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A Model for Managing a Weed’s Mischief

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 the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

– Marcia Wood, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff

Along streams and irrigation canals in 16 states, a wily weed called giant reed, or Arundo donax, can grow a remarkable three to six inches a day. This intruder develops dense stands that can crowd out native plants like cottonwoods and willows, and can block water flow to farms and cities.

In research designed to stop arundo’s advance, Agricultural Research Service ecologist David F. Spencer and co-investigators have developed a computerized, science-based animation that shows precisely how a real-world arundo plant grows. The animation—apparently a first for an invasive weed—is intended for researchers, streamkeepers, students and others.

Click here to view the animation.

During this brief clip, a reality based “virtual arundo” goes through its first year of growth, emerging from a single, thick, underground stem, or rhizome, to reach its maximum height of about 30 feet.

The animation is derived from studies led by Spencer. In some of those studies, thousands of digitized measurements were taken by magnetic sensors of dozens of giant reed plants. Using commercially available software, the measurements were analyzed to create a computer-based model of the giant reed’s growth, with optional 3-D animation.

Researchers can use the animations to gauge—and see on-screen—the predicted effects of tactics to control arundo. For example, the model could help scientists determine the best times in the weed’s growth to unleash helpful insects that attack arundo’s leaves, stems or rhizomes.

In northern California, technician Greg Ksander (left) and ecologist David Spencer collect a leaf sample from giant reed (Arundo donax).
In northern California, technician Greg Ksander (left) and ecologist David Spencer collect a leaf sample from giant reed (Arundo donax).

Aerial view of Arundo near Big Bend National Park, Texas.
Aerial view of Arundo near Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Alaskan Businesses “REAP” the Benefits of Renewable Energy Grants and Loan Guarantees

Several months ago, Vice President Biden said:   “I’m pleased to report that the administration is laying the foundation for a clean energy economy that will create a new generation of jobs, reduce dependence on oil and enhance national security.” If you want proof, check out USDA’s   Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).  USDA Rural Development awards grants through this Farm Bill program on a competitive basis and they can be up to 25 percent of total eligible project costs. Grants are limited to $500,000 for renewable energy systems and $250,000 for energy efficiency improvements.  The program also provides loan guarantees. Read more »

USDA Recovery Act Funds Help a Key Supplier to America’s Natural Gas Industry

Written by Vicki Schurman, USDA Public Information Officer

Much of the natural gas consumed in the United States comes from North America.  But when you think of natural gas, you don’t usually think of sand.  Preferred Sands of Nebraska provides the North American natural gas industry with high quality specialty (frac) sand. It’s used by industry customers in every production basin in the United States and Canada. The sand is injected into a well as part of a process to increase gas flow.  The special sand produced in Nebraska holds open fractures in gas-bearing deposits during production.

Recently, USDA Rural Development Deputy Under Secretary Cheryl L. Cook toured the Preferred Sands facility in Genoa, Neb.

USDA Rural Development’s Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan provided American Recovery and Reinvestment Act support that will help the company preserve 50 jobs at Preferred Sands. An additional 50 new jobs for local residents are expected to be created in the next two years.

“USDA Rural Development is in the business of helping businesses like Preferred Sands of Genoa LLC support job creation, and strengthen the local economy,” Cook said. “The guaranteed loan the company is receiving will provide a much needed boost to the local economy by helping to preserve existing jobs and creating even more employment opportunities in the future as the company grows.”

The company provides good jobs for the area. Wages average over $34,000 annually.

Preferred Sands received a $22 million loan from Siemens Financial Services, Inc., backed by an USDA Rural Development guarantee.  Leveraged with the loan are $10.1 million from Preferred Sands and $7 million from a GE equipment loan.  The funds were used to refinance real estate and equipment at the facility.

USDA Rural Development Deputy Under Secretary Cheryl Cook (fourth from left), Nebraska RD staff, Congressional staff, State Senator Annette Dubas, Lenders, and Borrowers Celebrate the Sustainability of a Rural Business, Preferred Sands of Genoa LLC.
USDA Rural Development Deputy Under Secretary Cheryl Cook (fourth from left), Nebraska RD staff, Congressional staff, State Senator Annette Dubas, Lenders, and Borrowers Celebrate the Sustainability of a Rural Business, Preferred Sands of Genoa LLC.

Healthy Solutions for the Common Good right here in DC

What better way to end the day than by uncovering local food powerhouses in the Nation’s Capital! On Wednesday, April 21, 2010, the USDA and HHS Centers for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships convened to visit two jewels located in Washington, DC: Common Good City Farm of Ledroit Park and Healthy Solutions of Anacostia. Read more »

Local USDA and GSA Offices Team Up on Creating a People’s Garden in Des Moines, Iowa

Written by Jill Clothier, Iowa Earth Team Coordinator, USDA-NRCS

In November of 2009, after reading an article on the USDA website about the People’s Garden Initiative, I approached our Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) State Conservationist, Rich Sims, with the idea of planting a People’s Garden here at the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa.  He was immediately receptive to the idea and we contacted General Services Administration (GSA) to start the ball rolling.

 As the Iowa NRCS Earth Team Volunteer Coordinator, I am especially enthused about People’s Gardens.  Not only is it a valuable learning experience about sustainable agriculture on a large or small scale, it is an exceptional volunteer opportunity.  The People’s Garden Initiative brings people together – it truly is a community garden.  The USDA-NRCS, Farm Services Agency, Rural Development, and GSA are working together to make our garden a reality.

 Our bi-level garden will contain a variety of native Iowa plants and grasses.  We are planning on designing signs that will give educational information about each native plant. 

