Become a fan on Facebook Follow us on Twitter USDA Blog Feed Watch USDA videos on YouTube Subscribe to receive e-mail updates View USDA Photos on Flickr Subscribe to RSS Feeds

USDA Joins the Effort to Help Americans Get Outdoors

By Phil Sammon, Forest Service, Public Affairs Specialist

Today, President Barack Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, hosted the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors, a gathering of leaders from communities across the country who are working to protect their outdoor spaces.

 The USDA Forest Service is proud to join the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other USDA agencies in supporting the Get Outdoors Initiative to motivate healthy lifestyles and activities.

 The goals of this Presidential Initiative coincide with one of the Forest Service’s primary missions – to actively support, promote, and fund numerous related programs, projects, and initiatives with wide-ranging missions and goals.  In fact, just this week, the Forest Service has made a few announcements in this area.

 On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack announced the availability of Forest Legacy Program grants to protect sensitive lands in 33 states and territories. These local projects can provide the background for local conservation education and interpretive programs associated with local, state and federal programs aimed whose goals and missions are closely related to healthy lifestyles, conservation education, and the challenge of reconnecting Americans and American families to the outdoors.

 Also this week, the Forest Service announced major challenge cost-sharing opportunities for the More Kids in the Woods program, whose mission is to provide more natural resource and nature experiences to children across the country. These future leaders will be better able to make sound environmental and natural resource decisions if they have developed an understanding and an ownership of the public lands this agency manages.

 In speaking about the More Kids in the Woods initiative, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell commented that this and related programs are vital in opening doors to urban and rural kids and their families through projects that promote healthier lifestyles while preparing them to cope with conservation issues of the 21st century: climate change, water quality and sustainable management of natural and cultural resources.

 We look forward to hearing from people around the country over the coming weeks and months as part of the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, and to continuing our work with our state, local, and private partners help us to raise environmental and conservation awareness, and to help prepare future leaders for this agency, and for our country.

 President Obama speaks at the America's Great Outdoors Event 

Listening to President Barack Obama’s remarks are  (L to R) Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley, Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson (standing behind Ms. Sutley), Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of Defense representative, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, and Housing and Urban Development representative

Innovative Sage-Grouse Protection Agreement Takes Flight

By Brad Fisher, Natural Resources Conservation Service Public Affairs Division

Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White and Rowan Gould, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, signed on April 13 a first-of-its-kind agreement that combines protection of sage grouse and sagebrush habitats with the business interests of ranchers in 11 Western states.

What makes this agreement unique?

“It lets NRCS and the Fish and Wildlife Service work together to provide certainty to ranchers,” said White. “By certainty, I mean that it lets them address threats to sage grouse and sage grouse habitat in ways that benefit the natural resources on their operations while allowing them to operate at the same time.  This is a win-win for ranchers and for sage grouse.”

The technical assistance that NRCS is going to provide is absolutely vital to the success of this effort, White said. “Ranchers who work with us will have access to our rangeland conservationists, soil scientists and biologists. Our Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program will be there to help them install practices.”

For its part, the Fish and Wildlife Service will use the authorities of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to provide participants with reasonable assurances that what they do to protect sage grouse and sage grouse habitat will be consistent with the ESA should the sage grouse later be listed as a threatened or endangered species.

Nearly 44 percent of sage grouse habitat has in recent years been lost due to agriculture, urban development, energy production and transmission, invasive weeds and wildfire. The human footprint across the area where greater sage-grouse live is becoming larger as the country strives for energy independence, agriculture, development and other, often competing uses.

“I want to thank the Fish and Wildlife Service for taking this step in working with agriculture,” White said. “It’s going to give ranchers opportunities to protect the sage grouse and, at the same time, let them raise their cattle, pay their rent, send their kids to school, buy their groceries, while letting them be ranchers.”

This year represents the 75th year of NRCS helping people help the land.

Dave White (left), Chief, Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Servce and Rowan Gould (right), Acting Director, Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service sign a partnership agreement to promote and preserve greater sage-grouse habitat and sagebrush ecosystems in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, April 13.
NRCS Chief Dave White (left) and Acting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Rowan Gould. USDA image.

