Agricultural Systems Competitiveness and Sustainability Program

Important Update:

Please note that the Grassroots Guide has not yet been updated to reflect changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill, which was passed and signed into law in December 2018. We are in the process of updating the Guide and expect to publish an updated version in the spring of 2019. In the meantime, please use this guide for basic information about programs and important resources and links for more information, but check with USDA for any relevant program changes made by the 2018 Farm Bill. Also, check out our blog series covering highlights from the new farm bill. 

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

Farms, especially small and mid-sized family farms and sustainable, organic, and highly diversified farms, face many challenges today. In addition to the challenges all farmers face – like access to land and the need to develop sufficient and robust markets – sustainable farmers often face unique production challenges like the need to manage pests without dangerous chemicals or access plant and animal varieties suited to their climate, markets, and production systems.  These challanges require innovative and research-based solutions that are appropriate for their specific type of farming system.

Public sector agricultural research has underpinned the success of our nation’s farmers for over 150 years and remains a critical resource in ensuring farmers of all kinds are able to confront the challenges they face on their farms. The Agricultural System Competitiveness and Sustainability (ASCS) program is USDA’s primary internal federal research program targeted at researching the issues that are relevant to sustainable and organic farmers.

Learn More About the ASCS!

Program Basics

ASCS is one of about 18 national programs operated at Agricultural Research Service (ARS) sites around the country. ARS is USDA’s main intramural research body, meaning it funds 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 5,000 people.

The ASCS national research program 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 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.

The ASCS program 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 competitive grants.

The four primary problem areas that ARS scientists will focus on within the ASCS program for 2013-17 include:

  • Food, feed, fiber, and feedstock production systems;
  • Production system economics;
  • Production system effects on natural resources; and
  • Integration of production systems.

ARS held a workshop in February 2012 to obtain stakeholder views from around the country on what the focus of ASCS should be. Another similar workshop will likely take place in 2017 to develop the next plan. 


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

ASCS research projects are currently ongoing in 15 states across the country. The projects are overseen by ARS facilities in each state.

  • The ASCS program supported an eight-year winter cover crop research project in California. This project compared the success of different types of cover crops in the production of biomass and nitrogen accumulation when used in conjunction with a rotation of organic vegetables. The study found that a rye and legume-rye cover crop produced more biomass than mustard and that a legume-rye cover crop produced more nitrogen. This type of research helps empower organic and conventional farmers with the tools they need to maintain and increase soil health while minimizing inputs.
  • ASCS supported research has investigated the effectiveness of integrated crop-livestock systems in maintaining soil quality in North Dakota. This nine-year research project sought to answer the question of how livestock grazed on pasture influence soil quality for succeeding crops by comparing the impact on crops of an integrated winter grazing system versus a perennial grass-based system. The research found that there was no impact on soil quality in the Northern Great Plains from allowing cattle to graze crop residue during the winter.

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 the nearest ARS station involved with ASCS, and read past Accomplishments.

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

ASCS is funded through ARS’s budget line item, which totaled $1.1 billion in Fiscal Year 2014. Specific funding amounts for ASCS projects are not available at this time.

The priorities ASCS are set by a five-year action plan that is developed through a series of regional stakeholder workshops, and the current plan runs from 2013-2017. ASCS’s action plan and priorities are designed to fall inline with ARS’s 2012-2017 Strategic Plan.

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 October 2014.