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The Small Plant Help Desk, Accepting Calls!

Beth McKew, DVM, Staff Officer, State Outreach and Technical Assistance Staff, Office of Outreach, Employee Education and Training, Food Safety and Inspection Service

If you don’t work at USDA, you may not have read the 2008 Farm Bill, which means you may not be aware of the many benefits that came out of that legislation.  One such provision directed USDA to coordinate technical assistance to small meat and poultry processors.  As a result, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency within USDA committed to working with business of all sizes in support of a safe and wholesome food supply, established the Small Plant Help Desk

Small and very small processors make up more than 90% of the nation’s 6,000 federally inspected meat and poultry establishments and all of the 1,900 state inspected plants.  These small, independent businesses are often the closest and most convenient way that a farmer or rancher can bring their cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, or goats to market, and they are a critical part of the infrastructure that comprises our nation’s local and regional food systems.

Behind the Help Desk FSIS’ Staff Officers – subject-matter experts with recent in-plant experience – can assess callers’ requests and provide information and guidance materials that best meet their needs. The Help Desk not only provides such callers with step-by-step instructions, but also provides resources to assist them in understanding food safety issues relevant to the products they are producing.

Lucia Huebner from the Traveling Butcher in Hopewell, New Jersey, called the Small Plant Help Desk multiple times in search of help in starting up a federally-inspected mobile slaughter unit. Huebner’s questions ranged from those about specific federal regulations, such as potable water testing, to more general questions, such as how to coordinate her slaughter schedule with the local District Office. A Help Desk Staff Officer was able to answer her questions, put her in touch with district staff in her area, as well as connect her with a network of other small processors who have also faced the challenge of starting up a mobile slaughter unit. Huebner is still in the process of applying for a Federal Grant of Inspection, and plans to call the Help Desk again as questions arise along the way. “The Help Desk has been a fantastic resource for me,” says Huebner. “What a great feeling to know that I have someone to call when I have questions about federal inspection.”

The Help Desk can be reached at 877-374-7435, or 877 FSIS HELP, or by emailing InfoSource@fsis.usda.gov.

Lewis & Clark National Forest Hosts ‘Hands-On’ Outdoor Science Classrooms

By Phil Sammon

While many of their contemporaries across the country may have had their hands on game controllers this week, 1,700 junior high school students from Great Falls, Montana public schools had their hands on caddisfly and mayfly larvae, crayfish, snails, clams, plus a wide range of plants, seeds, and soil types – all in the name of conservation education and science.

These students all took part in a series of scientific experimentation and exploration stations at the Lewis & Clark National Forest’s Interpretive Center adjacent to Great Falls, along the Lewis & Clark National Trail and the banks of the Missouri River. The 12-day program puts students in touch with nature at six different field investigation sites, all supporting science-based curriculum and classroom preparation.

The program is a partnership with the public school system, which along with the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center staff received a grant from the Department of the Interior. The Center’s location makes it an ideal local setting for students to study, observe, experiment and make scientific conclusions based upon their findings at the six different stations. Forest Service staff, Center volunteers and teachers from the public school system, all pitch in to conduct, monitor and assist the student in their field work.

This exceptional example of conservation education in the Forest Service is a direct reflection on the national program efforts to get more kids outdoors, put more kids in the woods, and inspire students to know, experience, and want to work with the natural resources as part of their lives, to meet the needs of present and future generations.

The students rotated through each of the six stations: water, fire, botany, hydrology, ornithology, and macroinvertebrates. Special demonstrations as well as necessary scientific equipment and supplies at each gave students the right equipment for their work. At the water station, for example, students would assess water quality by testing acidity, dissolved oxygen, and phosphate/nitrate levels. At the ornithology stations, they discovered and noted that migratory birds return at different times, and learned the variance between cavity and woven nest builders.

The students, many of whom had likely never spent more than a couple hours at a time in the outdoors, spent upwards of six hours a day going from station to station. Their enthusiasm and excitement was proof to the educators and Forest Service staff that this Field Investigations Partnership was worth the effort and investment.

Jane Weber, Director of the Interpretive Center explained, “We are excited to have the students experience place-based science within their community.  It’s surprising how few have spent an entire day outdoors in their young lives. As an added benefit, the children monitor our environmental conditions over time.” Tom Moore, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education for Great Falls Public Schools agreed, “I have seen citizen science implemented successfully in other school districts and am pleased to see our educators build this experience into our science curriculum.

Jay Russell, Executive Director of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center Foundation, whose organization wrote and received the grant summed the program up this way: “These children will act as our modern-day explorers. Who knows, this experience may inspire a child to explore a future academic pursuit in natural sciences.”

Federal Agencies and Tribes Gather In Nebraska to Talk Needs and Resources

Written by Vicki Schurman, USDA Rural Development, Nebraska

Ten USDA agencies and Nebraska’s four federally recognized Indian Tribes gathered earlier this month at what is believed to be the first ever Tribal Listening Session in Nebraska.  Seventy-two attendees participated in the Listening Session at the Life Long Learning Center at Northeast Community College in Norfolk that was spearheaded by the State Food and Agriculture Council. 

All of Nebraska’s headquartered Indian Tribes had both Tribal Council Leaders and Tribal Business Management representatives at the session.  Federally recognized Tribes in Nebraska are the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska, and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. 

The guest speaker was Rural Development’s South Dakota State Director Elsie Meeks who spoke of her own experiences as a Native American and on utilizing USDA programs.  She emphasized the Obama Administration’s commitment to working with the Tribes.  Each USDA agency hosted booths for Tribal members to visit to learn more about what is available to assist them.   Breakout sessions included Land Use Management, Economic/Community Development, Health and Human Services and Housing.   All sessions were presented by USDA specialists.

A Tribal opening prayer and the Noon Prayer and Spirit Plate, customs of the Tribes, were shared with all.   Bison, a traditional food of the Tribes, was served at lunch.

Secretary Vilsack earlier today announced funding to assist Tribes in business development ventures.  To learn more click here.

Session attendees included Tribal leaders and members and USDA staff.

Session attendees included Tribal leaders and members and USDA staff. 

Washington State Tribe to Receive Grant for Small Business Training Program to Produce Local, Sustainable Shellfish

When you think of locally produced food, you often think of vegetables but in Washington State, Native “farmers of the sea” are developing a thriving aquaculture industry.  Like traditional farmers, these “sea” farmers sew and reap, but in this case the harvest is shellfish: oysters and clams. Read more »

Feeling Stressed? So are Poplars

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.  

By Jennifer Donovan, Michigan Technological University

People aren’t the only living things that suffer from stress. Trees must deal with stress too. It can come from a lack of water or too much water, from scarcity of a needed nutrient, from pollution or a changing climate. Helping trees and crops adapt to stress quickly and efficiently is a pressing goal of plant biologists worldwide.

A team led by Michigan Technological University  scientists and supported by USDA and DOE grants has identified the molecular mechanism that Populus—the scientific name for common poplars, cottonwoods and aspens—uses to adapt to changing soil conditions, as well as some of the genes that turn the process off or on. They hope to apply what they’ve learned to find ways to use biotechnology or selective breeding to modify the trees to make them more stress-tolerant.  And better sources of pulp and fiber.

“Our hope is that by understanding how this works, we can manipulate the system so the plants can adapt faster and better to stressful conditions,” explained Michigan Technological University’s Victor Busov, senior author on a paper about this work published in the journal The Plant Cell.  

Busov and colleagues at Michigan Tech, the University of Georgia, Oregon State University and the Beijing Forestry University in China analyzed thousands of genes in the Populus genome, the only tree genome that has been completely sequenced. They were searching for the mechanism that regulates the plant’s decision to grow tall or to spread its roots out in an extensive underground exploration system that can sample the soil near and far until it finds what the rest of the plant needs.

The key players turned out to be a family of hormones called gibberellins, referred to by the scientists as GAs.   “GAs’ role in root development is poorly understood,” said Busov, “and the role of GAs in lateral root formation is almost completely unknown.”  Lateral roots are the tangle of tiny roots that branch out from the primary root of a plant. ”They are the sponges,” Busov explained, “the ones that go looking for nutrients, for water—the ones that do most of the work.” 

The researchers hope to understand how to turn off production of GAs, which would stimulate more roots and fewer leaves and twigs — and thus help poplars cope with drought conditions, a valuable trait in a world where water scarcity is increasingly a problem. 

Poplar fruiting as part of the USDA poplar breeding program

Poplar fruiting as part of the USDA poplar breeding program.

 

Poplars. Photo credit Michigan Technological University  

Poplars. Photo credit Michigan Technological University. 

Recovery Act Funding from USDA Assists in Health Care Training in Georgia

Three patient simulation dummies – an adult, a child, and an infant – are now available for students to practice on at Heart of Georgia Technical College in Dublin, thanks to USDA funding provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Read more »