Merrigan Challenges Dairy Committee to Use Past to Move Forward

Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan challenged members of the Dairy Industry Advisory Committee on Wednesday to look beyond declining prices and seek an answer to the ailing dairy industry that will have a lasting impact.

“I’m asking that you start thinking in long-term solutions,” said Merrigan during a welcome address on day two of the advisory committee meeting. “I’m challenging you to not only be good advisers but good historians.”

Dairy farmers have been suffering from a decrease in milk prices for nearly two years. Since January 2009, prices have dropped by nearly half of what they were in 2008. Price declines coupled with an increase in feed prices have caused many operations to close or take on a large amount of debt.

Yet, this down cycle is nothing new to the industry.

“The boom-and-bust cycle of farm-level milk prices has repeated itself over the past three decades,” said Merrigan. She referenced a book, “Thinking in Time” that discusses the importance of history and how to use it to one’s advantage in the policy world.

“As you work to meet the industry’s needs, keep in mind that the dairy industry is often taught to be an immediate problem, not always a reflection of the bigger picture or an attempt to make decisions based on the lessons of history,” said Merrigan. “As you go about your reviews and recommendations I ask that you look ahead by looking back.”

The three-day public meeting — held at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. — will give the 17-member Dairy Industry Advisory Committee a chance to review farm milk price volatility and dairy farmer profitability, and make recommendations on how USDA can best address the needs of the dairy industry.

“With this appointment you have a great opportunity not just to know dairy history, but to understand its story, to use it, discuss it, analyze it,” said Merrigan. “Drawing on the lessons of the timeline you can help shape the future of dairy policies and programs that may in the end be a part of your legacy.”

Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan told members of the Dairy Industry Advisory Committee that looking at the industry’s history will help develop long-lasting solutions.
Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan told members of the Dairy Industry Advisory Committee that looking at the industry’s history will help develop long-lasting solutions.

USDA Business Administrator Judith Canales Promotes Job Creation in New York State Through the Recovery Act

Bankers and economic development officials from across New York attended USDA Rural Development’s Lender Roundtable in Syracuse on April 8.  Sponsored by New York’s Rural Business Program, the event featured USDA Business and Cooperative Programs (B&I) Administrator Judith Canales. The Administrator emphasized the B&I Program’s desire to attract new lenders, while strengthening its existing lending relationships and creating jobs. Read more »

Thousands of Members of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico Will Soon Get Running Water

By Ernie Watson – Public Information Coordinator, USDA Rural Development

Although Earth Day won’t be celebrated until April 22nd, the dedication and blessing of the Eastern Navajo Waterline at Counselor, New Mexico on Monday epitomized the very essence of what former Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson envisioned 40 years ago when he established the first celebration of Earth Day.

The new water line will serve 10,000 members of the Navajo Nation with another 10,000 to be served within the next decade.  Currently, 4,500 residents that will be served by the waterline drive up to 100 miles round trip to haul water for their home use and to provide water for their livestock.

The Navajo Chapters of Huerfano, Nageezi, Burnam, Counselor, Ojo Encino, Torreon, Pueblo Pintado and Whitehorse Lake are in the midst of a major water crisis. The residents of these communities do not have a sustainable long-term water supply and the aquifer in this harshly arid region is pumped much more quickly than it can be recharged by rainfall.

USDA Rural Development, the State of New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, the Indian Health Services and these eight Navajo Chapters to be served by the waterline, partnered to fund the $28.6 million to construct the water supply system. Rural Development provided $8.7 million in Tribal Set-Aside Water and Environmental Program funds for the project.  When completed in two years, the water line will stretch 70 miles across four counties to provide clean, healthy water to those living in this remote area of New Mexico.

During the dedication ceremony, Earl Herrera the Hataalii (medicine man) asked the officials from each of the agencies, including RD State Director Terry Brunner, to participate in the traditional blessing of the water system.  Each sprinkled corn pollen on themselves and the earth to give thanks for the construction of the water system.

