Agriculture & Food Research Initiative


Research to address key problems of regional, national, and international importance in sustaining agriculture

Farmers face a variety of challenges in their fields every day, from figuring out how to suppress weeds to how best to minimize pest pressures organically to determining which plant varieties grow best in their climate. Publicly funded agricultural research plays a major role in helping farmers develop solutions for these and many other on-farm challenges. The benefits of publicly-funded agriculture research doesn’t stop at the end of the field, however. Research projects funded by USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) also inform policy and protocols applicable to work in nutrition, food safety, and public health. In fact, AFRI is the largest federal research program providing competitive grants to researchers to solve pressing challenges facing farmers and society.

Learn More About AFRI:

Program Basics

AFRI is the largest competitive grants research program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Key issues addressed by AFRI include but are not limited to:

  • Farm efficiency and profitability
  • Renewable energy
  • Ranching, urban and agroforestry
  • Aquaculture
  • Rural communities and entrepreneurship
  • Human nutrition and food safety
  • Conventional plant and animal breeding
  • Farm transition and farm viability
  • Local and regional food systems

There are several smaller grant programs offered under AFRI. Roughly half of AFRI’s total funding supports grants in AFRI’s Foundational and Applied Science program – totaling about $200 million in recent years. Included within this program are the six priority areas:

  • Plant health and production and plant products
  • Animal health and production and animal products
  • Food safety, nutrition, and health
  • Bioenergy, natural resources, and environment
  • Agriculture systems and technology
  • Agriculture economics and rural communities

Of particular interest to the sustainable agriculture community is the Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities priority area which focuses on a range of topics relevant to farm viability, including a focus on small and medium sized farms, beginning farmers, local food systems, and other related issues.

Other AFRI programs include the new Sustainable Agriculture Systems program, which replaces previous AFRI “challenge areas” on childhood obesity; food safety; climate variability and change; bioenergy; and water. The new consolidated program only funds integrated projects that include research, education, and extension to solve the challenges of a world approaching a population of 10 billion by 2050. The aim of this new initiative is to fund long-term, ground-breaking research needed to transition our current agricultural sector into a more sustainable and resilient system.

Other AFRI programs focus on education and workforce development. More information on the specific priorities of the AFRI sub-programs can be found in the Requests for Applications on the NIFA website.

AFRI provides grants for both fundamental and applied research, extension, and education to address key challenges faced by farmers, rural communities and consumers. USDA is required by law to direct 60 percent of AFRI funds toward grants for fundamental (or basic) research and 40 percent toward applied research. Of the AFRI funds allocated to fundamental research, not less than 30 percent will be directed toward research by multidisciplinary teams.

In addition, at least 30 percent of annual funding must be used for “integrated” projects that combine research and education, research and extension, education and extension, or all three.

The maximum term of an AFRI grant varies by program, but generally is not longer than five years, with the exception being grants up to 25 years under the Sustainable Agricultural Systems program. Indirect costs for the overall award are limited to 30 percent of the total federal funds provided. Funds are not allowed to be used for equipment, refurbishment of space, or repairs.

Eligibility

Eligibility for AFRI programs is linked to the program of interest. For non-integrated grants (research only, education only, or extension only), the following entities are eligible to apply for funding:

  • State agriculture experiment stations
  • Colleges and universities
  • Federal agencies
  • Other research institutions
  • National laboratories
  • Private and nonprofit organizations

NIFA currently restricts eligibility for integrated AFRI research, education, and extension programs to colleges and universities only – even though this is in contradiction to the eligibility rules mandated by the farm bill. See the individual program RFA for additional details on eligibility and restrictions.

The Program in Action 

Since its creation in 2008, AFRI has invested billions of dollars into researching solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing farming and agriculture today. AFRI has received over $2 billion between 2012 and 2018 to advance research, education, and extension projects across the country.

AFRI research grants range from multi-million dollar projects – like the Sustainable Agriculture Systems program (SAS), which engages multiple research institutions across an entire region – to smaller grants made to individual researchers looking for answers to discrete research questions.

