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Giant Sequoia Trees Face “Drying” Times

U.C. Berkeley biologists Cameron Williams and Rikke Naesborg measuring the trunk diameter of a giant sequoia

U.C. Berkeley biologists Cameron Williams and Rikke Naesborg measure the trunk diameter of a giant sequoia in Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park. Photo credit: Anthony R. Ambrose

“A mature Giant Sequoia can use 500-800 gallons of water every day during the summer,” said Anthony Ambrose, a tree biologist at U.C. Berkeley. “That’s a lot of water necessary for just one tree.”

For the first time in at least 125 years, Giant Sequoias in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California are showing significant amounts of “dieback” in their foliage due to several years of drought. Read more »

Innovation in the Tropics Helps Farmers Conserve Resources and Improve Soil Health

Dr. Koon-Hui Wang of the University of Hawaii presenting about Cover Crops Calculator for the Tropics

Dr. Koon-Hui Wang of the University of Hawaii is the lead principal in the national Conservation Innovation Grant on Cover Crop Calculator for the Tropics. Photo by Jolene Lau.

Farmers in the Tropics needed a better tool to estimate the nitrogen contribution from cover crops to reduce their commercial fertilizer rates.

Cover crops, which may appear as weeds to the untrained eye, are healthy plants that enhance soil health and minimize erosion. Covering the soil helps protect this precious resource that provides our food and fiber.

A calculator to address this issue was developed for Idaho and Oregon with a high success rate in legume cover crops― a type of plant, such as peas or beans, with seeds that grow in long cases (called pods). Through a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), the University of Hawaii expanded on this proven technology and modified it for tropical climates and soil types in the Pacific Islands Area. Read more »

The Surprise in Latest Forecast: Net Farm Income Down; but Farm Businesses and Farm Households Show Improvement

Debt-to-asset ratio and debt-to-equity ratio chart

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) recently released its Farm Income forecast for 2016. This year the debt-to-asset ratio ratio is forecast to be 13.2%, compared to 12.7% in 2015. The same trends hold for debt-to-equity ratios.

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) recently released its Farm Income forecast for 2016.  Net cash income and net farm income (which includes the value and costs of items like depreciation, home consumption of farm goods, and unsold inventory) are both expected to fall slightly compared to 2015, but by much less than last year. Net cash income is expected to fall by 2.5%, or about $2.3 billion, and net farm income by 3%, or about $1.6 billion. Last year net cash income fell by 27% and net farm income by 38%.

A large portion of the forecast decline is from lower livestock receipts, expected to be down by about $7.9 billion. Crop receipts are also forecast to be lower by $1.6 billion. On the other hand, input costs are forecast to be down by $3.8 billion, and government payments are expected to be $3.3 billion higher. Read more »

Local Food Systems at Work in the Driftless Area

Acting Administrator Elanor Starmer at Dubuque Food Co-op

Everybody is welcome at the Dubuque Food Cooperative, which features local, organic, and sustainably produced food. USDA photo by Bill Menner.

So called because it was left untouched by retreating glaciers that flattened much of the Midwest, the Driftless Area of northeast Iowa, southwest Wisconsin, and bits of Minnesota and Illinois is home to more than just beautiful rolling hills. It’s also the site of inspiring efforts to develop a strong regional food economy. I had the honor of visiting the region in my first trip as Acting Administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).

With Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, USDA has put local and regional food front and center over the last seven years. We realize that consumer demand for local food can create economic opportunities, help develop systems that bring healthy food to underserved communities, and better connect consumers with agriculture. Building these systems often brings together unlikely partners – farmers, economic development experts, local government, school officials and supply-chain businesses – in the pursuit of shared goals. Read more »

Consumer Demand Bolstering Organic Production and Markets in the U.S.

Mar-Bil Jersey Farm's red barn

Mar-Bil Jersey Farm has been in Bill Yoder’s extended family since the 1700s and his grandfather built their big red barn nearly 100 years ago. Photo by Keri Pickett Photography.

Organic food sales in the United States have shown double-digit growth during most years since the 1990s, and this trend shows no sign of slowing.  The Nutrition Business Journal reports annual growth in the nation’s organic food sales has generally exceeded 10 percent since the downturn in the American economy in 2008.  U.S. organic food sales approached an estimated $37 billion in 2015, up 12 percent from the previous year.  The country’s top food retailers, including Costco, Kroger, Walmart and Target, have expanded their organic food offerings in recent years, and have announced initiatives which could further boost demand.

Although organic sales have been increasing from a small base, the Organic Trade Association estimates that U.S. organic food purchases accounted for nearly 5 percent of the total food market in 2014.  In addition, U.S. sales of organic personal care products, linens, and other nonfood items were in excess of an estimated $3 billion in 2014.  Certified organic farmland has also expanded, while not as fast as organic sales. Read more »

Conservation Partnerships Improve Illinois River

Erosion along the Illinois River

Erosion along the Illinois River and its tributaries results in high turbidity levels. (Photo by Lauren D. Ray)

Thanks to conservation partnerships, two segments of the Illinois River are off Arkansas’s impaired waters list.

Surface erosion and agricultural activities along the river caused high levels of turbidity – or water haziness. Improvement in these conditions from the 2006 listing, led to ten segments of the river removed from the state’s list of impaired waters in 2014.

With assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Illinois River Sub-Basin and Eucha-Spavinaw Lake Watershed Initiative (IRWI), poultry farmer Bruce Norindr is doing his part to improve water quality in the Lower Muddy Fork Watershed. Read more »