NIFA Update - Sept. 1, 2021

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Editor: Kelly Sprute                                                                                   September 1, 2021

Making a Difference

Filed of sorghum sudangrass, courtesy of Adobe Stock.  

Filed of sorghum sudangrass, courtesy of Adobe Stock.

A Study of Nutrient Return Speed in Sorghum-Sudangrass Varieties

University of Kentucky (UK) senior Brandon Dooley is studying whether sorghum-sudangrass with a brown midrib trait adds nutrients back to soil quicker than varieties without the trait. Sorghum-sudangrass is a warm-season annual grass Kentucky producers use for summer grazing and pasture renovation. When livestock graze the forage, they leave behind plant residues on top of the soil that must decompose. 

Previous studies have shown that sorghum-sudangrass containing the brown midrib trait has less lignin than other varieties. (Lignin is a complex organic polymer that, with cellulose, forms the chief constituent of wood.) As a result, microbes in livestock’s rumen digest the forage more completely, which enhances the animal’s performance. UK College of Agriculture Food and Environment forage researchers think the trait may also speed up leftover plant residue decomposition. 

Dooley interned with UK Extension forage specialist Chris Teutsch through the USDA’s Research and Extension Experiential Learning for Undergraduates summer internship program. This work was supported by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. For more information, read this UK News article.  

From the Director

Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture Dr. Carrie Castille

The final sprint toward the end of the fiscal year is on. While we are focused on finishing strong, we are taking stock of the tremendous progress we’ve made this year.

In partnership with you, our stakeholders, we continue to use Project CAFÉ and your valuable feedback as a guide for continuous quality enhancement of our programs and processes. Two of these Project CAFÉ teams reached major milestones in August 

The NIFA Website Improvement team completed these additions / updates to NIFA’s website:

Improvements continue and will result in the launch of a brand new NIFA website early next year. A special thank you to the project sponsor Faith Peppers, project manager Michael Quizon, and team members: Olivia Kwong, Joseph Perez, Mallory Koenings, Katherine Nace, Amber Campbell, and Jessica Creighton.

Another group working to re-engineer Request for Applications (RFAs) concluded the analysis phase and identified 18 opportunities for improving NIFA’s RFAs and making them easier for applicants to use. These improvement categories include:

  • Quick Wins Improvements
  • Document Organization and Formatting Improvements
  • Language and Cross-RFA Standard Improvements
  • Process Improvements
  • Supporting Long-Term Vision Improvements

The team is prioritizing these improvements and developing an implementation plan. Look for continued advancements as we work to streamline our RFA’s. 

Please continue to visit the Project CAFÉ Dashboard and follow the progress on these and the rest of the current initiatives.

Dr. Carrie Castille
Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture


Dr. Venu (Kal) Kalavacharla

NIFA Welcomes New Deputy Director

Dr. Venu Kalavacharla (Kal) joins NIFA as the new Deputy Director responsible for Institute of Youth, Family and Communities.

Prior to joining NIFA, he served as Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics and EpiGenomics in the College of Agriculture, Science and Technology at Delaware State University (DSU). Dr. Kalavacharla joined DSU as an assistant professor in 2006, became associate professor in 2009, and professor in 2014. Since 2009, he has served as the founding Director of the Center for Integrated Biological and Environmental Research at DSU.

Dr. Kalavacharla is actively engaged in understanding and improving crop responses to abiotic and biotic stressors in plants by using tools and methods from classical genetics and breeding to genomics, transcriptomics, and epigenomics. He has secured more than $19 million in extramural grants to Delaware State University from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and has experience in many crops including Brassicas, common bean, wheat, switchgrass, and salt marshgrass.  Dr. Kalavacharla’s teaching interests include plant genetics and breeding, and molecular genetics and genomics. He also advises and mentors undergraduate and graduate students from DSU and the University of Delaware.

Dr. Kalavacharla obtained a B.S. in Agricultural Sciences from Dr. Punjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth (Agricultural University), India, an M.S. in Plant Science (research in Brassica Genetics, plant pathology) from the University of Manitoba, and a PhD in Plant Science from North Dakota State University (research in dry bean molecular genetics, plant pathology). He then worked as a postdoctoral research associate in the multi-institution collaborative U.S. Wheat EST Genomics Project (research on wheat expressed sequence tag mapping, wheat scab, and developmental biology). Dr. Kalavacharla then worked in industry in plant genomics, and taught majors and non-majors at Drexel University.  He is passionate about experiential learning and developed a layered mentoring program for students and staff while in Delaware.