A weaver from the Pueblo Pintado Navajo Chapter created a USDA rug commemorating the ceremonies that said “Ahehee” or “Thank you” in Navajo.

A Navajo rug was presented to State Director Terry Brunner during the dedication and blessing of the Eastern Navajo Waterline ceremonies. The rug was crafted by a local artesian. The word “Ahehee” means ““Thank you” in Navajo.
A Navajo rug was presented to State Director Terry Brunner during the dedication and blessing of the Eastern Navajo Waterline ceremonies. The rug was crafted by a local artesian. The word “Ahehee” means ““Thank you” in Navajo.

New Mexico Rural Development State Director Terry Brunner (center) participates in a traditional Navajo blessing by sprinkling corn pollen on the ground during the dedication ceremonies for the Eastern Navajo Waterline in northwest New Mexico.
New Mexico Rural Development State Director Terry Brunner (center) participates in a traditional Navajo blessing by sprinkling corn pollen on the ground during the dedication ceremonies for the Eastern Navajo Waterline in northwest New Mexico

Solution to Dairy Industry Woes in Hands of Newly-Formed Advisory Committee

A group of 17 men and women that represent the dairy industry met at USDA headquarters on Tuesday for the first time to find a solution to the volatile pricing of milk and milk products that has decreased industry profits and caused many operations to close.

“We need a relatively quick response from this group,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in his opening remarks to the newly-formed Dairy Industry Advisory Committee. “I hope at the end of all of this you can come up with a common solution that you can recommend to us and that we can present to the rest of the industry.”

The committee, which was established by USDA in August 2009, was designed to advise the secretary on policy issues impacting the dairy industry. The three-day public meeting will allow members to review farm milk price volatility and dairy farmer profitability, and make recommendations on how USDA can best address the long- and short-term needs of the dairy industry.

“The bandwidth between the good times and bad times used to be relatively stable,” said Vilsack.  “Over the past couple of years it has become very dramatic. The dips are significant, increases are not as high and there is not enough time for an operator to recover.”

Dairy farmers like Mary Cameron have been hit hard and continues to struggle to keep her operation running.

“My gross income has dropped to $160,000 a month and I’m about $600,000 in debt,” said Cameron, who owns nearly 1,000 cows on her farm in California. “It’s difficult to operate a farm when you have lost 42 percent of your income.”

The price of milk is based on commodity markets, which fluctuates with global demand. During the first quarter of 2009, milk prices dropped from $16.80 per cwt to $12.23 per cwt due to oversupply. Consumers weren’t buying as frequently and restaurants and other businesses cut down on how much milk and milk-based products they bought, creating a surplus of milk, which drove prices down.

According to the USDA, during that time, producers were paid half of what it cost them to produce the milk.

In response to those fluctuating prices, the government took action. “We went through a series of steps last year in an effort to try and help the industry,” said Vilsack. “It ranged from counter cyclical payments to commodity purchases, to an increase in additional resources provided by Congress. The hope was that as a result of that assistance the industry would produce inventory and eventually right itself.”

The assistance created a slight rebound late last year, but it did not last as current numbers show a steady decline in prices.

“The government can’t keep going with the Band-Aid approach,” said Vilsack. “We have to solve this and I am confident that [this group] will come up with a solution that we can implement through the legislative or regulatory process.”

 Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stressed the importance of the committee’s work, adding that saving the dairy industry is part of the survival and revival of rural America.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stressed the importance of the committee’s work, adding that saving the dairy industry is part of the survival and revival of rural America.

Dairy Industry Advisory Committee members took time to introduce themselves and offer opening statements.
Dairy Industry Advisory Committee members took time to introduce themselves and offer opening statements.

The 17 members of the Dairy Industry Advisory Committee were selected=The 17 members of the Dairy Industry Advisory Committee were selected from more than 300 nominations representing producer and producer organizations, processors and processor organizations, handlers, retailers, consumers, academia and state agencies.