By Tom Driscoll, Director of NFU Foundation and Conservation Policy 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) found that the percentage of U.S. farms operated by women farmers almost tripled over the past three decades, from five percent in 1978 up to fourteen percent in 2007. This is encouraging news, given the impending transition of American farmland. The study also determined that women tend to operate smaller farms, which frequently require more on manual labor than larger operations.

In light of these trends, Green Heron Tools, a company that makes farming and gardening tools specifically designed for women, is doing critical work to make agriculture a more accessible career path for women. Green Heron’s work, like a number of other businesses that improve farming and the food system, was accelerated by the USDA Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR), administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

SBIR funds small business research and development projects through a competitive, multi-phase grant process. Eligible research areas that may be of interest to NFU members include products and practices that improve:

  • Air, Soil and Water (technologies that conserve natural resources)
  • Biofuels and Biobased Products
  • Food Science and Nutrition (products or processes that protect the nutritional value of food)
  • Plant Production and Protection- Biology (biological processes or products that protect crop production)
  • Plant Production and Protection- Engineering
  • Rural and Community Development (technologies that improve infrastructure, encourage diversity, enhance resilience)
  • Small and Mid-Sized Farms (products and processes that increase the profitability and sustainability of smaller and mid-sized farms and ranches)

The goal of the program is to ensure that grantees can develop ideas into commercially viable, investment-worthy products or services. New applicants may apply to Phase I, which offers up to $100,000 for eight months. Successful Phase I participants may apply to Phase II, with up to $500,000 available for 24 months. Phase III includes guidance and support in seeking other funding sources.

If you are involved in, or aware of, a small business with an innovative idea to improve farming and food, please check out SBIR’s solicitations here. Phase I solicitations are typically published in June with October deadlines. You can see recently funded projects here. The breadth and innovation of projects funded through this program demonstrate the importance of publicly funded agricultural research.


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