What is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program?

SARE Explained: The Value of Farmer-Driven Research and Education

What is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Sustainable Agriculture and Research and Education (SARE) program is a decentralized and producer-driven grants and outreach program operating nationwide. Although many USDA programs fund research with sustainability in mind, SARE stands alone in focusing on the issue as its top priority.

SARE is funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). NIFA administers the program in conjunction with four regional councils—made up of producer, researcher, educator, and government representatives—that set regional priorities. And, four regional host institutions (RHIs) implement SARE’s competitive grant programs. Land grant institutions, state agricultural experiment stations, state cooperative extension services, nonprofit organizations, and government facilities are eligible to serve as RHIs.

In addition to awarding research grants, SARE also funds education projects, oversees a professional development program, and provides technical support at a national level, all in an effort to increase adoption of sustainable farming practices. To date, SARE has awarded over $361 million in funding to more than 8,000 projects across its four regions (North Central, Northeast, South, and West).

What research does SARE support?

As USDA’s only farmer-driven federal research program, SARE awards competitive grants directly to farmers and ranchers, as well as to researchers at universities, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies, to advance sustainable agricultural practices across the United States.

Since SARE was established in the 1990 Farm Bill, the program’s priorities have undergone very few changes. In the Farm Bill, Congress defined “sustainable agriculture” as an “integrated system of plant and animal production practices having site-specific application” that will enhance productivity, environmental stewardship, profitability, and quality of life over the long term. Specifically, the SARE program is set up to encourage research and outreach designed to increase knowledge concerning agricultural production systems that:

  • maintain and enhance the quality and productivity of the soil;
  • conserve soil, water, energy, natural resources, and fish and wildlife habitats;
  • maintain and enhance the quality of surface and groundwater;
  • protect the health and safety of persons involved in the food and farm system;
  • promote the well-being of animals; and
  • increase employment opportunities in agriculture

Regardless of the topic area, all SARE grant programs emphasize farmer-driven, applied research that takes place on working farms and ranches alongside producers.

SARE’s offices administer five different competitive grant programs, including research and education grants (R&E), professional development program grants (PDP), and farmer/rancher grants for on-farm experiments. In some regions, SARE also offers partnership and on-farm grants for agriculture professionals conducting on-farm trials, investigating new approaches to processing, or adding value to farm products. There is also funding for projects led by graduate students to address sustainable agriculture issues.

Over the last three decades, SARE has directed millions in research funds to projects that advance innovations to improve profitability and environmental stewardship. According to Breakthrough’s analysis, SARE devotes more than 25 percent of its funds to climate mitigation, most of which is directed to soil carbon sequestration efforts. Between 1988 and 2017, SARE grants totaled $39.5 million for cover crops, $15.4 million for nutrient management, $12.3 million for soil microbiology, $31.9 million for soil health, $11.2 million for manure management, and $3.3 million for rotational grazing research.

Recently awarded grants for SARE projects can be explored on the program’s website. A few past projects contributing to climate adaptation and mitigation in U.S. agriculture include:

  • Enteric methane emissions — Even though methane from enteric fermentation, a component of ruminants’ digestive process, accounts for nearly 30 percent of U.S. agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, public research on innovations to reduce these emissions has been severely underfunded. Several SARE projects aimed to improve the sustainability of U.S. beef and dairy production. One R&E project quantified the extent to which forage brassicas can mitigate methane emissions and increase the economic sustainability of forage-based dairy systems. Another project investigated the impact of genetics and grazing management on enteric methane emissions and the performance of beef cattle in Colorado.
  • Soil management — Many of SARE’s research grants explore ways to boost crop productivity while developing and maintaining healthy soils. Past SARE-led efforts to improve soil management practices include projects that assessed the potential for bale grazing to improve soil health in North Dakota, the extent to which compost application increases soil resilience and plant productivity in Colorado rangelands, and how intensifying cropping systems in semi-arid environments can enhance soil health and profitability in Texas.
  • Building capacity for farmers to adapt to climate change — SARE’s PDP grants aim to spread knowledge about sustainable concepts and practices among Cooperative Extension Service staff and other agricultural professionals. This knowledge-building helps to bridge the gap between research and on-farm implementation of improved practices and technologies. One recent project identified the knowledge gaps and training needed to better equip agricultural service providers in Maine to help farmers adopt practices and utilize resources that reduce climate risks.

How is SARE funded?

Congress authorized up to $60 million per year in program funding for SARE starting in 1990, consistent with recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. However, annual appropriations have never reached this level.

Once SARE receives annual appropriations, USDA, rather than Congress, determines the allocation of SARE funding to each grant type. The majority of funding goes to research and education grants. Between 1988 and 2017, about 67 percent of total grant funding was awarded to research and education projects and the remainder to professional development, farmer/rancher, on-farm/partnership, and graduate student applicants.

Sustainable agriculture organizations and the Biden administration have called on Congress to fully fund SARE at $60 million in recent appropriations bills. Additional program funding would enable enhanced support for farmer-driven research and expanded delivery of climate-smart education programs to help farmers and ranchers adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change and other food system challenges.

SARE holds a unique place in the federal agricultural research ecosystem by prioritizing the development of innovative sustainable practices with U.S. farmers and ranchers in mind. At the same time, SARE provides the framework to disseminate improved practices and technologies through nationwide education and outreach initiatives. As U.S. funding for public agricultural R&D continues to lag behind other countries and annual investments fail to keep pace with inflation, increasing support for research programs like SARE has the potential to generate huge climate benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • As USDA’s only farmer-driven federal research program, SARE awards competitive research and education grants to advance sustainable agricultural practices across the U.S. The program is funded by NIFA and run by four regional offices (North Central, Northeast, South and West).
  • SARE provides research and education grants to farmers, ranchers, researchers, extension agents, educators, and graduate students. The program helps drive agricultural innovation on farms across the country by supporting projects that address crop and livestock production, profitability, stewardship of natural resources, profitability, and quality of life in rural communities.
  • SARE is authorized in the Farm Bill and subject to annual appropriations by Congress. The program is currently authorized for $60 million in annual funding.