Through NSF and NIFA funding, he has strived to bring together cohorts of students from diverse student populations and backgrounds so that they can thrive in an environment that supports and encourages them. Recently, Dr. Kalavacharla and colleagues developed a PhD program in Integrative Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences at Delaware State University to encourage inter- and multi-disciplinary research, training, and education aimed at developing today’s scientists who can work in academia, industry, or government.

Josh Stull

Meet NIFA’s New Stakeholder Affairs Officer

Josh Stull joined NIFA this week as the Stakeholder Affairs Officer. Bringing almost 20 years of federal food and agriculture experience, Josh will be working closely as a liaison with NIFA stakeholders across the nation to ensure a strong connection to agency programs and opportunities. He will also be Acting Legislative and Policy Officer.

Josh returned to the agency after most recently serving as the Vice President for Policy and Analysis at the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation. Prior to his service at SoAR, he was the NIFA Congressional and Stakeholder Affairs Officer and Acting Communications Director. Joining NIFA from USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Josh served as Acting Director of Congressional and Public Affairs and Team Lead of Congressional and Public Affairs Staff. In both roles, he provided guidance and direction to staff on complex media and Congressional issues related to food safety and the inspection of meat, poultry, processed egg products, and catfish.

In June 2008, Josh began his federal executive branch career as a Legislative Analyst at FSIS, answering Congressional inquiries, drafting food safety and agency mission-related testimony for the FSIS Administrator, and participating in the USDA Leadership Potential Program in 2009. In 2011, he was the Director of Government Affairs for the National Fisheries Institute, advocating on behalf of America’s seafood industry to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Josh has seven years of legislative experience in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. He worked for U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania), serving as Legislative Assistant handling several issues, including agriculture, agriculture appropriations, and the 2008 Farm Bill. He also served as Legislative Assistant to U.S. Representative Don Sherwood (Pennsylvania) handling a multitude of issues, including agriculture, agriculture appropriations, the 2002 Farm Bill, the environment, and trade. Josh holds a master’s degree in European Studies from the University of Amsterdam and a bachelor’s degree in International Politics with a minor in Economics from Penn State University.

USDA Women's Equality Day graphic.

NIFA Celebrates Women’s Equality Day

Over 100 years ago, Congress passed the 19th Amendment giving women with the right to vote. Since 1971, August 26 marks Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates over a century of women breaking boundaries. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) celebrates the strong, progressive women who make up the organization and strive every day to support the growth of agriculture. NIFA is proud to highlight Dr. Suzanne Stluka, deputy director food safety and nutrition, as a trailblazing individual to help celebrate Women’s Equality Day. For more information, read the NIFA blog.

USDA Women's Equality Day graphic.

NIFA flower identifier

NIFA Career Opportunities

We are hiring! The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) recruits a diverse group of talented, creative, motivated professionals who are invested in shaping the future of food and agricultural science. We offer a variety of benefits and services to our employees that focus on work-life balance, career enhancement, and health and well-being. NIFA has career opportunities in a variety of scientific disciplines covering engineering, food science, forestry, education, animal and crop sciences, and many other agriculture-related disciplines. NIFA job openings are listed on USAJobs. Current NIFA job openings are for Kansas City, Missouri, or location negotiable after selection.

Lead Accountant (Staff) (GS-13)
Closing Date: September 2, or when we have received 150 applications
View the merit promotion job announcement (mainly for government employees)

USDA Messages

 National Agricultural Statistics Service hemp survey graphic

NASS to send 2021 Hemp Acreage and Production survey this fall

This October, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) will mail its first Hemp Acreage and Production Survey. The survey will collect information on the total planted and harvested area, yield, production, and value of hemp in the United States. The Domestic Hemp Production Program established in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill) allows for the cultivation of hemp under certain conditions. The Hemp Acreage and Production survey will provide needed data about the hemp industry to assist producers, regulatory agencies, state governments, processors, and other key industry entities. Producers may complete the survey online at or they may complete and return the survey by mail using the return envelope provided. For more information, go online to NASS.

Shopping bag full of fresh vegetables and fruits, courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Thrifty Food Plan Re-evaluation Puts Nutrition in Reach for SNAP Participants

More than 42 million of our neighbors rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to feed their families. USDA recently re-evaluated the Thrifty Food Plan, used to set SNAP benefits, which increased the purchasing power of the plan by 21 percent for the first time since it was introduced in 1975. As a result, on October 1, SNAP maximum benefit amounts will increase. For more information, read this USDA blog.

Shopping bag full of fresh vegetables and fruits, courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Veterinarian at a cattle farm, courtesy Adobe Stock.

Helping Predict and Possibly Prevent Future Pandemics

Keeping a closer eye on the disease situation of animals may help give early warning about possible human health threats. USDA’s Gary Crawford talks with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Dr. Mike Watson on how the USDA is creating an early warning system to prevent outbreaks. For more information, listen to this USDA broadcast.

