History of SARE

SARE Authorization

The SARE program is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and is authorized under Subtitle B of Title XVI of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990.

Congress has defined sustainable agriculture as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long-term:

  • satisfy human food and fiber needs;
  • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends;
  • make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
  • sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole. (U.S. Code Title 7, Section 3103)

Learn more about what this definition means in practice.

Before 1988

An idea ahead of its time: After publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—the exposé about pesticides—reduced-chemical techniques take hold in a small but growing community of farmers and ranchers. In 1980, USDA publishes the landmark Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. Its findings are just ahead of their time. The incoming administration disbands the report team, but its authors and others continue to press for change.

SARE is conceived: Congress responds to the growing chorus for a government sustainable agriculture program and passes the Agricultural Productivity Act, which will become SARE. No funding accompanies authorization.


Congress funds in millions: What some experts say will take more than a year takes eager sustainable ag pioneers only six months to establish: a science-based, grassroots, problem-solving, business-not-as-usual grant program. On hand is Congress’ first appropriation: $3.9 million.

What to fund? Never before has so much attention and money been readily available for researching sustainable agriculture. First up is testing and further developing fundamental approaches, such as cover crops, rotational grazing and composting.


The big buy-in: The Environmental Protection Agency contributes $1 million per year to an EPA/SARE collaboration called Agriculture in Concert with the Environment. The program continues until 2001.

Spreading the word: Relatively few outside the sustainable ag community hear about groundbreaking work in sustainable agriculture, or know how to get started. SARE forms a national outreach office, which quickly begins producing practical, how-to bulletins and books.

Funding for farmers and educators: Recognizing the importance of farmers’ on-the-ground experience, SARE begins funding farmer-led research directly. Congress also adds funds for SARE’s Professional Development Program, which trains ag professionals in latest practices.


Public catches on: Sustainable and organic practices start hitting the mainstream press. National Geographic, for example, publishes a centerpiece article featuring grantees’ work.

Fine-tuning the portfolio: SARE adds new target areas—marketing, local production and on-farm energy efficiency and renewables.

Major shift at USDA: A SARE-initiated working group on sustainable development persuades the Secretary of Agriculture to issue a historic memorandum pledging that sustainability will be a key component of all the department’s policies and programs.

New partners: The National Agroforestry Center starts a six-year co-funding program with SARE to help farmers develop agroforestry. The Agricultural Marketing Service matches funds to examine the potential of new and emerging marketing opportunities in sustainable agriculture.

Next generation: SARE begins awarding grants to cutting-edge graduate student research.


Smithsonian exhibit: A special SARE-supported exhibit debuts at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, “Listening to the Prairie: Farming in Nature’s Image.”

Top practitioners recognized: SARE launches the Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture to recognize stellar farmer and rancher innovation in the field.


Change happens: Evaluations of SARE programs show real progress on the ground: 64 percent of farmer/rancher grantees said their SARE project helped them achieve higher sales and 79 percent experienced improved soil quality. And after reading a SARE publication, 53 percent of producers report using a new production technique.


20th Anniversary! SARE celebrates 20 years of innovation on the farm and ranch—to date, 3,700 projects funded and an annual budget of nearly $19 million. SARE plans for 20 more years!


The future of research: Through grant support and by developing new educational resources, SARE strengthens its focus on systems research—the long-term, interdisciplinary study of all the components that influence food and farming outcomes. Grants are made in new areas: farmer diversity, food distribution, creating regional and local food systems, and more. 


25 Years of SARE: Discover some of the impacts SARE grantees have had over the years in key areas of sustainable agriculture: cover crops, rotational grazing, marketing and more.

More about SARE's history

You can learn more about SARE's history from these reports:

SARE 20/20: Celebrating our First 20 Years, Envisioning the Next20.20.pdf 3.48 MB

The Early Years: The LISA, SARE and ACE ProgramsThe Early Years (Madden).pdf 1.03 MB

Explore past editions of SARE's annual and biennial reports.