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Open Data Summer Camp Plans Gaining STEAM for 2017

Students learning about benefits of urban and community agriculture

Last summer students learned about a wide range of benefits of urban and community agriculture from USDA staff, researchers and educators at the University of the District of Columbia.

USDA and the Governance Lab at New York University (GovLab) are teaming up again to design and deliver a “summer camp” in 2017 for middle- and high-school students that focuses on using Open Data related to Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture, and Math (STEAM).

The Open Data STEAM Summer Camp program, begun in 2016, is an immersive two-week project-based and team-focused learning experience for students in the Washington, D.C. area. The program aims to help these students build familiarity and hands-on competence with the approaches, tools and analytical techniques relevant to harnessing the power of open data on critical issues related to food and agriculture. Read more »

Regional Partnerships Help De-Clutter Arizona Grasslands

Pronghorn in Arizona

Pronghorn are able to return to brush controlled grasslands in Northern Arizona that were previously dominated by invasive-woody brush. Photo: Steve Cassady.

A popular new year’s resolution is to de-clutter our homes. But what if a clutter-free home was the only way you could survive and thrive?

Across Arizona, there is wildlife living in grasslands impacted by poorly-planned fencing and woody invasive brush. Invasive plant species, such as pinion juniper and mesquite that grow and spread quickly, create obstacles in grassland habitats that make it difficult for pronghorn and other migratory, grassland-dependent species to avoid predators.

Further, these invasives crowd out native grasses that provide food for wildlife and livestock, reduce soil erosion and help soil absorb precipitation, which is vital to replenishing supplies of groundwater and improving water quality. Read more »

Innovation is Driving Down Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Corn-based Ethanol

A flexible fuel pump with ethanol

This flexible fuel pump offers 30% and 85% ethanol fuel.

Ethanol, primarily derived from corn, supplies about 10 percent of US motor fuel needs.  A new study from ICF which was released today, titled “A Life-Cycle Analysis of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Corn-Based Ethanol,” finds that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with corn-based ethanol in the United States are about 43 percent lower than gasoline when measured on an energy equivalent basis.  This is comparable to reducing GHG emissions in the U.S. transportation sector by as much as 35.5 million metric tons per year.

Ethanol production has changed significantly over the past ten years. U.S. production has ramped up from 3.9 to 14.8 billion gallons per year between 2005 and 2015. As demand for corn ethanol has increased, corn production in the US expanded from 11.8 billion bushels in 2004 to 13.6 billion bushels in 2015 (NASS).

Unlike earlier studies of ethanol’s GHG benefits, which had to rely on projections of future ethanol production systems and expected impacts on the farm sector, this study was able to review how the industry and farm sectors have performed over the past decade to assess the current GHG profile of corn-based ethanol.

Earlier studies of ethanol’s GHG balance projected the effects of allocating billions of bushels of corn to ethanol production on supplies of corn and other commodities going to domestic and world food and feed markets.  Those studies expected that farmers in the U.S. and other regions would respond to higher corn prices by bringing new lands into corn production. Bringing new land into commodity production typically results in increased GHG emissions—and those emissions can be large if the former land use was native grassland, wetland, or forest. However, what actually occurred in the US and around the world is more complex.

The Three Rivers Energy biorefinery in Ohio

The Three Rivers Energy biorefinery in Ohio produces corn-based ethanol.

Increased use of corn to produce ethanol in the US did have a positive price effect on corn.  As a result, within the US and abroad, idled croplands were brought into production; cropland already in production was managed more intensively; and by-products of corn ethanol production were used more efficiently as animal feed. Around the world, producers increased their use of double cropping.

The ICF report draws on those new data, including the analysis in Bruce Babcock and Zabid Iqbal’s publication “Using Recent Land Use Changes to Validate Land Use Change Models”.  Babcock and Iqbal’s study confirmed that the primary land-use change response by the world’s farmers to increased demand for corn during the period 2004-2012 was to increase double cropping, reduce un-harvested planted area, reduce fallow land, and reduce temporary pasture in order to expand production. Moreover, the use of distillers dried grains and solubles (or DDGS) became a preferred substitute for corn grain, thereby muting the increased demand.

Those types of production gains are emblematic of innovation in modern agriculture. In 1961, it took 3.38 billion acres of cropland to feed the world’s population of 3.5 billion people. Over the next fifty years, the world’s population doubled to seven billion people, while cultivated land increased by only 12 percent to 3.78 billion acres. Productivity gains driven by improvements in technology have allowed farmers to get more output from existing resources, and thereby to keep pace with the growing demands an increasing global population puts on agriculture for food, fiber, and energy products.

