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President Obama Visits Afghanistan, Meets USDA Staff

March 29, 2010 – On Monday in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to Bagram Air Base to visit with U.S. civilian and military men and women supporting the U.S. government’s efforts in that country. Among those in attendance were staff members from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, including employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture working as part of the U.S. government team.

President Barack Obama greets U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, March 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama greets U.S. troops at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, March 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Some, like USDA employee Jaime Adams (right, blue scarf), shook President Obama’s hand at the event.

At Bagram, President Obama said, “So I want you to know, I want every American serving in Afghanistan, military and civilian, to know, whether you’re working the flight line here at Bagram or patrolling a village down in Helmand, whether you’re standing watch at a forward operating base or training our Afghan partners or working with the Afghan government, your services are absolutely necessary, absolutely essential to America’s safety and security. Those folks back home are relying on you.”

Read President Obama’s full remarks to military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan, here, and learn more about USDA’s activities in Afghanistan, here.

USDA Science Tuesday – Banking on Seeds

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.

If you’re a gardener, you’re probably starting to think about picking up some seeds for this year’s garden.  Perhaps you’re digging out those seeds you scooped out of last year’s pumpkin, or setting up a mini-greenhouse to get a head start on planting.  Have you ever wondered where the seeds at your local garden center came from?  It probably wasn’t the side of a volcano in Far East Russia, but you never know.

In 2003, USDA researchers partnered with scientists at Russia’s Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry to collect samples of a rare wild strawberry (Fragaria iturupensis) from the Atsunupuri Volcano, on the island of Iturup. Samples of the seed were sent to a USDA lab in Corvallis, OR, for study; the strawberry may provide new flavor components or pest resistance that can be bred into commercial strawberry lines.

But what happens if those samples get damaged or destroyed?  Seeds are an important part of our agricultural future; without a well-maintained stock of seeds, our future food supply would dry up.  Fortunately, USDA scientists thought of this long ago and have been collecting and cataloging germplasm since 1898.   In cooperation with state agricultural experiment stations and universities, the USDA keeps hundreds of collections of plants, seeds, trees, microbes, cell cultures, and even insects. These collections protect the future of agriculture by preserving the genetic diversity necessary for a plant or animal to adapt to changing growth conditions.  If you knew that a certain type of tomato just didn’t do well in your garden, you probably wouldn’t try to grow it year after year without making some changes.  The same is true for crops grown in fields.  The collections also preserve our history; one collection in Oregon contains genetic material from the oldest living pear tree in the United States.   It’s all part of the USDA’s commitment to seed preservation.

Retrieving Seeds at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado

Last month, USDA scientists sent some 10,000 seed samples for storage in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) in Norway.  February’s shipment marks the third such shipment of seed lines to the vault.  SGSV stores seeds of everything from soybeans, wheat, rice, carrot, and sorghum to sunflowers, bananas and wild strawberries that only grow in Far East Russia.  Svalbard now contains about 45,000 of the USDA’s 511,000 seeds, tissue samples, and whole plants; plans are to have the majority of them backed up at Svalbard in the next 10 to 15 years.

Think of Svalbard as agriculture’s Noah’s Ark.  About 1,400 seed banks worldwide already house the seeds that ensure our food supply, but if one of those locations suffered a natural disaster and didn’t have electricity for a month, those seeds could be lost.  Svalbard’s backup seeds could then be used to re-establish those lines.

The storage chambers at Svalbard are buried deep in the permafrost on the side of a mountain, on a Norwegian island 800 miles from the North Pole.  Spitsbergen Island’s subarctic location makes it a secure, if chilly, location to house the seeds.  The cold keeps the seeds in slumber mode, and the island’s location, far from any tectonic plate boundary, means that no earthquakes or volcanic activity will disturb the vault.  It’s high enough in the mountains that the vault will stay dry even if the sea level rises 400 feet.  And the polar bears will probably discourage any intruders.

USDA’s germplasm collections grow each year thanks to worldwide collaborations and gathering expeditions—without which, we’d never have a strawberry plucked from the side of a volcano in Russia.  With this catalog of genetic diversity at our fingertips, we can keep agriculture’s past alive and ensure its future.

Ellen Buckley, Program Analyst, Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems, USDA Agricultural Research Service

A Big Day for Big Rapids (and Walkerville and Hesperia) Michigan

Last Wednesday the weather was about as good as anyone has reason to expect for March in Michigan, which was a good thing as we had a lot of ground to cover and a lot of new projects to celebrate.

The first stop was Walkerville, a small town in Oceana County.   We were there to commemorate the grand opening of the elementary school’s new playground.   Thanks to a $35,000 child care grant and the energetic support of the local community, Walkerville’s children went from an unsafe, bleak play area to one that is safe and inviting. Our state director, James J. Turner, found the kids were already enjoying the new equipment and while they clapped at all the appropriate times during the ceremony, they sent up their biggest cheer when the grownups got out of the way and let them get back to the business of playing.

