What is the Specialty Crop Research Initiative?

SCRI Explained: Research and Education to Improve Specialty Crop Production Systems

What is the Specialty Crop Research Initiative?

The Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) is a competitive grants program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that funds research and extension projects to address agricultural challenges related to specialty crops. Specialty crops are defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.

The SCRI is administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The SCRI funds systems-based, trans-disciplinary research to advance and disseminate science-based tools—think predictive models to improve producers’ pollination decisions on-farm or genetic mapping databases that can be used by breeders to improve disease resistance—that are unique to specific crops and regions. Employing a systems-based approach ensures SCRI research supports long-term improvements not just in production, but also in processing, distribution, and marketing systems that impact specialty crops.

SCRI grants have funded research and extension activities at the national, regional, and multistate scale. Among other outcomes, the research has improved crop yields and quality, reduced production costs, improved market access, and protected pollinators.

What research is supported by the SCRI?

The SCRI program was first authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, and its statute mandated five focus areas. The subsequent 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills expanded the program’s research priorities to include emerging challenges faced by specialty crop producers, such as improving production efficiency, crop characteristics, and technological innovations.

Today, the program's focus areas are:

  • Crop improvement.This includes plant breeding, genetics, and genomics research to develop new varieties of crops that are resistant to pests and diseases, have other improved environmental tolerances, or have enhanced nutritional content.

  • Pests and diseases. This includes research on developing new pest control methods, identifying emerging and invasive pests, and protecting pollinators.

  • Production efficiency, productivity, and profitability. This includes research on developing new production methods, including those related to the soil rhizosphere microbiome, pesticide application systems and certified drift-reduction technologies, and systems to improve and extend specialty crop storage life.

  • New innovations and technologies. This includes research on technologies that delay or inhibit ripening, mechanization and automation of labor-intensive tasks in processing and production, and improved decision support systems. New innovations and technologies could also include robotics, sensor technologies, and precision agriculture.

  • Food safety. This includes research to better prevent, detect, monitor, control, and respond to potential food safety hazards in production, handling and processing of specialty crops.

NIFA awards SCRI grants to a range of eligible applicants including colleges and universities, federal agencies, national laboratories, companies, non-profit organizations, State Agricultural Experiment Stations, other research institutions and organizations, and individuals. In addition to encouraging applicants to utilize trans-disciplinary, systems-based approaches, the SCRI gives priority to projects that include mechanisms to communicate results and resources to producers, consumers, and the public.

NIFA offers SCRI grants for several project types including standard research and extension projects, coordinated agricultural projects that span multiple system components (such as crop genetics and harvest), and research and extension planning grants to help applicants develop quality future proposals.

Recently awarded SCRI grants, listed on the program’s website, have supported the development and adoption of new practices that improve specialty crops’ resilience, sustainability, and profitability. Projects that have specifically contributed to climate adaptation and mitigation include:

  • Plant breeding and genetics. Several SCRI research projects supported the use of biotechnology and other advanced breeding methods to increase specialty crop production without requiring more cropland. Since most crop research is focused on improving grain crops like corn and wheat, SCRI provides essential support for improving crops grown in lesser quantities. One SCRI project developed computational tools for genomics-assisted breeding in public breeding programs for polyploid crops (e.g. potato, blackberry, turfgrass, kiwi, sweet potato and rose). The resulting computational toolsets, genomic information, training materials will accelerate the rate of genetic gain in a wide array of polyploid crop breeding programs, leading to cultivars with higher quality, greater productivity, and stress resilience. Another SCRI-supported project aimed to improve breeding technologies to select for blueberry and cranberry traits that maximize industry profitability and match consumer preferences.

  • New technologies and innovations. The SCRI promotes collaboration, information exchange, and research to accelerate the application of scientific discoveries and technologies. Access to improved data, tools, and technologies can help specialty crop producers improve their operations’ resilience to climate change, manage natural resources more effectively, and automate labor-intensive harvesting. Past SCRI efforts to develop new technologies include projects to develop controlled environment propagation technologies that will improve resilience in the strawberry supply chain and to utilize remote sensing and AI-guided precision irrigation management programs that will reduce water consumption for turfgrass across landscape types, including seed/sod farms. Another project sought to develop automated harvesting and packaging machines for mushroom farms.

How is the SCRI funded?

Since 2008, the SCRI has received mandatory funding from Congress via the Farm Bill. After mandating $30 million for the program’s first year, Congress has steadily increased funding for the program over time. From 2009 to 2012, the program received $50 million per year. Due to a lapse in the 2014 Farm Bill, no SCRI grants were made in 2013. However, once passed, the 2014 Farm Bill increased funding to $80 million per year and specified at least $25 million of the program’s annual funding be designated for citrus disease research.

In fact, between 2014 to 2019, USDA administered $25 million in annual funding designated for citrus health research through SCRI with a focus on helping citrus producers combat Huanglongbing (HLB). Also known as citrus greening, the disease is caused by an invasive bacterial pathogen and was first detected in Florida in 2005. In the years to follow, USDA contributed significant resources to manage, research, and eradicate the disease. With explicit funding provided through SCRI in the 2014 Farm Bill, USDA was able to ramp up these efforts. Examples of funded projects include developing HLB-resistant citrus cultivars, enabling field detection systems for HLB, and creating effective treatments that prolong productivity in infected citrus trees.

The 2018 Farm Bill once again amended and expanded the SCRI’s research priorities; however, Congress maintained its annual funding level at $80 million per year. The 2018 bill also established a separate Emergency Citrus Disease Research and Development Trust Fund, thus discontinuing the carve-out for citrus disease research within SCRI.

Key takeaways about the SCRI

  • The Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) was established at USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) as a research and extension initiative to address critical issues facing the specialty crop industry, which includes fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and flowers.

  • The program awards competitive grants to develop and disseminate science-based, region-specific tools and practices that increase crop yields and quality, reduce costs and enhance production efficiency, expand market access, improve food safety, address pests and diseases, and develop new innovations and technologies.

  • The SCRI is authorized with mandatory funds in the Farm Bill and currently receives $80 million in annual funding.