Research and innovation have walked hand in hand with agriculture. Seed technology, equipment and the way farmers approach the growing season have seen significant changes due to the ability of agronomists and scientific experts to experiment with new methods.
But there is a cost to see many of these long-term projects through.
Being a land-grant university allows the University of Illinois to have access to federal funding for research, which gives a good base. Alex Winter-Nelson, acting associate dean for research with the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, said that federal funding is “tremendously valuable,” though it hasn’t grown much over the last few decades.
“It’s a stable source of funding to ensure there is capacity to do agricultural research,” he said. “They provide us with a platform for continuous activity.”
Money from the federal government is combined with what Winter-Nelson called “competitive funding” that researchers apply for and are awarded based on merit.
“That’s really the backbone of what supports our activities,” he said.
One group that helps with research funding is the Iowa Corn Promotion Board. Stan Nelson, vice president of the ICPB, said their goal is to help with funding education, research and market development. As the checkoff has grown since 1978, he said those three categories are more intertwined than ever.
“We are trying to keep up, and one of the newer things is plant-based plastics,” Nelson said. “We are trying to find new uses. Mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) is one of the areas we are delving into deeper now. Corn is a mainstream crop and sometimes people overlook it as being used in plastics.”
Nelson said the checkoff has a little more flexibility to fund research projects that some corporations may not be able to.
“We are doing things a large company won’t because it can be time-consuming,” he said. “We’ve made a few breakthroughs and found patents that work this way.”
At the University of Illinois experiment station, Winter- Nelson said their priorities, in a broad sense, are to increase productivity and profitability in agriculture and promote healthy communities and people, as well as environmental sustainability.
“They are all connected,” he said. “We are talking about healthy rural communities, economically viable communities, diet and nutritional health, land-use practices and the environment. Our activities relate to those themes.”
Project time frames are also something factored into decisions on funding. Many projects will take more than one or two years, with several taking place over the course of a decade or more. Winter- Nelson said there are checks and balances built in to make sure that any long-term projects are still viable or needed, but that also allow the researchers to have confidence to use that money well long-term.
“Many of these are three- or five-year programs and will likely be renewable,” he said. “We like to seek funding for projects that can be defined over a five-year time frame and can be renewed for a second five years based on performance. That’s a model we like, but not always the model the government or a sponsor provides.”
He said having that stability allows the research park to have facilities in place for decades, rather than focusing on smaller windows of time based on funding. That’s why the steady federal funding helps as well.
Nelson called those renewals a “stage gate” where researchers have goals set for early research and when those are met a group looks over the data and determines how much will be needed to continue the project and if it is providing useful information. This can sometimes require multiple organizations working together.
“The higher you go, the more expensive it gets,” he said. “If we can have a collaboration with other states and other checkoff programs, we can have a larger pool of money and go further down the process, which is exciting.”
As for current projects, Winter-Nelson said a lot is happening in the bio-processing field, particularly with precision fermentation. Creating new uses for agricultural products has become a focus for many researchers, but it can be an expensive endeavor.
“Precision fermentation — using bio-processing to create new sources of biofuel and new projects of various types — is going to create a lot of new, exciting opportunities,” he said.
Winter-Nelson also said digital or “data-intensive” agriculture is seeing continued efforts as the community continues to see what data can be leveraged to improve efficiency and crop growth.
Stan Nelson said some of the biggest projects he’s seen through his time with the Iowa Corn Promotion Board surround nitrogen-use efficiency and working with the North American Plant Phenotype Network and other genetic research projects.
“We are sticking our fingers into all types of research, whether it’s new projects, uses or methods of chemistry,” he said. “Then we can also get back to the basics of agronomy with the plant and soil health. We are trying to fill all the buckets.”