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Vilsack Returns from Afghanistan Assured of Progress

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack returned to the United States today after a three-day trip to Afghanistan.

Vilsack delivered some good news to Afghans by announcing that USDA would provide up to $20 million for capacity building efforts within Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), the department responsible for managing that country’s agricultural economy.  The funding, said Vilsack, is not guaranteed, and MAIL must continue to demonstrate its commitment to transparency.

“After decades of conflict, Afghanistan lacks many of the personnel and knowledge resources needed to deliver much-needed services to its people, more than 80 percent of whom rely on agriculture for wages and sustenance,” he said. “Today’s commitment with MAIL will help Afghanistan’s government build critical capacity at the local level in agricultural extension and expertise.”Secretary Vilsack pays tribute to USDA employee Tom Stafani who was killed in Afghanistan in October 2007.

In delivering his announcement, Vilsack met with Asif Rahimi, Afghanistan’s Minister of Agriculture, and plainly laid out to his counterpart how MAIL could avail itself of up to $20 million in fun
ding from USDA by clearly establishing reconstruction goals aimed at boosting agricultural productivity, rebuilding agribusiness, improving irrigation, creating jobs, and enhancing technologies. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, offered his support of the announcement.

Yesterday, Vilsack also paid tribute to USDA employee Steven “Tom” Stefani, who was killed in Afghanistan in October 2007 while serving as an agricultural expert in Ghazn provincei.

In a tribute ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Vilsack laid a wreath at the base of a memorial for Stefani. He then announced that USDA would establish the “Tom Stefani Award for Reconstruction and Stabilization in Fragile States” to one or more employees as a way to recognize their efforts to rebuild the agricultural sectors of post-conflict countries.

Before his death, Stefani had wanted to build a playground for the children of Ghazni. His family, to honor that memory, set about collecting contributions toward purchasing playground equipment.  USDA is helping to expedite shipping of the equipment.

An American chestnut tree outside of USDA’s Whitten Building in Washington is dedicated to Stefani, a man “who died serving his country, helping the people of Ghazni, Afghanistan to build better lives.”

View photos of the Secretary’s trip to Afghanistan here.

USDA Science Unlocks the Genetic Secrets of the Soybean

Today, the work of scientists from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), our State Land Grant Universities, and the Department of Energy (DOE) is featured as the cover story in the prestigious science journal, Nature.  I am very proud and excited that USDA science played an important part in unlocking the genetic secrets of one of the world’s most important crops, the soybean.

Together these scientists have compiled a “blueprint” of all the genetic material contained in the soybean plant.  The soybean “blueprint”, which is freely available online, will allow scientists from around the world to locate genes that control and enhance important quality traits in soybeans, like protein and oil, and agronomic traits like yield, drought tolerance, and the plant’s ability to resist pests and diseases.

USDA’s Soybean Germplasm CollectionThis blueprint will let plant scientists find genes much faster and speed up development of different and improved types of soybean. With the basic genetic blueprint in hand, the next step will be for scientists to compare the basic design to others, looking for genetic variations associated with particular traits. This is where USDA’s collection of more than 20,000 different types of soybeans will be crucial. Researchers can compare different cultivars to the blueprint, searching for genes associated with desirable traits. Once new genetic associations are identified, scientists can use the information to create better soybeans. Soybeans that can extract more nitrogen from the atmosphere, which means less fertilizer and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Soybeans with more protein for livestock feed and better nutrition for consumers. Better soy oil for food processors; soybeans with less linolenic acid that doesn’t require hydrogenation, a process which produces unhealthy trans-fats. And even soybeans with more oil designed specifically for biodiesel or biobased applications.

An important food crop in Asia for thousands of years, today soybeans are the largest source of protein and the second largest source of vegetable oil in the world so improving soybeans has important implications for food security.  Soy products are found in numerous foods including milk and meat substitutes, soy flour, and tofu. Soybeans also have many non-food uses including environment-friendly plastics, inks, lubricants, and solvents.

Although soybeans have only been commercially grown in the U.S. since the 1920s, we are now the world’s leading soybean producer and exporter.  The U.S. soybean crop has a farm value of about $27 billion, the second-highest value among U.S.-produced crops, second only to corn. Soybeans are also an important export commodity for American farmers accounting for about 43 percent of production in 2008. And while our research on the soybean genome has great potential to improve food security, it will also help keep American farmers competitive.

