NIFA Update - Sept. 2, 2020

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Editor: Kelly Sprute                                                                                   September 2, 2020

Making a Difference

Automation Helps Solve Specialty Crop Challenges. Image of farmer holding tablet in field, courtesy of Getty Images.

Automation Helps Solve Specialty Crop Challenges. Image of farmer holding tablet in field, courtesy of Getty Images.

Automation Helps Solve Specialty Crop Challenges

Automation is helping the specialty crop industry overcome labor shortages, fine-tune management decisions, conserve resources and meet growing demand. Consistent with the USDA Agriculture Innovation Agenda, advances in technology for growing, harvesting, handling, and processing are generating significant savings for growers and consumers, while improving sustainability.

University of Florida scientists developed a robot that counts and maps the fruit on citrus trees, and University of California-Davis researchers developed fruit-picking carts with instruments that map orchard fruits. These automated devices have helped farmers see if and where production issues arise, so they can make targeted, effective management decisions. Accurate yield estimates are also important for programming harvest machines and making marketing decisions. For more information, read the NIFA blog


From the Director

Parag Chitnis, Acting NIFA Director

With the end of the Federal fiscal year fast approaching, it’s a busy time at NIFA. We are working daily to process all pending grants and get funding awarded to our partners. At the same time, we are adding bright, enthusiastic new talent to our agency to lead NIFA in the years ahead. And, we are taking bold new steps to create opportunities our partners need to continue to lead the world in agricultural scientific research and development.

Last week we were proud to announce our partnership with the National Science Foundation to create seven new artificial intelligence institutes across the country. These institutes will accelerate research, expand America's workforce and transform society for the future. Advancements in AI research have broad applications that can create economic, health and safety benefits across multiple industries and all levels of education. This national network of Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes represents the nation's most significant federal investment in AI research and workforce development to date.

The USDA-NIFA AI Institutes are the USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems, led by a team at the University of California, Davis, integrates a holistic view of the food system with AI and bioinformatics to understand biological data and processes, addressing issues of molecular breeding to optimize traits for yield, crop quality, and pest/disease resistance; agricultural production, food processing and distribution, and nutrition. Major emphasis is on inclusive education and outreach approaches to build a diverse, next-generation workforce. And, the USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management and Sustainability, sponsored by USDA-NIFA and led by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will advance AI research in computer vision, machine learning, soft object manipulation and intuitive human-robot interaction to solve major agricultural challenges including labor shortages, efficiency and welfare in animal agriculture, environmental resilience of crops, and the need to safeguard soil health. The institute features a new joint Computer Science+Agriculture degree and global clearinghouse to foster collaboration in AI-driven agriculture research. The $20 million investment in each of five NSF AI institutes and two USDA-NIFA AI Institutes is just the beginning; more institute announcements are planned. 

On Monday, many across the nation paused to celebrate the 130th Anniversary of the Second Morrill Act that established our 1890 Land-Grant Universities. During the national celebration, hosted online by APLU, NIFA released a new RFA to fund additional 1890s Centers of Excellence. The Centers were introduced in 2015 and aim to increase profitability and rural prosperity in underserved farming communities; address critical needs for enhanced international training and development; and increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering, agriculture and mathematics pipeline. We expect to invest about $5.7 million in these new Centers over the coming year.

We hope you will join with us in celebrating these opportunities, and please continue to share your ideas for how we can work together to create a stronger future for America and for science.


U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue

1890 Land-grant Universities Celebrate 130 Years of Cutting-edge Science, Education and Community Service

August 30 marks the 130th anniversary of the authorizing legislation establishing the 1890 Land-Grant Universities. Almost 30 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862, the Second Morrill Act, creating our nation’s historically black land-grant colleges, was successfully shepherded through Congress by Senator Justin Smith Morrill and signed into law on Aug. 30, 1890. This thriving network of 19 universities has a legacy of educating first-generation and economically disadvantaged college students, and enhancing the resilience of limited-resourced farmers, families, individuals, and underserved communities.

