over 150 years, and it remains today a critical resource. The Sustainable Agriculture Systems Research (SASR) program (formerly the Agricultural System Competitiveness and Sustainability program) is USDA’s primary internal federal research program targeted at researching the issues relevant to sustainable and organic farmers.

Learn More About the SASR:

Program Basics

The Sustainable Agriculture Systems Research (SASR) program is one of 15 national programs operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). ARS is USDA’s main intramural research agency, funding research conducted by USDA scientists (as opposed to extramural research programs that fund academic, private, and non-profit researchers). ARS has over 90 locations around the world and employs over 6,000 people working on approximately 690 research projects.

The SASR national research program (also known as “National Program 216”) seeks to use interdisciplinary research to optimize productivity, profitability, energy efficiency and natural resource stewardship for all farms – including organic, small, local, and conventional operations. The research conducted by ARS scientists may include partnering with local farmers, stakeholder groups, and educational institutions to conduct long-term and systems-based research.

This national research program develops information and tools – like best management practices and decision aides – that are then disseminated to farmers across the country through the Cooperative Extension Service and other delivery mechanisms.

SASR sets its priorities based on the development of a five-year action plan and solicits stakeholder input from those within the research and farming community when developing their research priorities. These priorities often allow ARS-funded research to be more long-term in scope than other research programs which rely on shorter-term, and less reliable funding streams such as USDA competitive grants.

SASR is organized into three components:

  • Building Agroecosystems for Intensive, Resilient Production, via Genetics x Environment x Management (GxExM)
  • Increasing Efficiencies for Agroecosystems Sustainability
  • Achieving Agroecosystem Potential

Included within National Program 216 is ARS’ Organic Agriculture research program, which is designed to help the organic industry “overcome the challenges they face related to productivity, profitability, environmental stewardship, and energy efficiency.” Under the SASR organic program, research projects must have a specific organic system focus. These can include, among others:

  • Developing transition strategies for conventional-to-organic production
  • Identifying cultivars suitable for organic production
  • Developing whole-system biological-based management strategies for plant and insect pests
  • Identifying optimal whole-farm strategies to integrate crop and livestock enterprises to increase on-farm resource utilization
  • Developing market-driven production strategies


ARS partners with other USDA agencies, other federal and state agencies, farmers, commodity groups, business and other organizations on many of their research projects. However, this program does not make grants directly to organizations outside the federal government.

Farmers should contact their local ARS station to find out about opportunities to provide input on the specific research priorities in that region.

Information on the current research projects can be found on the ARS website.

The Program in Action 

Currently, there are over 270 active SASR research projects across the country. The projects are overseen by ARS facilities in 31 locations. The following are examples of ongoing projects:

  • Crop Improvement and Protection Research: At an ARS certified organic farm in Salinas, CA, researchers are looking to help farmers integrate cover crops into vegetable and strawberry production to maximize cover cropping and reduce production costs. Over five years, the experiment will document the effects of cover cropping on soil quality, pest management, yield, and profitability. Specifically, the project will look at the effects of a legume-rye mixture of cover crops on vegetable and strawberry yields, how seeding rates impact weed density and weed management costs, and the development of biomass production. The experiment is being conducted in 2 phases. First, eight years of intensive management, then subsequent monitoring of residual effects from the intensive management phase. The researchers expect to observe higher soil quality, yields, profits in cover crop systems, and lower weed pressure and weed management costs. The project is expected to be completed in 2023.
  • Northwest Irrigation and Soils Research: Featuring cropping and dairy systems, this project aims to identify and address environmental and agronomic issues associated with irrigated crop and dairy production. This includes increasing crop nutrient use efficiency, minimizing nutrient losses and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reducing the onset of antibiotic resistance. Researchers in Kimberly, ID strive to identify the effects of fertilizer use and its impacts on nitrification, nutrient cycling, and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as determining the effects of manure incorporation on greenhouse gas emissions from moist soils for insight on regional air quality. Understanding the persistence of antibiotics in irrigation return waters and the broader environment is also a component of this research which is expected to conclude in 2021.

Find a listing of all ongoing ARS projects, see ARS’s website.

How to Apply and Program Resources

This program does not award grants directly to farmers, research institutions, or non-profit organizations. To provide input on research topics or to get involved in research already being conducted, contact their local ARS station involved with SASR.

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

SASR is funded through the annual appropriations, rather than Farm Bill, process. SASR is funded out of ARS’s budget line item, which totaled $1 billion in fiscal year 2019.

Rather than having specific statutory authority in the Farm Bill, this program is created through ARS’s five-year action plan that is developed through a series of regional stakeholder workshops. SASR’s action plan and priorities are designed to fall in line with ARS’s Strategic Plan, which runs from 2018 through 2022.

Authorizing Language

ARS is authorized by the Department of Agriculture Organic Act of 1862 (7 U.S.C. 2201 note); Agricultural Research Act of 1935 (7 U.S.C. 427); Research and Marketing Act of 1946 (P.L. 79-733), as amended (7 U.S.C. 427, 1621 note); Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 (P.L. 95-113), as amended (7 U.S.C. 1281 note); Food Security Act of 1985 (P.L. 99-198) (7 U.S.C. 3101 note); Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-624) (7 U.S.C. 1421 note); Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-127) Section 801; and Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-185).

Last updated in December 2019.