Passage of the 2008 farm bill meant big changes for U.S. agriculture — not only for farmers but also for researchers. One key change was the formation of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Formed in the main from the existing Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, NIFA will be the (USDA’s) extramural research enterprise. It is no exaggeration to say that NIFA will be a research ‘start-up’ company — we will be rebuilding our competitive grants program from the ground up to generate real results for the American people,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack last October.

For more, see http://deltafarmpress.com/legislative/agricultural-research-1029/index.html.

NIFA’s launch was encouraged by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. APLU is a national association that represents all the land-grant universities and other public institutions.

However, that hasn’t done away with some researchers’ worries about securing funding for their studies. That was evident during a March teleconference sponsored by NIFA when, during time set aside for a question-and-answer session, researchers peppered NIFA brass with funding queries.

In late April, the NIFA “transition continues,” said D.C. Coston, vice president for Agriculture and University Extension at North Dakota State University and a member of the APLU Board of Agriculture Assembly. “The group I chair continues to interact closely with the USDA leadership. It appears things are moving forward in a reasonable fashion and timely order.”

Among Coston’s other comments to Delta Farm Press:

Anything you’ve been hearing/saying to land-grant researchers about funding? Have you been putting out any fires?

“It’s fair to say that, just as in any human enterprise, anytime there’s change some people will struggle. Different people adapt to change at different speeds.

“For example, one the things recently released is the request for proposals for the competitive grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). The nomenclature around some of the program areas is a bit different than has been traditional.

“The expectation that some of the projects be large-scale and involve quite a number of people at multiple universities is new. It’s something the land-grant system advocated in the build-up to the 2008 farm bill.

“But some folks, when they look at the request for proposals are unfamiliar with the language. You have a chance to tell them, ‘Read it, look at it. There’s a place in there for you and your expertise.’ You encourage them to use their creativity as they think about it. And what we do in research and education at land-grants and other universities should be about creativity.

“I think people are getting more comfortable.

“We’re pleased that the pool of funds available for 2010 (that the request for proposals covers) is larger than it’s ever been.”

When we last spoke, AFRI was set for $262 million…

“The appropriation for fiscal 2010 was $262 million. The current request for proposals is about $235 million — it’s getting close. And there are a couple of program areas where they have yet to issue request for proposals. Those will make use of the remainder of those funds.”

The latest on the set-up of NIFA…

“Rajiv Shah (who was serving as USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics) was tapped by the Obama administration to be administrator of USAID. Following the terrible earthquake in Haiti, Shah was very visible as a point person for the Obama administration. He did a great job.

“There was a big hole at USAID and they needed someone to take over. With Shah’s professional background, he was a great fit. And he’d already been through Senate confirmation related to his position as undersecretary at USDA. So, he moved.

“Roger Beachy is the director of (NIFA). He’s doing a nice job of communicating with many, many people including the leadership of the land-grant university system. NIFA is in the throes of implementing (relevant) portions of the 2008 farm bill. We remain optimistic.”

One of the key drivers for this system was to have a science-based agriculture organization with the same cachet as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or National Science Foundation (NSF)…

“Quite often, stuff coming out of Washington, D.C., will refer to the NIH and NSF as the premier science organizations. One of the goals of NIFA was to try and get agriculturally-related research and education to be seen as (those organizations’) equivalent.

“With the things going on (at NIFA), there are signs that is beginning to happen.”

On the appropriations process…

“I need to make two additional points.

“One involves the current appropriations process for fiscal 2011. Some are very aware that the president proposes an executive budget, usually in coordination with the State of the Union address. Then, the two chambers of Congress take it up.

“We were very pleased that the president’s budget came out with another substantial proposed increase in the funding of AFRI for fiscal 2011. In our conversations with Congress we’re telling them that remains a good idea.

“There had been fear, with the focus on budget issues in Washington that formula funds — now known as ‘capacity’ funds — would be cut. The president’s proposal was that those be funded at the same level as fiscal 2010. So, there wasn’t a cut.

“The land-grant community has come together and is proposing some modest increases in all those lines.

“When Congress gets around to appropriation bills — and there are rumors it will be at least this fall, perhaps even after the November elections until appropriations bills are finished — we will be engaged, as we will throughout the process of (congressional) committee hearings, markups, etc., prior to final bill passage. We want to make sure the AFRI is funded as the president proposed and we’d also like the modest increases in capacity funds.

“We’re pleased that the president and Office of Management and Budget held true to their promises to increase funding (for AFRI).”

On preparations for the next farm bill…

“Second, (Minnesota Rep.) Collin Peterson (chairman of the House Agriculture Committee) has gotten conversations under way related to the 2012 farm bill. We’re not sitting around waiting.

For more on Peterson and the next farm bill, see http://deltafarmpress.com/legislative/next-farm-bill-new-emphasis-0423/index.html and http://deltafarmpress.com/cotton/next-farm-bill-work-starts-soon-0419/index.html.

“In the last few days, we’ve initiated through the land-grant system the gathering of information and feedback on the implementation of Title VII (the research and education title) in the 2008 farm bill. We’re asking our community, across the nation, ‘How well is it working? What changes and recommendations do you think would be appropriate for a 2012 farm bill?’ Nine or ten months from now, we should have any language changes we’d like in Title VII.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com