Veterinarian at a cattle farm, courtesy of Adobe Stock.

News for You

Amanda M.V. Brown in the lab, courtesy of Texas Tech University.

Studying Nematode Bacteria for Possible Solution to a $100 Billion Problem

Farmers around the world know the devastating impact of plant-parasitic nematodes. These tiny worms feed on plants, ruining an estimated 25 percent of the world's crops and costing roughly $100 billion in damage each year. With a new, five-year grant totaling just over $1 million, Texas Tech University researcher Amanda M.V. Brown and team are studying the feasibility of a novel solution to the problem; one that holds promise for the environment as well as the agriculture industry. The project investigates a naturally occurring bacteria living with these worms that may drive their survival and mediate the devastating impacts on plants. This work is funded by a joint grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the National Science Foundation. For more information, read the Texas Tech Today article.

Amanda M.V. Brown in the lab, courtesy of Texas Tech University.

Scientist using a microscope to test for viruses, courtesy of Getty Images.

USDA-NIFA Making Foreign Disease Detections Priority Through 2021

USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is making foreign disease detection and surveillance one of its priorities through this year. Director Carrie Castille says the department is coordinating with other agencies to assist the National Animal Health Laboratory Network. “This critical partnership ensures that resources, testing, monitoring and data can be shared, and procedures can be rapidly implemented anywhere in the nation in response to a biological threat to the nation’s food animals,” Castille said, adding that, since the network was developed in 2002, there are now 60 laboratories that help surveil 14 highly rated food animal diseases. Castille made her comments Thursday at the KC Animal Health Corridor Digital Animal Health Summit.  For more information, read this Brownfield article.

Scientist using a microscope to test for viruses, courtesy of Getty Images.


Image of farmer with drone in field courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Farm of the Future

NIFA program experts will host an informative Farm of the Future webinar September 9, at 3 p.m. CT. Farm of the Future is a competitive grant program to establish an agricultural test bed and demonstration site. It seeks to launch this rural test bed for precision agriculture, smart automation, data connectivity and transfer to demonstrate best practices in agriculture, forestry, and animal production systems that enhance sustainability and farm profitability. Go online to register for this webinar. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Image of farmer with drone in field, courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Partner Funding Opportunity

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) logo

Announcing PEER COVID-19 Research Grant Opportunity

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine are announcing a call for new proposals for the Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) program. The focus is on sourcing locally led research projects from researchers in USAID partner countries that aid in our understanding of how shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, affect key sectors in our partner countries and test approaches to help communities and sectors respond to and mitigate the effects of COVID-19 or similar future shocks. For more information, read the request for applications. Applicants with questions are encouraged to consult National Academies for Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (the implementers of PEER) program staff at prior to submitting their pre-proposal.

Award Notifications

NIFA Invests $15.6 Million for Crop Protection and Pest Management

NIFA recently awarded 73 Crop Protection and Pest Management Program (CPPM) grants (20 Applied Research and Development awards and 53 Extension Implementation awards) to address high-priority issues related to pests (including insects, nematodes, pathogens, and weeds) and their management using integrated pest management approaches at the state, regional and national levels. The CPPM program supports projects that will increase food security and respond effectively to other major societal challenges with comprehensive IPM approaches that are economically viable, ecologically prudent, and safe for human health. The CPPM program addresses pest management challenges with new and emerging technologies. The outcomes of the CPPM program are effective, affordable, and environmentally sound IPM practices and strategies supporting more vital communities.

NIFA Invests $6.7 Million to Improve Sustainable Agricultural Productivity

NIFA recently awarded 10 Agricultural Microbiomes in Plant Systems and Natural Resources grants as part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative - Foundational and Applied Science priority area. This program focuses on understanding the multipartite interactions among the host, environment, and the microbiome; thereby providing information critical for improving and sustaining agricultural productivity. Research will help fill major knowledge gaps in characterizing agricultural microbiomes and microbiome functions across agricultural production systems and natural resources.

USDA Invests $1.9M to Develop Novel Biofuels and Biobased Products

NIFA recently announced three grants to domestic small businesses through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. SBIR promotes small businesses to develop science which benefits agricultural and rural communities. SBIR’s Biofuels and Biobased Products Program encourages small businesses to develop novel biobased fuels and products, providing new market opportunities for agricultural producers and sustainable products for industry. Phase II awards of SBIR’s Biofuels and Biobased Products provide Phase I awardees additional opportunities to scale up and apply concepts pursued in their Phase I awards.


Tweet of the Week

NIFA tweet - University of Georgia study suggests the likely origins behind the global spread of Salmonella Enteritidis,