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It’s Said That No One can Predict the Weather, but Scientists at the Ag Outlook Forum Give it a Shot

This graphic shows past records and predictions based on the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). Provided the by U.S. Forest Service.

This graphic shows past records and predictions based on the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). Provided the by U.S. Forest Service.

Weather….  We all care about it. In many communities, local TV and radio weather forecasters are celebrities, and for good reason.  While we can’t do much about the weather, it affects us all every day.

During last week’s Agricultural Outlook Forum two sessions drew exceptionally large crowds.  One was the Friday afternoon “Weather and Agriculture” segment and another was the morning “Markets and Weather” presentation.  While no one can say for sure what the weather outlook will be for the 2014 summer growing season, Brad Rippey, agricultural meteorologist with USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist (OCE), Eric Luebehusen, OCE ag. meteorologist and Anthony Artusa, meteorologist with the Climate Protection Section of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made some observations and predictions in the afternoon session.  The snowpack in the West’s Sierra Nevada is far below normal.  The Western winter wet season has been a bust, with winter precipitation less than 10 percent of average in some areas.  California, the Great Basin and southern Great Plains are in drought.  The meteorologists said California, the lower gulf coast and much of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas could see above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation in March, April and May.  According to Rippey, “We need a miracle March in 2014 to avoid major problems in California.”  The most current information is available through NOAA’s Seasonal Drought Outlook map and the USDA drought monitor. Read more »

Organic 101: Ensuring Organic Integrity through Inspections

Organic inspector Elizabeth Whitlow at an organic vineyard inspection.  Every organic operation involved between the farm and market is inspected to verify compliance with the USDA organic regulations. Photo courtesy ccof.org.

Organic inspector Elizabeth Whitlow at an organic vineyard inspection. Every organic operation involved between the farm and market is inspected to verify compliance with the USDA organic regulations. Photo courtesy ccof.org.

This is the fifteenth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

USDA certified organic products are produced and sold around the world, many originating from over 17,700 organic operations right here in the United States. The USDA organic label assures consumers that products have been produced through approved methods and that prohibited substances, like synthetic pesticides, have not been used. I am often asked how the USDA verifies organic claims, and whether organic operations are inspected.

In order to sell, label, or represent products as organic in the United States, operations must be certified. The National Organic Program, part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, accredits private, foreign, and State entities called certifying agents to certify and inspect organic operations.

So how does this all work? First, the operation would apply for certification through a certifying agent. The certifier will ask for information including a history of substances applied to land during the previous three years, and an Organic System Plan describing the practices and substances to be used. The certifier reviews applications to verify that practices comply with USDA organic regulations, and then an inspector conducts an on-site inspection. Read more »

Soldier-Turned-Farmer Uses Rotational Grazing to Make His Minnesota Ranch Successful & Sustainable

Pete Berscheit uses rotational grazing on his Minnesota farm to improve production while helping the environment. NRCS photo.

Pete Berscheit uses rotational grazing on his Minnesota farm to improve production while helping the environment. NRCS photo.

Pete Berscheit has wanted to farm since he was five. But with three brothers interested in farming, he didn’t think the fourth-generation family farm in Todd County, Minn. would be large enough to support everyone.

So instead of farming, Berscheit joined the Army at 17, where he served for 20 years. Toward the end of his Army career, repeated deployments were starting to take a toll on his young family, and in 2008, he and his wife, Rosemary, decided to return to their roots.

Berscheit and his family bought a place to support a small herd of 40 Black Angus cow and calf pairs, fulfilling his nearly lifelong dream of becoming a farmer. The farm is about three miles from where he grew up in central Minnesota. The farm was a good location and was a good fit for raising a family and starting his ranch. Read more »

A Thorough Discussion about Protecting America’s Forests

Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Arthur “Butch” Blazer moderating a panel on forest health at the 2014 Agricultural Outlook Forum. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Arthur “Butch” Blazer moderating a panel on forest health at the 2014 Agricultural Outlook Forum. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

Agroforestry.  When you think of a forest, you don’t think of it in terms of a crop, but in many cases that’s what it is.  The house you live in, the nuts and fruit you eat all comes from trees.  Trees, with their root systems protect soils and soften the effects of wind.  They help hold water.

The Forest Products industry contributes 4.5 percent of U.S. manufacturing’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), produces $200 billion in products a year, provides jobs for nearly 900,000 people and is one of the top ten manufacturers in 47 states. No forests, no nuts, no windbreaks, no topsoil. Read more »

More than ‘The Peanut Man’

Dr. George Washington Carver was an American scientist, educator, and inventor. Photo Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

Dr. George Washington Carver was an American scientist, educator, and inventor. Photo Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

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.

Steeped in African tradition, the practice of storytelling in African-American culture provides a communal sense of pride and reflection, and ensures that history is preserved from generation to generation.  African-American History Month honors the work and contributions of African-Americans, including educators, inventors, and scientists—all titles which George Washington Carver possessed.  And like the continuity of storytelling, the legacy of Carver’s pioneering research left an undeniable impact on the face of American agriculture.

Born a slave on a Missouri farm in 1865, Carver became the first black student and the first black faculty member at what is now Iowa State University.  The well-respected botanist led the bacterial laboratory work in the Systematic Botany Department. But at the urging of Booker T. Washington, Carver moved to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to serve as the school’s director of agriculture.   He used his agricultural research to help black farmers become more self-sufficient and less reliant on cotton, the major cash crop of the South. Read more »

Bugs’ Life Not so Rosy Around Young Entomologist

Research Entomologist Justin Runyon is a winner of this year’s prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. He studies the chemical reaction between insects and plants for the Rocky Mountain Research Station. (Montana State University/Kelly Gorham)

Research Entomologist Justin Runyon is a winner of this year’s prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. He studies the chemical reaction between insects and plants for the Rocky Mountain Research Station. (Montana State University/Kelly Gorham)

It’s a wonder that Justin Runyon’s parents didn’t have insomnia. After all, who could sleep when the young bug enthusiast was throwing on floodlights outside the house in the middle of the night to attract and collect insects?

“Yes, my parents were very patient with me,” said Runyon, a research entomologist at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Runyon no longer needs to wake his parents to conduct his research – he has plenty of opportunity to do that at his lab in Bozeman, Mont., where he studies the chemical interaction between insects and plants. His work and accomplishments earned him this year’s prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. The accolade is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. Runyon was one of 102 recipients to receive the award this year. Read more »