USDA announced this week the availability of $17.6 million in funding to support research and outreach activities that will help processors, producers and growers find innovative ways to improve organic agriculture.

The grants are being funded through the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), a program that is administered by USDA's National Institutes of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

“Over the past six years, USDA has strengthened programs that support organic producers as they grow, thrive and respond to increasing consumer demand for organic products,” says Tom Vilsack, USDA secretary. “The projects funded through the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative will help identify innovative solutions to critical challenges facing organic agriculture, ultimately strengthening local markets, improving rural economies and expanding access to healthy food for Americans.”

According to USDA, the purpose of the OREI program is to fund high-priority research, education, and extension projects that enhance the ability of producers and processors who have already adopted organic standards to grow and market high quality organic products. Priority concerns include biological, physical, and social sciences, including economics.

OREI has eight legislatively-defined goals:

-Facilitating the development and improvement of organic agriculture production, breeding, and processing methods

-Evaluating the potential economic benefits of organic agricultural production and methods to producers, processors and rural communities

-Exploring international trade opportunities for organically grown and processed agricultural commodities

-Determining desirable traits for organic commodities

-Identifying marketing and policy constraints on the expansion of organic agriculture.

-Conducting advanced on-farm research and development that emphasizes observation of, experimentation with, and innovation for working organic farms, including research relating to production, marketing, food safety, socioeconomic conditions, and farm business management

-Examining optimal conservation and environmental outcomes relating to organically produced agricultural products

-Developing new and improved seed varieties that are particularly suited for organic agriculture.

Applications are due March 10, 2016. The request for applications, including program requirements, can be found here.