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A Giant Crop-Scanner Is Turning Heads in Arizona

A giant electronic scanner in Maricopa, Arizona

ARS scientists and their partners are using a giant electronic scanner in Maricopa, Arizona to study the growth characteristics of sorghum plants as part of a project designed to speed biofuel crop development. Photo by Jeffrey White, Agricultural Research Service.

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 USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

With its 30-ton frame and 50-foot-high catwalk, the newest scanner for measuring crop plants in Maricopa, Arizona, can be seen for miles. It looms over a tract the length of two football fields and moves along steel rails.

“When people saw this big apparatus being built here, they started asking if we were going to be looking for space aliens,” says Jeffrey W. White, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant physiologist with the Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center in Maricopa. Rather than studying the heavens, the scanner is measuring the individual characteristics of thousands of energy sorghum plants growing underneath it. The effort could play an outsized role in meeting the Nation’s future energy needs. Read more »

Celebrating Progress: National School Lunch Week 2016

Cross-posted from the Food Research and Action Center blog:

Last week, children from more than a dozen schools and child care centers across the nation joined First Lady Michelle Obama for her final harvest of the White House garden. This event was more than just photo ops and shaking hands; kids got their hands dirty, harvesting the produce they later used to prepare a healthy meal. This was a neat experience for the students who participated, but it was also representative of the types of activities students are participating in all around the country. School gardens, nutritious snacks, farm to lunch tray meals, and nutrition education are all part of the healthier school environments students are experiencing each and every day.

Today kicks off National School Lunch Week 2016 and continues our month-long observance of Farm to School Month, and this year, there’s a lot to celebrate. More than 50 million children around the country attend schools that participate in USDA’s National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Not only are their meals full of nutritious foods – with 99 percent of schools nationwide reporting that they are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards – their entire learning environment fosters healthy habits now and throughout the rest of their lives. The Smart Snacks Final Rule aligned the standards for snacks offered to students during the school day with the nutrition standards that apply to lunch and breakfast. In addition, the recently published Local School Wellness Policy Final Rule ensures that any food and beverage marketing kids are exposed to during the school day must adhere to the Smart Snacks standards, sending a consistent, positive message to students about the importance of healthy eating. Read more »

Getting a New Perspective on the Great Lakes’ Water Quality

A watershed

Different watershed land uses – such as the Lake Michigan forests and recreational area pictured here – affect regional water quality in lakes, which researchers can estimate using satellite imagery. Photo credit: US Forest Service

The Great Lakes cover over 95,000 square miles and contain trillions of gallons of water. These vestiges of the last Ice Age define immense. But their greatness makes water quality monitoring difficult.

In 2010, Titus Seilheimer, a US Forest Service research ecologist at the time, led a project funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that parsed the vastness of the Great Lakes to estimate water quality in different basins. This information can identify which areas are likely to receive high nutrient inputs – which can cause harmful algae blooms and dead zones – and where resource managers should invest in restoration efforts. Read more »

Growing Rural Economies and Opportunities through Social Media

KSU Center for Rural Enterprise Engagement Facebook screenshot

Kansas State University used a FSMIP grant to develop social media strategies for rural businesses to expand their customer base.

From Facebook to Snapchat, rural businesses are exploring how to use social media to improve their customer’s experience and expand their customer base. Over the last eight years, USDA and the Obama Administration have partnered with rural communities to build more opportunities that support rural small business owners, farmers and ranchers through applied research.   Today USDA awarded nearly $1 million in Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program (FSMIP) grants to support market research to strengthen markets for U.S. agricultural products domestically and internationally.

Administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), FSMIP projects make a real difference to diverse stakeholders and largely benefit rural communities.  For example, in 2013, FSMIP awarded a 2-year grant to Kansas State University to develop social media strategies for small green businesses, including nurseries, garden centers and lawn care operations, and to explore the potential of social media to expand their markets and profitability.  Social media holds promise as a strategy for these rural businesses which frequently have a small customer base and struggle to be profitable throughout the year, given the seasonal nature of their business.  Through social media, business owners could reach more potential customers for little to no cost but they often do not know how or why they should use these tools. Read more »

Farm to School Goes Year Round in the Northeast

Connecticut service members serving local blueberry smoothies

Connecticut service members serve local blueberry smoothies and continue farm to school efforts at summer meals sites.

Over the past few summers, sponsors of USDA’s Summer Meals Programs have been elevating meal quality and encouraging program participation by serving seasonal menus, utilizing high quality ingredients, and providing nutrition education activities. We’ve heard of such farm to summer activities – the embedding of farm to school principles within summer meals programs – from practitioners all around the country. Here in the Northeast, summer 2016 brought a wave of coordinated programming, and National Farm to School Month is the perfect time to celebrate this trend that is supporting healthy kids and communities all year long! Read more »

5 Ways Landowners Give Shell-ter to the Gopher Tortoise

Gopher tortoise

The gopher tortoise is the keystone species of longleaf pine forests as its burrows provide shelter to 360 other species.

The gopher tortoise earned its name for good reason – because it likes to dig and spends much of its time underground. The gopher tortoise, the Southeast’s only land-dwelling tortoise, burrows in the sandy soils below longleaf pine forests where it can escape heat and danger.

Its burrows are popular. About 360 other species, from rattlesnakes to rabbits, toads, and northern bobwhite take advantage of the underground real estate provided by the tortoise, what biologists call a keystone species because other species depend on it. Read more »