The research to decode the soybean genome is the product of a multiagency, multi-institutional effort led by scientists at the DOE Joint Genome Institute, the University of Missouri-Columbia, USDA, and Purdue University, with additional financial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Dr. Perry Cregan and his team from the ARS Soybean Genomics and Improvement Lab in Beltsville, MD

Other USDA and university scientists involved include USDA scientists from the ARS Soybean Genomics and Improvement Lab in Beltsville, Maryland, and researchers at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Since the first plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant in the mustard family, was sequenced in 2000 and the human genome was first sequenced in 2003, scientists have learned a great deal about the role of genes. However, sequencing the genome is but a first step. The genome of an organism is no more than a list of parts. More research is needed to discover the functions and interactions of the genes in order to understand the workings of the entire organism.

ARS Geneticist David Hyten harvests leaf tissue from one of many plant progenies derived from the cross of the soybean cultivar Williams 82 with a wild soybean. The soybean genome project is one of many genome sequencing projects of agriculturally important plants and animals being carried out by USDA and other scientists.  Other projects include sequencing corn, rice, wheat, sorghum, cow, pig, sheep, and honeybee genomes.  Just this week USDA scientists and others announced they had sequenced the genome of the woodland strawberry, a model system for a group of plants within the Rosaceae family which includes many economically important fruit, nut, ornamental and woody crops, such as almond, apple, peach, cherry, raspberry, strawberry and rose.

Research to understand genomes is a vital investment in our future to ensure our farmers can continue to meet the world’s needs for food, feed, fiber, and bioenergy in the face of climate change, emerging pest and disease threats, and a growing population.  The knowledge from this research will translate into new technologies and products that will benefit not only farmers and producers but also people the world over.  USDA science will be crucial to our success.

Molly Jahn is USDA’s Acting Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics

Colorado USDA Officials Hold Jobs Forum

Over 25 members of the Colorado Agricultural Council joined Rural Development State Director, Jim Isgar and Farm Services State Executive Director Trudy Kareus for a Presidential Forum on job creation and economic growth at the State Office in Lakewood, CO. “Several job forums have been occurring across the state, put on both by the Governor and members of our Congressional delegation, but we in Colorado felt one needed to be held focusing primarily on the agricultural sector,” said Isgar.

Colorado Agricultural Commissioner John Stulp chaired the roundtable discussion.  In addition to the Commissioner, panelists included Taryn Edwards, Executive Director of the Governor’s Job Cabinet, Don Marostica, Director of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade, and Steve Johnson, representing Colorado Housing and Finance Authority.

Discussion was held on a vast array of topics, but primarily focused on four topics: regulatory environment – whether they are hampering progress; infrastructure – broadband opportunities, transmission lines and environmental concerns, renewable energy, and clean and waste water; community infrastructure – the importance of having access to health care in rural areas – a strength for a community is having a critical access hospital, providing post K12 education opportunities in rural communities; and credit opportunities for both AG and rural businesses.

Attendees were very thankful for the opportunity to have their issues and concerns forwarded to Secretary Vilsack.  USDA hoped that this event would not be the end of discussion but rather a launching point for further involvement and strategic planning between all parties.

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner, John Stulp, and Rural Development State Director, Jim Isgar, speak at the jobs forum.

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner, John Stulp, and Rural Development State Director, Jim Isgar, speak at the jobs forum.

Submitted by Amy Mund, Colorado USDA Rural Development Public Information Officer

To learn more, go to the Rural Development and FSA Job Roundtables Schedule, and the News Release, “USDA to Host Roundtables on Jobs, Economic Growth

Oregon Jobs and Economic Growth Forums Scheduled

Two community forums on jobs and economic growth are being held in Oregon as a follow up to President Obama’s December 3 White House briefings on job creation. Read more »

About 175 Brave Sub Zero Weather to Attend Jobs Forum in St. Louis

Many dug out of snow drifts and bundled up due to temperatures well below zero on Saturday to attend the Tri-State Jobs & Economic Development Forum in St. Louis hosted by USDA Rural Development (RD) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.  The forum was held in conjunction with the Missouri Governor’s Conference on Agriculture.

I welcomed the 175 attendees to St. Louis, set the stage for the forum and introduced the welcome video by USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.  A cross section of rural areas was in attendance including youth from FFA and 4-H.

Bill Menner from Iowa RD introduced the five panelists who made short presentations on jobs related issues: Dr. Jon Hagler, Director of Missouri Department of Agriculture; Elisabeth Buck, Director of Iowa Workforce Development; Randy Harris, Program Director Laborers’ International Local 338; Brian Bauer with Business Banking Market Manager for National City Bank; and Sharon Gulick, Director University of Missouri Extension’s Community Economic and Entrepreneurial Development (EXCEED) Program.

