What is the Agricultural Research Service?

ARS Explained: In-house Research to Address National and Regional Agricultural Challenges

What is the Agricultural Research Service?
An east-side view of the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, circa 1994.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) chief scientific in-house research agency. As one of four agencies in USDA’s Research, Education and Economics (REE) mission area, ARS is a critical component of the federal agricultural research ecosystem.

In particular, ARS is a prime example of how agricultural research generates wide-reaching benefits. ARS research projects provide over 8,000 jobs across the country, help U.S. farmers maintain an international competitive edge, and keep food affordable. Beyond these economic and social benefits, are environmental ones as well. Public research has massive potential to improve agriculture’s environmental outcomes.

What is ARS?

ARS was established in 1953 and derives most of its research objectives from the ​​Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996. The agency aims to develop solutions to the nation’s highest-priority agricultural problems and provide information to the public across four national program areas:

  • Nutrition, Food Safety, and Quality

  • Animal Production and Protection

  • Crop Production and Protection

  • Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems

Within these four programs, there are more than 90 ARS research units and laboratories across 42 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC that support ongoing basic research and make groundbreaking discoveries that drive agricultural innovation. Compared to researchers at universities and national laboratories that rely on competitive research grants, ARS scientists can more reliably count on continuous funding because federal funds for ARS support in-house research directly.

Assured funding allows in-house scientists to tackle different types of research questions than other USDA research agencies. For example, an ARS research unit can dive deeply into a few specific research questions over a long time frame, instead of being hindered by time or short-term funding constraints.

In addition, ARS units contribute a significant portion of their research dollars to climate mitigation research. The Animal Production and Protection and Crop Production and Protection programs fund research into productivity growth, while the Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems (NRSAS) program areas carry out research with direct environmental applications.

What research does ARS support?

Within each of its four national program areas, ARS has three to four more specific research programs to further categorize its research projects. For example, the NRSAS program area includes the Sustainable Agricultural Systems program, which helps producers develop integrated information and technologies to solve problems related to productivity, profitability, energy efficiency, and natural resource stewardship. The Grass, Forage, and Rangeland Agroecosystems program, also under NRSAS, has research projects focused on vegetation, livestock, and natural resources management practices as well as on land-use strategies to optimize economic and environmental outcomes.

While some ARS sites have research projects that all fall under one program, others host projects across several research programs. For instance, the Cropping Systems Research Laboratory in Lubbock, TX, has research projects under six distinct programs.

Breakthrough’s analysis of federal research funding for agriculture found that ARS and AFRI provide the majority of funding for climate mitigation activities. USDA reports that ARS awarded $39 million in fiscal year 2021 for research related to emissions mitigation and up to $104 million if U.S. Global Change Research Program funding is also included.

Recently funded ARS projects can be found on USDA’s website. Examples of research topics with high climate mitigation potential include:

  • Reducing enteric methane emissions–Several ARS research units are engaged in studying feed additives, breeding, and other options to reduce enteric emissions and thus reduce the carbon footprint of the U.S. dairy and cattle industries. For instance, the Livestock Nutrient Management Research Unit in Bushland, TX, is researching the potential of Bromoform, a compound produced by red seaweed, to reduce enteric methane emissions.

  • Precision agriculture–The Soil and Air program, within the NRSAS, aims, among other things, to understand the effects of climate change on agriculture, as well as ways for agriculture to adapt to changing conditions. One research project in Arkansas is working to link precision agriculture and digital soil mapping technologies to optimize on-farm profitability and sustainability. ARS also has a multi-site effort to assess the ability of innovative fertilizer technologies such as enhanced efficiency fertilizers, precision fertilizer application systems, and biochar to reduce nutrient losses and improve the efficiency of fertilizer use.

In addition to supporting research under each of its national program areas, ARS also oversees the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network (LTAR) and USDA Climate Hubs, research and extension initiatives that disseminate region-specific technologies for on-farm use and improve the long-term sustainability of the domestic agricultural sector overall.

Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network

The LTAR Network is managed by ARS and comprises 18 research sites across an array of environmental conditions. The network links ARS experimental research sites that collect long-term data with partner sites operated by research institutions in an effort to increase agricultural productivity while improving environmental stewardship.

Researchers across the network strive to answer questions fundamental to future agricultural sustainability—such as those involving changes in soil carbon, climate, and the long-term effects of land use changes—that take longer than the typical 2-5 year project cycle. The long-term research of the LTAR network has resulted in new production techniques, genetic resource collections, and sensor infrastructure, all contributing to the sustainable intensification of U.S. agriculture.

USDA Regional Climate Hubs

The USDA Climate Hubs are led by ARS and the Forest Service. The network—consisting of 10 regional locations—supports USDA’s Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan and aims to bring USDA climate research and resources into practice by connecting a wide range of federal and state agencies, colleges and universities, cooperative extension, agricultural experiment stations, and regional climate change organizations.

The overarching goal of the Hubs is to ensure that farmers and ranchers have useful and usable information about the impacts of climate change. To this end, the Hubs coordinate delivery of science-based, region-specific information and technologies to agricultural producers that enable climate-informed decision-making, reduce agricultural risk, and build resilience to climate change.

How is ARS funded?

Congress first authorized federally supported agricultural research in the Department of Agriculture Organic Act of 1862, which established what is now the USDA. Over a century later, the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 provided the statutory language for most of ARS’ current research objectives.

In fiscal year 2022, ​ARS had a budget of approximately $1.6 billion for staff and research expenses and a $128 million budget for facility maintenance and construction. Congress establishes the annual budget for ARS based, in part, on the president’s budget request and research priorities. During this annual appropriations process, Congress can also direct ARS to prioritize specific research topics. For example, Congressional spending bills from FY19-22 have included at least $1 million for the ARS Livestock Nutrient Management Research Unit to study the potential of feed additives to reduce enteric methane emissions.

Recent appropriations bills have provided steady increases for the ARS Salaries and Expenses account which funds research staff and expenses. However, the ARS Buildings and Facilities account—which funds the acquisition of land and the construction, repair, extension, and purchase of equipment or facilities across ARS locations—has been subject to fluctuations over the years. From fiscal year 2016 to 2022, ARS Buildings & Facilities received an average of $170 million per year, with the annual funding peaking in 2019 at $381 million and reaching a low in 2021 at $36 million.

Insufficient funding increases over the last decade have stymied the agency’s ability to tackle its approximately $1 billion backlog in deferred maintenance costs, jeopardizing research quality and risking delays. It also hinders ARS from being able to expand its research capacity. For the United States to continue conducting cutting-edge research that yields environmental, economic, and social benefits, it is critical that researchers at ARS research units and laboratories have modern facilities and state-of-the-art equipment.

Finally, neither the LTAR Network nor USDA Climate Hubs have Congressional authorization or dedicated appropriated funding, meaning their annual budgets are not guaranteed. ARS has provided the LTAR Network with an annual operating budget of $20 million or less in recent years, but this has led to an uneven distribution of funds across LTAR sites, leaving many of the 18 sites severely underfunded. Insufficient and inconsistent funding for these sites limits their growth and outreach efforts.

Key Takeaways

  • The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is USDA’s chief scientific in-house research agency and supports agricultural research across four national program areas: Nutrition, Food Safety, and Quality, Animal Production and Protection, Crop Production and Protection, and Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems. A significant portion of the research done at ARS research units and laboratories focuses on increasing agricultural productivity while building climate resilience.

  • ARS is also engaged in cross-location, interdisciplinary efforts focused on the intersections of production and climate, such as the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research network and the USDA Regional Climate Hubs.

  • Congress establishes the annual budget for ARS based on the President’s budget request and research priorities. Historically, funding for ARS research has increased steadily. However, Congressionally allocated funds to address ARS maintenance backlogs and improve research infrastructure have been both insufficient and inconsistent.