‘Fast and furious’ momentum behind new ag research foundation

Farm Forum

Starting a new $200 million non-profit foundation from scratch can be a daunting challenge, especially when it involves selecting board members, hiring new staff and organizing to address crucial agricultural research needs – while leveraging other public and private sector resources.

But the new Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), created in the 2014 farm bill, is marching along at a “fast and furious” pace, says Executive Director Sally Rockey.

Just six months after the 2014 farm bill was signed into law, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the creation FFAR and the appointment of a board of directors, chaired by former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. The board hired their first employee in Oct. of that year and, after an extensive search, hired Rockey in Sept. of 2015. Just two months ago, Renée Bullion, came on board as FFAR’s first Director of Development – a crucial role when you consider that federal funds must be matched in order for FFAR to invest. The staff now totals nine, including a contractor who serves as legislative liaison.

Last week, FFAR announced funding for its first major project – and it’s a doozy: a $100,000 prize to be awarded annually to a mid-career scientist.

FFAR, says the National Academy of Sciences prize will recognize “an extraordinary contribution to agriculture or to the understanding of the biology of a species fundamentally important to agriculture or food production.”

Nominations are being accepted through Oct. 3 for the prize, which is endowed by FFAR and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The prize, which will be awarded for the first time next year, may be shared by one or more individuals for a collaborative accomplishment.

Rockey says she’s very excited about the project and its ability to elevate the importance of agricultural research within the scientific community.

“I think agricultural science is very sophisticated and cutting-edge, but it oftentimes is lost in the science world because of all the biomedical and physical science work.”

In addition, FFAR has a few more initiatives underway, including:

• A “rapid response” program whereby the foundation can partner with organizations facing a crucial need for targeted research, like the avian flu outbreak. Modeled on the success of Project GREEEN at Michigan State University –the program is designed to provide a quick response to gaps in existing research. Of course, Rockey points out that you can’t be “rapid” if it takes you a long time to get the matching funds, so she is working with organizations to get funding agreements in place before problems happen.

• A New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Award to support up to 10 early-career ag scientists with up to $200,000 per year for three years. This will enable younger scientists to pursue highly innovative research and to mentor the next generation of standout scientists in food and agriculture. Rockey says recipients will be announced later this summer or early fall.

• Still being formulated: A soil health initiative, which aims to increase the amount of acreage using the health-promoting practices by five million acres and pollinator projects Convening events are scheduled later this month on phytobiomes and in August, on plant phenotyping.

One of the biggest challenges for FFAR is fundraising, but Rockey says her team is “up to the challenge” and after convening events and having discussions with a wide range of stakeholders, “I think we’ve had quite a bit of receptivity.

“The most critical part is to see the outcome of what we do, because if we discover that free competitive space and fund some really innovative projects, there’s going to be benefit to industry, to producers and to agriculture in general.

Rockey also believes that the FFAR can expand its fundraising reach outside of traditional agricultural sources. For example, the auto industry is interested in the pollinator project because their emissions have contributed to the decline of pollinator health and there is a lot of pollinator habitat on roads and medians.

As she looks ahead, Rockey says the FFAR is “really are trying to distinguish ourselves by finding that type of research that’s really going to make a difference in the short term” and she hopes that producers, commodity groups and industry players who have “boots on the ground” will engage in this search.

She also wants to be able to be able to “tell the story of agriculture,” working across the biological and social sciences to gain perspective. For example, Rockey wants to use social science research to look at public perception of some of the new genetic technologies for breeding purposes “so that we don’t get in the same quagmire we did before” on GMOs.