If you're involved with production agriculture in the Upper Midwest, you're almost certainly familiar with the Farm Service Agency, National Agricultural Statistics Service and National Resources and Soil Conservation, all prominent arms of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA, to add yet another ag acronym to the already lengthy list, is important, too — and a recent webinar aimed to increase agriculturalists' understanding of it.

"Food and nutrition security and developing the rural economy are the heart of everything we do at NIFA," said Carrie Castille, NIFA director. "We're going to work across the nation, in every state and every territory, with our partners in the American powerhouse of science to become the leader in agricultural science education."

Castille spoke March 16 in a webinar, open to the news media, hosted by the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research. The coalition describes itself as a "nonprofit, nonpartisan, consensus-based, and customer-led coalition that brings food, agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and natural resource stakeholders together with the food and agriculture research and Extension community."

According to the NIFA website: "The National Institute of Food and Agriculture provides leadership and funding for programs that advance agriculture-related sciences. We invest in and support initiatives that ensure the long-term viability of agriculture. NIFA applies an integrated approach to ensure that groundbreaking discoveries in agriculture-related sciences and technologies reach the people who can put them into practice."

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NIFA has four science institutes and a Center of International Programs. The agency has 221 staffers, 16 in Washington, D.C., and the rest in its Kansas City operation center, Castille said.

NIFA works closely with U.S. land-grant universities, historically black land-grant colleges and universities, and land-grant tribal colleges. It provides funds for ag experiment stations, cooperative extension and to address food and nutrition, security of workforce training and education, and rural development, supplying money to 2,300 projects last year, she said.

The agency has "strong bipartisan support" and enjoyed a 19% total budget increase from 2017 to 2021, she said.

One of NIFA's current highlights is a new competitive grants program for science research that's going to help modernize laboratories, she said.

She also mentioned that NIFA is finalizing an agreement with the Centers for Disease Control for community vaccinations education and training through cooperative extension.

Priorities for the coming year are containing the pandemic, ensuring racial justice and equity, ensuring food and nutrition security, rebuilding the rural economy and addressing the impact of climate change, Castille said.

As part of its pandemic response, NIFA has awarded more than $24 million in grants to spur "rapid response innovation to address food and agricultural needs," she said

"Over the past few weeks we've seen early returns on these investments, and they're really impressive," she said.

Ag experiment stations

Also among the speakers during the webinar was Bret Hess, executive director of the Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Stations in Reno, Nev.

He noted that state ag experiment stations were authorized by the Hatch Act, signed into law in 1887 by President Abraham Lincoln. He called the act "one of the most revolutionary acts of congress that led to the science-based advancements, firmly placing the United States as a world leader in food and agriculture."

The act provided funding through USDA and what is now NIFA, he said.