State Director for Michigan James Turner speaks before the new playground at Walkerville

From Walkerville we went to the Hesperia Public Schools complex to see the result of a $50,000 grant for playground equipment. We were greeted by members of the local school board, representatives from both of Michigan’s United States Senators (Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow), the local Congressman (Peter Hoekstra) and state Sen. Gerald Van Woerkom.

It was then time for us to move on to Big Rapids, where The Mecosta County Medical Center has received two $50,000 grants for two digital mammography machines, one of which was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Finally, we viewed a new fire truck for the City of Big Rapids. USDA Rural Development provided a $562,000 loan and a $100,000 grant for the purchase of the new aerial ladder truck. Purchased through Front Line Services, Inc. in Freeland, the chassis was built by Spartan Motors in Charlotte and the generator was made by Smart Power in Reed City (Michigan). Next to the ladder truck, the city parked other emergency vehicles that Rural Development helped purchase as a fitting tribute to our partnership.

The new Big Rapids fire truck funded through USDA Rural Development grants and loans.

The new Big Rapids fire truck funded through USDA Rural Development grants and loans.

All told it was a great day to be out in Rural Michigan.

Written by Alec Lloyd, Public Information Coordinator, USDA Rural Development, Michigan

RD Administrator Meets with Librarians to Promote USDA’s Library Initiative

Tammye Treviño, USDA Rural Development Housing and Community Facilities Administrator sponsored Librarian Forum at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters in San Juan, Puerto Rico, earlier this month.

Eighty nine librarians participated in the activity. Most of them work for the State & Municipal government, others for non-profit & faith based organizations. They all agreed that most of the libraries in Puerto Rico are in need of new equipments, books, and computers. In some cases the construction of a new library will be the best alternative.

Ms. Treviño explained the Library Initiative Program has a $100 million budget for the nation. She urged the librarians to submit their proposal before June 30, 2010. The reason is that if one state will not use the funds, other states could have access to them.

The meeting was attended by José Otero-García, USDA Rural Development State Director for Puerto Rico and Nereida Rodríguez, Community Program Director. The diversity of issues discussed was amazing and each librarian had a success story to tell. The activity was covered by El Nuevo Día Newspaper.

Written by Miguel A. Ramírez Public Affairs Coordinator USDA Rural Development, Puerto Rico

Recognizing the Work of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq

In Washington, DC today, Farm and Foreign Agricultural Deputy Under Secretary Darci Vetter accepted an American flag that flew above the U. S. Regional Embassy Office at Al Hillah, Iraq in recognition of USDA employees’ contributions on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Iraq. Read more »

Using Emerging Media at USDA to Improve Food Safety

Using social media and other new digital technologies to reach the public with critical food safety messages is a key mandate of the year-old President’s Food Safety Working Group. As demonstrated at a panel at USDA’s Food Safety Education Conference in Atlanta, the government is responding vigorously to the charge.
Representatives of the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USDA spoke about how emerging digital and social media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs are being used to educate the public about food safety.

“Using social media helps us reach many more people than we can using only conventional channels,” USDA Director of New Media Amanda Eamich told attendees at a panel titled “Using Social Media.” “Social media lets us multiply our reach.”

The panelists described social media such as Facebook and Twitter as a public “conversation” among users. The government can better serve the public by listening to and participating in that conversation, Eamich said. USDA uses the Twitter profile @usdafoodsafety to send recall and food safety messages to more than 25,000 followers.

In a recent campaign, USDA sent out Tweets during the run-up to the Super Bowl about preparing buffet and party food safely. By using a tag followed by Twitterers discussing the Super Bowl, “We were able to remind people to cook their burgers to 160 degrees,  as part of their existing conversations about the game,” she said.

Part of the mandate of the Food Safety Working Group was to update www.foodsafety.gov into a “one-stop shop” for consumer information on food safety. The three agencies have collaborated to create a vibrant consumer-friendly site that employs Twitter and a blog.

The panel listed a wide variety of digital technologies now being used to distribute food safety messages to diverse audiences:

  • “e-cards”—colorful e-mail greetings that include a variety of public health messages
  • Facebook pages
  • YouTube videos
  • podcasts
  • Web pages optimized for mobile phones
  • Text messaging services and e-mail alerts
  • Widgets that allow people to get live product recall information sent directly to their desktops or to their own web pages
  • Click here for links to all USDA new media. You can follow @USDAgov on Twitter for all Department information. USDA’s food safety Twitter feed is @usdafoodsafety.

    By Craig Stoltz, Web Director, Food Safety and Inspection Service