“America’s 1890 Land-Grant Universities are home to some of the best and the brightest our nation has to offer,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “The thousands of scientists, researches, and educators at these institutions are undertaking user-inspired, cutting-edge science that is transforming lives across our nation and around the world. The students at these institutions are a critical part of the future of American agriculture and with them the future is bright.” For more information, read the USDA press release.

Childhood Obesity journal cover image

USDA Research to Combat Childhood Obesity

A special supplement, “USDA Research to Combat Childhood Obesity,” published in the Aug. 20, 2020 edition of the journal Childhood Obesity showcases examples of recent NIFA-funded projects to advance obesity prevention for the most vulnerable population, low-income children. The six included articles highlight a diversity of research projects, low-income target audiences, and settings. These projects were funding through NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative program focuses on research, education, and extension grants that address key problems of national, regional, and multi-state importance. For more information, read the journal online.

USDA news radio graphic

Explaining Agriculture to All

The farm sector, particularly producers, are becoming more involved in sharing what they do, and how they do it, with everyone, whether it’s talking in person, using social media, or a tour of the farm. USDA’s Rod Bain talks with farm industry members about explaining agriculture to you and I in this edition of "Agriculture USA." For more information, listen to the USDA broadcast.

NIFA flower identifier graphic

NIFA Career Opportunities

We are hiring! Remember to check out NIFA's Career Opportunities webpage, where there is a direct link to all open positions. You can also explore NIFA jobs at the website. Current openings in Kansas City, Missouri:

Biological/Social Science Specialist (National Program Leader), GS 13-15
Closing date: 9/30/2020

Award Announcements

NIFA invests $68 million in Specialty Crop Research

NIFA recently awarded 23 new Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) grants to develop high-tech solutions that meet the needs of U.S. farmers and processors. SCRI supports the specialty crop industry by addressing problems in production, distribution, processing, and consumers markets. Specialty crops are defined as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture. SCRI encourages collaboration and open communication that accelerates the application of scientific discovery and technology making U.S. producers more competitive in a global market.

NIFA Invests $23 Million to Help Boost Organic Farming and Ranching

NIFA recently announced 25 grants that support farmers and ranchers who grow and market high-quality organic food, fiber, and other products through NIFA’s Organic Agriculture Program’s - Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and Organic Transitions Program (ORG). Twenty OREI grants totaling $17 million helps fund research, education, and extension projects to improve yields, quality, and profitability for producers and processors who have adopted organic standards. Twelve ORG grants totaling $5.6 million supports research, education, and extension efforts to help existing and transitioning organic livestock and crop producers adopt organic practices and improve their market competitiveness.

NIFA Awards $1.2 Million to Address Veterinary Shortages

NIFA recently announced 10 Rural Practice Enhancement grants though the Veterinary Services Grant Program (VSGP). VSGP helps to reduce the veterinarian shortage situations and support veterinary services. VSGP supports qualified entities to develop, implement, and sustain veterinary services through education, training, recruitment, placement, and retention of veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and students of veterinary medicine. Veterinarians are critical to America’s food safety and security, as well as to the health and well-being of both animals and humans.

Funding Opportunity

Centers of Excellence at 1890 Institutions (1890 COEs) Funding Opportunity.  Image of African American farmer in field; courtesy of Getty Images.

Image of courtesy of Getty Images.

Centers of Excellence at 1890 Institutions (1890 COEs)

The intent of the 1890 COEs Program is to provide support for Centers of Excellence that were originally established in 2015 in conjunction with the 125th Anniversary of the Second Morrill Act of 1890. The 1890 COEs are hosted by 1890 Land-Grant Institutions with the goals of: 1) increasing profitability and rural prosperity in underserved farming communities; 2) addressing critical needs for enhanced international training and development; and 3) increasing diversity in the science, technology, engineering, agriculture and mathematics (STEAM) pipeline. For more information, read the COE funding opportunity.

Tweet of the Week

NIFA tweet - Researchers across the US are working together on a multistate project to manage ticks & mosquitos.