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Secretary’s Column: Farm to School Programs Create New Opportunities for Farmers

This October, just like every other month during the school year, school menus will feature an array of products from local and regional farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. Kids of all ages will dig up lessons in school gardens, visit farms, harvest pumpkins, and don hair nets for tours of processing facilities. Science teachers – and English, math, and social studies instructors, too – will use food and agriculture as a tool in their classrooms, so that lessons about the importance of healthy eating permeate the school learning environment.

An investment in the health of America’s students through Farm to School is also an investment in the farmers and ranchers who grow the food and an investment in the health of local economies. In school year 2011-2012, schools purchased $386 million in local food from farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food processors and manufacturers. And an impressive 56 percent of school districts report that they will buy even more local foods in future school years. Farm to school programs exist in every state in the country. Read more »

Soil and Climate Data Help Farmers Reduce Severe Weather Risks

Dee Waldron, a Morgan County farmer, uses data from the NRCS Soil Climate Analysis Network, or SCAN, to make more informed farm management decisions.

Dee Waldron, a Morgan County farmer, uses data from the NRCS Soil Climate Analysis Network, or SCAN, to make more informed farm management decisions.

Utah dairyman Dee Waldron watches the weather closely. He wants clear, up-to-date weather and climate information anytime and anywhere that help him make critical farming decisions, such as when to irrigate, plant and harvest.

Waldron operates a dairy and feed grain farm in Morgan County, just east of Salt Lake City. This area is considered a high mountain desert and is not very productive without annual mountain streamflows stored in irrigation reservoirs.

“Before, I used to take a shovel in the field, dig down, and guess by feeling how much moisture was available for my crops,” Waldron said.  “Now I use my computer and iPhone to access the local weather forecast, the amount of soil moisture, the snow levels in the mountains, the amount of water in the river, and even the soil temperature. This really helps us as agricultural producers.” Read more »

Fermentation Fest – Innovation and Creativity in Rural Wisconsin

Ruminant, The Grand Masticator, a transformed John Deere combine by Minnesota artist Karl Unnasch, a temporary art installation along the Farm/Art DTour 2013. Photo by Aaron Dysert

Ruminant, The Grand Masticator, a transformed John Deere combine by Minnesota artist Karl Unnasch, a temporary art installation along the Farm/Art DTour 2013. Photo by Aaron Dysert

As we enter the autumn season, the harvest is on most Wisconsinites’ minds.   I’m particularly excited to be participating in an upcoming gathering in Reedsburg where the Wormfarm Institute’s annual Fermentation Fest will be taking place from October 4th through the 13th.   In addition to workshops on cooking and fermenting food, and even homebrewing, this “live culture convergence” will feature the nationally acclaimed Farm/Art DTour, a 50-mile self-guided drive through the rolling hills and farmlands in the “Driftless Area” of Sauk County.

On that Sunday the 12th, from 4 to 6 pm I will be participating on a panel called “The Art of the Rural – Creating Thriving Places Beyond the City” at the Woolen Mill Gallery, 28 E Main St. in Reedburg. We’ll explore how local food systems and arts and culture can combine to be integral strategies for fostering economic development in rural areas. I will be joined by a distinguished panel which includes: Jamie Bennett, the President of ArtPlace America, a national philanthropy consortium; Matthew Fluharty of Washington University who leads Art of the Rural; Sarah Lloyd, a Wisconsin Dells dairy farmer, rural sociologist and member of the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, a 2014 recipient of a USDA Value-Added Producer Grant, and Curt Meine, conservation biologist and Aldo Leopold biographer. Read more »

Continued Support for Local Food

USDA’s investments in local and regional food systems help provide farmers and ranchers with greater opportunities, consumers with more choices and bring jobs to rural and urban communities. USDA Photo.

USDA’s investments in local and regional food systems help provide farmers and ranchers with greater opportunities, consumers with more choices and bring jobs to rural and urban communities. USDA Photo.

Strong local food systems are one of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Vilsack’s four key pillars to revitalize rural economies.  On Monday, he announced the award of over $52 million to support local and regional food systems and the organic industry through five USDA grant programs. Most of the grants were authorized through the 2014 Farm Bill.

As part of that announcement, my agency—the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)—awarded over $27 million in competitive grants to expand marketing through the new Farmers Market and Local Food Marketing Promotion Program, as well as over $1 million in matching grants through the Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program (FSMIP). For years, AMS has led USDA efforts to support local and regional food systems by awarding grants that give farmers and ranchers around the country tools to reach consumers, strengthen ties between urban and rural communities and help meet the growing demand for locally and regionally produced food. Read more »

Mule Deer Habitat in Western United States Improves Based on Restoration Efforts with Partners

Mule deer are often found browsing on national forests and grasslands in the West. The Million Bucks initiative, started in 1989, involves the U.S. Forest Service and partners such as the Mule Deer Foundation who collaboratively work to conserve and restore habitats to support healthy deer populations that in turn will provide recreational opportunities for the public. (Courtesy Dave Herr. Used with permission.)

Mule deer are often found browsing on national forests and grasslands in the West. The Million Bucks initiative, started in 1989, involves the U.S. Forest Service and partners such as the Mule Deer Foundation who collaboratively work to conserve and restore habitats to support healthy deer populations that in turn will provide recreational opportunities for the public. (Courtesy Dave Herr. Used with permission.)

The mule deer on the Spanish Fork Ranger District, a part of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest in Utah, are happy foragers these days thanks to a dedicated effort to improve their habitat and increase their numbers.

Mule deer are primarily browsers, with a majority of their diet comprised of broad-leaved, non-woody plants such as buckwheat and lupine and browse which includes leaves and twigs of shrubs and trees such as sagebrush and serviceberry. They are pickier eaters than larger animals like cattle and elk. Their body composition requires that they select these more nutritious plants and parts of plants than other types of feed like grass. Thus, they have more specific forage requirements and need of habitat that provides a sustainable diet, especially over the winter. Read more »

Cochran Fellowship Program Yields Results for U.S. Alfalfa Hay Producers

China’s dairy industry has seen the benefits of U.S.-grown alfalfa hay thanks to the Cochran Fellowship Program. (Photo credit: USDA-NRCS)

China’s dairy industry has seen the benefits of U.S.-grown alfalfa hay thanks to the Cochran Fellowship Program. (Photo credit: USDA-NRCS)

China’s growing middle class and rising demand for high-quality food products have led to a boom in the country’s dairy sector.  With the help of USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and the Cochran Fellowship Program, U.S. alfalfa hay producers have been able to capitalize on this expanding dairy market.

More than 10 years ago, FAS recognized an opportunity in China’s dairy sector and used the Cochran Fellowship Program to educate south China dairy professionals about the U.S. dairy industry. Between 2005 and 2007, four delegations of dairy farm managers, veterinarians, college professors, industry association leaders, government officials, and dairy processors participated in dairy training programs.  Once they returned to China, the fellows conducted feeding trials through FAS’ Quality Samples Program, learning how Chinese farmers could use U.S. alfalfa hay to help increase milk yield, improve cows’ health, and boost farmers’ revenue. Read more »