In addition to the gains from reduced levels of land conversion, the ICF report shows that the reductions in GHG emissions from corn ethanol are continually driven by a variety of improvements in efficiency, from the corn field to the ethanol refinery. On-farm conservation practices, such as reduced tillage and nitrogen management, improved the GHG balance of growing corn for ethanol. Production yields, measured in gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn, have increased by 3.4 percent between 2006 and 2014.

Ethanol plants have also improved process efficiencies and can now produce biofuels that generate double the lifecycle GHG reductions estimated earlier, and there are opportunities to improve performance even more. New enzymes and yeast strains have increased process efficiencies in starch conversion and fermentation. Those process upgrades have become drivers for a decreasing GHG-intensity of corn ethanol production. Improved technologies such as combined heat and power, and using landfill gas for energy offer continued areas for improved efficiencies.  New co-products, such as corn-oil biodiesel and DDGS have helped reduce GHG lifecycle emissions.

The report concludes that the GHG profile of corn ethanol is on track to be almost 50 percent lower than gasoline in 2022 if current trends in corn yields, process fuel switching, and improvements in trucking fuel efficiency continue.

One of the ICF report’s important findings is that there is a large potential for additional gains in ethanol’s GHG efficiency. The study examined the potential GHG benefits of additional on-farm conservation practices and efficiency improvements, such as the practices outlined in USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry strategy. When these practices and plant efficiency improvements are universally adopted, the GHG benefits of corn ethanol are even more pronounced over gasoline—potentially rising to 76 percent gain in GHG benefits.

Continuing these trends is good news for the transportation sector—and the agriculture sector—when it comes to reducing GHG emissions.

A nearly 100 percent biodegradable kitty litter made from dried distiller’s grains, left over from corn-ethanol production

USDA scientists have developed a nearly 100 percent biodegradable kitty litter made from dried distiller’s grains, left over from corn-ethanol production.

Bringing it Home at the End of the Year

U.S. Farms Selling Food Directly by Region, 2015 map

Results of the 2015 Local Food Marketing Practices Survey released on Dec. 20, 2016 reveal that 167,009 U.S. farms sold food directly to consumers, retailers, institutions and intermediaries. (Click to enlarge)

According to recent data on local food marketing practices, 167,000 U.S. farms locally produced and sold food through direct marketing practices, resulting in $8.7 billion in revenue. Pennsylvania led the U.S. in the number of farms selling directly to consumers, with more than 6,000 operations. California led in sales, earning $467 million. The survey also concluded that more than 80 percent of all direct market food sales occurred within 100 miles of the farm.

Local foods, pollination, organic products, fats and oils—these are just a few of the topics on which NASS recently began collecting and reporting data to meet data interests and requests, adding to our long-standing information on major commodities. We are innovating and building on more than 150 years of service to rural America with agriculture statistics. The value of accurate data is now more important than ever for decision-making on the farm, and by USDA farm program administrators, policy makers, researchers, market participants and, really, every aspect of agriculture. Read more »

Taste Test: Behind the Scenes with USDA Foods

Chris Facha samples the new pepper/onion blend

Chris Facha, USDA Food Distribution Program Coordinator at the Oregon Department of Education and American Commodity Distribution Association (ACDA) President Elect, samples the new pepper/onion blend served during the USDA/State Agency Meeting’s “USDA Foods: Behind the Scenes” session.

The USDA Foods Available List is a lot like any other menu, with dozens of healthy options for state agencies to order and distribute through USDA’s nutrition assistance programs.  And every year, foods are added or removed from the list based on customer demand and market conditions. Some offerings are modified to improve nutrition content or make the product and its packaging easier to work with in the kitchen or more acceptable to kids.

The USDA Foods program is a collaboration between the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the agency that procures the food, and the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the agency that distributes the food. This school year, the USDA Foods team’s goal for training and conferences is to provide more opportunities to taste new and reformulated products. That way, state agencies can confidently order them and school districts can incorporate them into their menus. Read more »

USDA Offers Grants to Help Expand Marketing and Local Food Opportunities

Ajo Farmers Market poster

FMPP grant helped Ajo Farmers Market expand its vendors to offer a variety of foods and activities from fresh local veggies, stews and soups to Kids Month with mural painting activities for kids!

If there is one word that best embodies agriculture, it is entrepreneurship. Over the course of my time at USDA, I’ve had the chance to meet with farmers, ranchers and food business of all sizes and in all parts of the country. The faces of these entrepreneurs and their innovative strategies and business models reflect the diversity that makes this country strong.  Each year, USDA helps thousands of agricultural producers and businesses enhance their marketing efforts and bring healthy, nutritious food to communities– and I’m excited that this week, we’ve announced another opportunity to support their work.

My agency, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), announced the availability of more than $27 million in grants to help ensure the livelihoods of our nation’s farmers and ranchers while strengthening rural economies. The announcement included $26 million in AMS grant funding from the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program through the Local Food Marketing Promotion Program (LFPP) and the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP). Read more »