April 2017
The Future of Potato Research Funding is Here By David Fairbourn, managing editor

Jeff Steiner talked with PRAC members about growing the potato research portfolio.

The Potato Research Advisory Committee (PRAC) held one of its first meetings in Washington, D.C., just prior to the Potato D.C. Fly-In in February. Committee members are a group of growers, state managers and researchers representing potato production across the U.S. PRAC is administered by Potatoes USA’s Director of Research and Analysis Ryan Krabill.

As part of this meeting, Jeff Steiner was a guest speaker who talked with the PRAC members about growing the potato research portfolio. He is the national program leader for agronomy with the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). In January, NIFA awarded $1.85 million for potato breeding as part of its plant breeding, genetics and genomics programs. This potato breeding program has issued requests for applications (RFAs) seeking regional projects with the potential to rapidly develop potato varieties that have high commercial value. And according to what Steiner shared, this funding could be just the beginning of what may be available for future potato research funding.

Through NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), Steiner identified research funding programs that are directly applicable to potatoes. AFRI was established by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill and re-authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill. Funding available through AFRI is presently $350 million, but the president’s FY 2017 budget request proposes to fully fund $700 million to target the diverse challenges facing agricultural producers — from climate change to pollinator health to antimicrobial resistant bacteria.

Within AFRI, there are foundational programs that fund up to $500,000 per project that could be for two, three or perhaps even four years, depending on the project. Under the “Plant Health and Production and Plant Products” category, potato industry research projects would qualify for funding in the Agricultural Production Systems, Pests and Beneficial Species in Ag Production Systems, Physiology of Agricultural Plants and Plant Breeding for Agricultural Production programs. In the Food Safety, Nutrition and Health category, projects could be eligible for funding through the Improving Food Quality, and the Function and Efficacy of Nutrients programs. Another likely source for future potato research funds is in the Agricultural Systems and Technology category, in Agricultural Engineering, and in Bioprocessing and Bioengineering. AFRI also has funding through its Critical Agricultural Research and Extension foundational program.

Steiner also identified potential other discretionary funding sources for potatoes in capacity programs. There is $244 million in the Hatch Act for land grant universities. There’s $300 million in the Smith-Lever program for land grant universities and extension and $25 million in the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

The NIFA award of $1.85 million for potato breeding RFAs is under a category for special research grants. Steiner said there could be an additional $12 million available in special research grants for minor crop pest management (IR-4). Under the current Farm Bill, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative has $55 million. USDA-ARS also has $1.2 million available in State Potato Research Partnership funding. The USDA Small Business Innovation Research and NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants are additional sources for more funding toward potato industry research.

NIFA is anxiously engaged in accelerating and ensuring funded research projects produce results that are commercially viable as soon as possible. Progress in the projects is key, and must result in actionable intelligence for the potato industry. Tools, technologies, resources and innovations must be feasible and adaptable in the field.

To measure progress, NIFA has adapted some metrics that NASA uses for its technology readiness levels. This NASA metric has a scale of 0 to 9 to determine what goes up in space – 0 meaning the project is on the ground and NASA doesn’t know how to build it yet, and 9 meaning the project is up in space and operating. This type of gauge could be the basis for meaningful reports to the industry of what research projects started with, and the progress being made to get this implemented into the industry.

NIFA is also moving away from the requirement for the research community to submit their proposals every year, to remove time-consuming redundancies. The expectation is for the research community to provide more reporting about their progress and how this is being communicated to the industry.

Steiner commended the potato industry for working together with its research community to identify projects with greatest potential and to organize future funding priorities. Through USDA and NIFA, there is money available for these projects. There is no reason why the potato research community shouldn’t have increased access to these resources.

David Fairbourn is managing editor of Spudman. He can be reached at [email protected].

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