Be a Grant Reviewer for USDA Competitive Grants

One of the best ways to secure the future of federal food and farm programs is to ensure that they fund successful projects and programs across the country. You can assist the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the implementation of federal programs by reviewing grant applications and recommending which projects should receive funding. By becoming a reviewer for these programs you can play a critical role in cultivating program support and ensuring that sustainability is prioritized as awards are decided.

Why become a grant reviewer?

  • Bring your food and farm expertise to the review process. Say you’re a longtime farmers’ market manager, your experience would make you a great reviewer for Farmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP). The quality of the review process depends on the expertise of reviewers. Reviewers who understand sustainable food and farm systems ensure USDA recognizes and funds projects that advance the goals of the programs.
  • Ensure the most critical projects are funded and guarantee the ongoing success of the program. Federal food and farm grant programs typically receive far more applications than can be funded. Congress and the public are more likely to support programs that yield successful, high-impact results. By identifying projects with great potential, reviewers help gain and maintain support for key programs.
  • Learn what to consider when you’re writing your own grant applications! For obvious reasons you generally can’t apply to a program for which you’re a reviewer, but serving as a reviewer can give you valuable know-how for future grant applications. Being on a review panel helps you understand what types of proposals receive awards and gives you an insider perspective on the review process that may help you win grants in the future.

What programs can I review?

While processes may change from year to year, the following programs typically use peer reviewers:

More details on how to become a reviewer for these programs can be found below. For a list of sustainable agriculture programs, see our Grassroots Guide to Federal Food and Farm Programs.

Do I have the qualifications to be a Reviewer?

USDA recruits members of the public with subject expertise to serve on grant review panels. For some programs you must have a degree in a certain field or have a minimum amount of agriculture-related experience, etc. For more details, see information on the individual programs below.

What would I have to do?

Each program has its own grant review process, but grant reviewers for all programs generally:

  • Read grant proposals and submit written comments. A grant reviewer submits electronic reviews for up to 15 proposals, depending on the program. USDA estimates that it takes at least two hours to comment on a proposal, and possibly more.
  • Participate in a panel review meeting. The panel reviews proposals over the phone, via video conference, or in person (in Washington, D.C. or at regional locations) to recommend and rank proposals for funding.  Each reviewer provides an oral review of his or her assigned proposals. Panels have different final decision-making processes depending on the program. If you have questions, check in with the program lead.

How do I sign-up?

The following is a selection of programs where applications are peer-reviewed annually.

  • Value Added Producer Grants Program (VAPG). This program is administered by the USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service. For more information on becoming a reviewer, contact your state Rural Development office.
    • Note: To be a reviewer for this program you must have at least a bachelor’s degree in agri-business, agricultural economics, agriculture, animal science, business, marketing, economics or finance, and have a minimum of 8 years of agriculture-related experience.
  • Community Food Projects (CFP). NIFA actively recruits farmers, community food advocates, and non-profit leaders to serve on the Peer Review Panel for CFP. For more information, contact the National Program Leader listed under ‘additional information on on the USDA Community Food Program page. You can learn more about the grant by reading the Request for Application (RFA), which can also be found on the CFP page.
  • Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI). Sustainable and organic researchers (including non-profit researchers and farmers who do on-farm research or have an advanced degree in agricultural science) are encouraged to serve on the peer review panel that evaluates the scientific merit and relevancy of proposed projects. Interested farmers can find more information by contacting the National Program Leader listed under ‘additional information’ on the USDA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative website. You can learn more about the grant by reading the Request for Application (RFA), which can also be found on the OREI page.
  • Organic Transitions, Research, and Extension Program (ORG). Applications are reviewed as part of a 2-part process: an administrative review for compliance with the RFA and then a technical peer review. The review process involves assigning points to each project, with the highest scoring projects being funded. You can find more information about applying to be a member of the peer review committee by contacting the National Program Leader listed under ‘additional information’ on the USDA Organic Transitions website. You can learn more about the grant by reading the Request for Application (RFA), which can also be found on the ORG page.
  • Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). Peer review panels are assembled for each AFRI subprogram within the Foundational and Challenge Grant RFAs. This panel is comprised of researchers and other experts in the field for which the program is soliciting applications. Reviewers meet 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 for some (but not all) AFRI programs and should contact the National Program Leader listed in the applicable Request for Applications (RFA) or visit the USDA Agriculture Food Research Initiative (AFRI) to find out more information on how to apply or serve on the peer review panel.
  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE). SARE reviews are made by regional Technical Committees, who often serve for multiple grant cycles, depending on the region and the type of grants the committee is reviewing (Farmer/Rancher, Research and Education, Professional Development Program, Graduate Student). Reviewers include farmers and non-profit researchers, are chosen for specific committees based on their expertise. As in other grant programs, reviewers serving on a specific committee cannot apply for that type of grant in that year; however, a reviewer on the committee for Farmer-Rancher grants could apply for a Professional Development grant. To express interest in serving on one of your region’s SARE Technical Committee, or to get more information about the details of the committees, contact your state coordinator.
  • Food Safety Outreach Program. If you will not be part of an application, but do have experience in farmer or small business food safety training and education efforts, consider serving as a peer reviewer for this grant panel! Interested panelists can send their resume to Jodi Williams, NIFA National Program Leader for Food Safety: