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Getting Geeky at the 3rd Annual USA Science and Engineering Festival

Sonny Ramaswamy, director of NIFA, has fun with Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Sonny Ramaswamy, director of NIFA, has fun with Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

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.

When you think of agriculture do you think of science and engineering? You should! Farmers are some of our original scientists, tinkering with plant varieties and farming techniques to find ways to reliably grow food. At USDA, we still do that kind of research in a never-ending effort to find better ways to produce food, fuel, and fiber. We also do a lot of research you might not think of when you think about agriculture: from forensic genetic analysis to track down unwanted pests to figuring out how to turn spent grain from distilleries into biodegradable kitty litter.

On April 26-27, the 3rd Annual USA Science and Engineering Festival took over the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. Over 325,000 people came out to celebrate discovery and innovation through over 3,000 hands-on activities and 150 performances and lectures.  USDA pulled all of the stops to show our geeky side and hopefully convince a few young booth visitors to consider agriculture when they think about careers in science. Read more »

Picture it! Conservation!

This month USDA will be highlighting the value of conservation with a different focus each week.

Sometimes the benefits of conservation can be abstract. For example, think a minute about the dollar value of a single tree. Can you come up with a number?

Did you consider that the tree creates oxygen, captures carbon and provides wildlife habitat? Or that the tree serves as a windbreak, shades and cools the surrounding area, and improves water quality? Don’t forget, these benefits extend for many decades over the lifetime of a healthy tree. Read more »

Our Changing Climate – Third National Climate Assessment Released

Mississippi River flooding in 2011. The Third National Assessment of climate, released today found that climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past forty years and are projected to increase over the next twenty five years. Photo Credit: Lance Cheung, USDA OC

Mississippi River flooding in 2011. The Third National Climate Assessment, released today found that climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past forty years and are projected to increase over the next twenty five years. Photo Credit: Lance Cheung, USDA OC

The Third National Climate Assessment Release (NCA) report was released today.  The report was written by 240 authors who worked in author teams reflecting their expertise, who also selected additional contributing authors, including several scientists and experts from USDA.

The report is similar in many respects to previous climate assessments.  The authors conclude that climate change is already happening across the United States. The report documents ways climate change is altering agriculture and forestry systems across the country and evaluates how these systems are likely to be affected in the future.

The authors found that climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past forty years and are projected to increase over the next twenty five years. By mid-century and beyond, these impacts will be increasingly negative on most crops and livestock. Read more »

Researchers Track “Gray Ghosts” Across the Southern Appalachians

Gray ghosts are a common sight in the southern Appalachians. A hemlock woolly adegid infestation has killed many hemlock trees in the Linville Gorge area of Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. (U.S. Forest Service/Steve Norman)

Gray ghosts are a common sight in the southern Appalachians. A hemlock woolly adegid infestation has killed many hemlock trees in the Linville Gorge area of Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. (U.S. Forest Service/Steve Norman)

Residents of the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States have long enjoyed a rich culture of storytelling. Often rooted in a deep connection to the natural world, stories from Appalachian folklore serve to entertain as well as to educate; sometimes, important life lessons emerge, especially from tales of demise. A present-day ghost story from the southern Appalachians has captured the attention of U.S. Forest Service researchers who are using high-tech tools to follow the footprints of lost life.

The ghosts in this story are eastern and Carolina hemlock trees. Hemlocks provide valuable ecosystem services in Appalachian forests, including cover for wildlife and cooling shade along waterways. But they are being killed in increasing numbers by an exotic invasive insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid. Native to Asia, the hemlock woolly adelgid is transported through forests by animals, wind and, accidentally, by people. Often called “gray ghosts” because of their pale, skeleton-like appearance, the dead hemlocks are obvious across the mountain landscape. Using a forest monitoring tool known as ForWarn, scientists are able to see just how devastating the hemlock losses have become across the southern Appalachians, where the hemlock woolly adelgid thrives in the warmer temperatures. Here, the hemlock woolly adelgid is killing trees much more quickly than in the more northern areas of the hemlocks’ range, sometimes in as few as four years after infestation. Read more »

USDA Helps Syrup Producers Cut Back on Energy Use but Not Sweetness

A youngster enjoying how maple syrup is made. NRCS photograph.

A youngster enjoying how maple syrup is made. NRCS photograph.

In New England – or anywhere for that matter – nothing says the weekend like a short stack fresh off the griddle, covered by its inimitable mate, maple syrup. Whether the color is dark amber or golden light, the flavor is unmistakable. But as we pick up our forks and dig in, how many of us really think about where it comes from or how it’s made?

Did you know the most common tree used is the sugar maple? It grows mostly in the Northeast and Canada.

Production of maple syrup continues to climb, and according to data from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Connecticut saw an increase in maple sugar production with a record 78,000 taps in 2013. Read more »

USDA Grants Assist Small Farmers Who are Making a Big Impact in Agriculture

Small and medium-sized farmers could see help in growing their operation thanks to programs that will be developed at 10 universities that were funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture this week.

Small and medium-sized farmers could see help in growing their operation thanks to programs that will be developed at 10 universities that were funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture this week.

Farming and ranching is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Agriculture in the United States is a mixing bowl of diversity, and it’s most evident when comparing large- and small-scale farming operations. Having grown up on a small, family farm in Iowa, I saw first-hand not only how important our small farmers and ranchers are to the nation, but also the challenges they face daily.

There is much variation among small family farms and ranches. No one definition comes close to capturing the richness and diversity of these operations. For example, while many farmers and ranchers are loyal to their traditional production systems, others constantly seek new opportunities and experiment with alternative crops, production methods and innovative marketing approaches. As a result, the United States produces a striking range of food and fiber, from soybeans to sesame, from beef to buffalo. Read more »