 We are fortunate to have excellent input in our planning process from a variety of people including an Earth Team volunteer and Master Gardener, who drew up sketches of the garden, an NRCS Biologist, and our Federal Building Manager, as well as a host of others who are generously sharing their knowledge and experience and who are donating their time and talents.   

 Our People’s Garden will be an educational tool to inform our community of Iowa’s rich history of native plants.  We are located downtown and are surrounded by concrete office buildings but also by schools, daycare centers, retirement centers, and apartments – all within walking distance of our garden. 

 I have learned so much already just by reading about other People’s Gardens.  I am thankful to have the opportunity to be involved in our community garden!  It is my hope that after getting our native grasses People’s Garden up and running, we will be able to develop a produce garden on the roof of the Neal Smith Federal Building. 

 The enthusiasm for the People’s Garden Initiative is contagious!  I hope in addition to establishing People’s Gardens at USDA offices, that people will take this initiative into their own neighborhoods.  I’ve spoken with several people in my own community about establishing People’s Gardens in other areas such as homeless shelters, nursing homes, schools, to name just a few.  The possibilities are endless and the rewards are great! 

 The community aspect of the People’s Garden Initiative is inspiring.  Each person with whom I’ve visited is immediately enthused and ready to participate.  People who have heard about our project are already volunteering to help, bringing me seeds, suggesting ideas about rainwater collection, container gardening, compost sock gardening, to name just a few.  It is rewarding to see people from all walks of life getting excited about a project, which benefits us all.  The NRCS mission of “Helping People Help the Land” is a perfect match for the People’s Garden Initiative.

 Rich Sims speaks at the Des Moines People's Garden groundbreaking ceremony 
 Rich Sims, Iowa NRCS State Conservationist, speaks before a crowd of 100 for the groundbreaking ceremony of the People’s Garden at the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa.

 Future site of the Des Moines People's Garden
Future site of the Neal Smith Federal Building People’s Garden.

Got Green? Secretary Vilsack, Washington Redskins and local kids tackle Arbor Day

By Sammi Citron, News Services Information Assistant 

 Huddled around the flowering magnolia tree at the U.S. National Arboretum was a mix of suits, school uniforms and jerseys, as Secretary Vilsack, local D.C. schoolchildren and NFL Washington Redskin players Malcolm Kelly and Reed Doughty helped celebrate Arbor Day by cementing the new trees’ roots with mulch. Kicking off the inaugural dig was Secretary Vilsack, who called upon the single Raven’s fan in the crowd to help him – a tidbit he found out after taking an NFL survey amongst the kids. Arboretum employees quickly answered questions about gardening, (did you know tree’s roots grow 18 inches into the ground?) but not as fast as the children managed another spitfire round as they excitedly tested how much soil they could fit onto their shovels as compared to the football stars towering feet over them.

The children ran from booth to booth learning about different kinds of lettuce, – “there’s more than one?” was their general inquisition – herbs, and chili peppers. At another station, Doughty and Kelly showcased their teamwork as they dug holes for the kids to plant in. During a taste test of several locally-grown ingredients, the kids and players chanted “Mr. Secretary, you can handle it!” as he chewed a particularly strong mustard seed, and they even compared the mint flavor in toothpaste to homegrown mint leaves.

Mike Mangiaracina, science teacher at Brent Elementary, said lessons like these help the kids relate gardening and healthy eating to their everyday lives. “As we were driving in, the kids joked that they were in the country. Driving in from New York Avenue, it’s great for them to see that their city has this, and this isn’t that far away from their world,” said Mangiaracina.

To further encourage a healthy lifestyle was Fuel Up to Play 60, an in-school program that incorporates 60 minutes of daily physical activity with a balanced diet. Doughty and Kelly were the program’s representatives for the day, and they came bearing gifts. All of the participants received Fuel Up to Play 60 hats, which they wore as they tested their pigskin-throwing skills with some of Washington’s finest. Secretary Vilsack, hat in hand, cheered from the sidelines with each catch.

Wrapping up the afternoon was the National Dairy Council, another driving force behind the Fuel Up to Play 60 program. Between Secretary Vilsack, players Kelly and Doughty, Councilman Thomas and the kids, were “Got Milk?” mustaches that rivaled the some of the most memorable advertisements.

After the touchdown dance competition was squared away and everyone was leaving, Secretary Vilsack stole a moment with one of the younger participants, giving her a special coin of his. She happily accepted, grinning ear-to-ear with her milk mustache.

 Secretary Vilsack and students plant a tree on Arbor Day 
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Washington, DC, school children from Brent Elementary and Center City Public Charter, Trinidad Campus and NFL Washington Redskins Wide Receiver Malcolm Kelly and Safety Reed Doughty at the U.S. National Arboretum to celebrate the 138th Arbor Day.

 Secretary Vilsack and students learn about different varieties of mint 
Agriculture Tom Secretary Vilsack (center) listens as Billie Parus a member of the National Herb Society and Tanya Zastrow, Volunteer/Intern Coordinator, National Arboretum explain the different varieties of mint to students from Center City Public Charter, Trinidad Campus, Washington, DC.

 Secretary Vilsack and Redskins Reed Doughty and Malcolm Kelly don milk mustaches 
NFL Washington Redskins Wide Receiver Malcolm Kelly (left), Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (center), and Washington Redskins Safety Reed Doughty (right) display their milk mustaches received at the “Milk Mustache Mobile” sponsored by the Dairy Processor Education Program. The “Fuel Up to Play 60”campaign USDA is in partnership with the National Football League and the National Dairy Council to encourage children to eat well get outdoors and be active.