Examples of how researchers across the country have used the AFRI program include:

  • University of Wisconsin researchers were granted nearly $10 million in AFRI SAS funding to develop an agroecological transformation plan that anticipates impediments to change, innovates to surmount resistance, and maps pathways to what they call Grassland 2.0 to restore much of the ecosystem structure and function of the native prairie which can support superior livestock production.
  • Rural Coalition received $50,000 from the Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities (AERC) program area for their project, Scaling up Rural Resilience Research Forum: Best Farm Business and Conservation Practices for Minority, Veteran and New Entry Producers. The forum aims to convene a diverse representation of farmer and farmworker leaders across the country to discuss best practices that address challenges facing underserved farmers.
  • New Mexico State University’s program to increase climate change literacy and support both adaptation and mitigation activities received AFRI funding to help assess climate change vulnerability and develop more greenhouse gas mitigation activities.
  • Researchers at the University of Idaho received $499,999 AFRI funding to better understand the barriers that affect women farmers, and design tools that help support then navigates these hurdles. The project involves a series of focus groups to solicit feedback from women farmers on their experiences so that regional differences can be identified.
  • Clemson University received AFRI funding to build the germplasm, breeding, genetics, and genomics foundations for advancing sorghum as a bioenergy and chemical feedstock with the goal of developing renewable fuel production.
  • University of Vermont researchers received funding to study the connections and interactions between people (including farmers, consumers, and residents of rural communities), place (rural communities and others connected to farming communities), and prosperity (farm income, health of local communities, and quality of life for farmers and farm families).
  • Kansas State University researchers received a $9,996,808 SAS award to develop and extend new information and technologies that enhance long-term strategic management and in-season tactical management of SGP cropping systems and to create new opportunities that educate and equip producers and students to utilize these best management practices.

More information on funded projects can be found on NIFA’s website.

How to Apply and Program Resources

Each year, the AFRI RFAs are published on the NIFA website and through grants.gov – generally sometime in the late fall or winter. Proposal guidelines and submission deadlines are outlined in the RFA.

Peer review panels are assembled for each AFRI subprogram and are comprised of researchers and other experts in the field for which the program is soliciting applications. The panel meets in person to evaluate and rank each proposal based on relevance and scientific merit.

Farmers, non-profit researchers, and other stakeholders are encouraged to participate in the peer review process. Those interested should contact the National Program Leader listed in the RFA, or visit the AFRI website to find out more information on how to apply or serve on the peer review panel.

The latest news about agricultural research and AFRI can be found on the NSAC blog:

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

The 2008 Farm Bill created AFRI, which took the place of the National Research Initiative (NRI), (authorized in 1990) and the Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems (IFAFS), (authorized in 1998).

The 2008 Farm Bill added five new grant categories to those that already existed under NRI or IFAFS, including:

  • Conventional (classical) plant breeding
  • Conventional (classical) animal breeding
  • Renewable energy
  • Domestic marketing strategies
  • Rural entrepreneurship

The priority grant category for the viability and competitiveness of small and medium-sized family farm operations was carried over from IFAFS. Carried over from NRI is the requirement that all grant categories should emphasize sustainable agriculture wherever applicable.

The 2014 Farm Bill added priorities related to zoonotic diseases, the effectiveness of conservation practices in addressing nutrient losses, and the economic costs, benefits and viability of producers adopting conservation practices.

The 2018 Farm Bill reauthorized AFRI, and added new priorities on soil health, farm succession and transition, barriers to entry for young, beginning, socially disadvantaged, veteran, and immigrant farmers, and automation or mechanization for labor- intensive tasks. The bill also maintains AFRI’s authorization for appropriations of up to $700 million for each fiscal year through 2023. In recent years, annual agricultural appropriations passed by Congress have provided over $400 million for AFRI, increasing steadily since the program was first created in 2008. For FY 2019, AFRI received $415 million in appropriated funds. Whether and how fast the total funding level increases in the future will be a matter for the annual agricultural appropriations bills to determine.

AFRI Program Funding 

Year Annual Funding (in millions)
2015 $325
2016 $350
2017 $375
2018 $400
2019 $415

For the most current information on program funding levels, please see NSAC’s Annual Appropriations Chart.

Authorizing Language

Section 7504 of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 amends Subsection 450(b) of the Competitive, Special, and Facilities Research Grant Act of 1965, to be codified at 7 U.S.C. Section 450i(b) and a note to 7 U.S.C. Section 450i.


Last updated in October 2019.