Some of the “key” things I heard to impact jobs and the economic conditions centered around: enhanced opportunities to promote the “spirit of entrepreneurship” through incentives, technical assistance and capital; more use of collaboration on a regional basis to attract businesses;  streamlining of government regulations and red tape for start up businesses plus improvements in tax code; more lenders willing to utilize government guarantees or other programs to help new or expanding businesses; more funding for jobs training  to help with “skilling up” the workforce; more funding for summer youth programs; expansion of high speed rural broadband access; more funding for ethanol and bio-diesel programs; continued high levels of funding for RD infrastructure programs to sustain rural communities and provide for a high quality of life in rural areas to help maintain and attract businesses and jobs for skilled workers.

The entire forum was captured on audio and video plus numerous staff took notes and pictures.  A report will be submitted to USDA Secretary Vilsack and President Obama.

We collected many recommendations and suggestions from a variety of partners and stakeholders during the forum. Many completed comment cards and we encouraged those in attendance and others that had contacted us to provide comments on the USDA Blog website or e-mailing to

We truly thank everyone that participated and do feel confident that the ideas being collected and submitted will provide a positive result in stimulating jobs and economic growth in the future.

Janie Dunning, Missouri State Director

Opening Remarks at Regional Jobs Forum in St. Louis by Janie Dunning, Missouri Rural Development (RD) State Director. Seated (L to r) Colleen Callahan, Illinois RD State Director; Randy Harris with Laborers International; Elisabeth Buck, Director Iowa Workforce Development; Bill Menner, Iowa RD State Director; Sharon Gulick, Director of University of Missouri EXCEED Program; and Brian Bauer with National City Bank

Opening Remarks at Regional Jobs Forum in St. Louis by Janie Dunning, Missouri Rural Development (RD) State Director. Seated (L to r) Colleen Callahan, Illinois RD State Director; Randy Harris with Laborers International; Elisabeth Buck, Director Iowa Workforce Development; Bill Menner, Iowa RD State Director; Sharon Gulick, Director of University of Missouri EXCEED Program; and Brian Bauer with National City Bank

To learn more, go to the Rural Development and FSA Job Roundtables Schedule, and the News Release, “USDA to Host Roundtables on Jobs, Economic Growth

USDA Hosts Roundtable on Jobs, Economic Growth for Georgia and South Carolina

One hundred and fifteen people from Georgia and South Carolina attended a U.S. Department of Agriculture-sponsored Presidential Roundtable Forum on job creation at Augusta State University earlier this week.

About 25 community leaders brainstormed solutions to high unemployment numbers and the impact on rural areas, while extra chairs were added as people continued to arrive.

“This forum provides an opportunity to share ideas on creating jobs and economic opportunities,” said Shirley Sherrod, state director of USDA Rural Development in Georgia.  “Government can help lay the groundwork for economic growth, but the best ideas for continued growth and job creation often come from local communities. We need the best ideas to share with the Obama Administration.”

The roundtable included business owners, residents, state and local officials, union members, non-profit organizations, community leaders, economists, educators and others interested in job creation and economic stability. Fred Smith, District Director of the Georgia Department of Labor, provided the state’s perspective, including the most current statistics on unemployment and the most promising areas of job growth – healthcare and education.

Representatives from Senators Isakson and Chambliss, and Congressmen Barrow and Broun were present. Congressman Broun sent a statement to be read by his representative, Nicole Avecedo.

“The primary purpose is to put South Carolinians back to work,” said Vernita F. Dore, state director of USDA Rural Development in South Carolina. “We all know that unemployment in our state is one of the highest in the nation, and this forum brings the opportunity to change that. It gives us the chance to remind rural America about the many programs that Rural Development has to address this economy’s problem.”

“Moreover,” Dore continued, “it gives Rural Development the opportunity to remind rural communities that Rural Development stands poised with direct and guaranteed loan and grant programs to finance and help to create jobs and stimulate the economy. We believe that this forum will truly generate ideas for job creation and economic expansion in our state.”

“Our rural areas have been hit very hard in some counties,” Sherrod said. “Most communities need more economic diversity to sustain tough times like this, and that usually means small businesses need more support. Rural Development does have programs to help rural areas address this issue.”

Photo on Georgia/South Carolina Job forum

Willie Paulk, president of the Dublin-Laurens County (GA) Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority, listens as Jerome Tucker, Executive Director of the Southeast Agricultural Coalition, talks about the importance of regional leadership and a regional approach to solutions.

Georgia/South Carolina Job forum

Mayme Dennis, City Council Member in Sandersville, GA, stresses the importance of streamlining government paperwork as Grace Fricks, President of Appalachian Community Enterprises, Inc. listens. Fricks agreed, suggesting that the 25% matching fund for Rural Development's Intermediary Relending Program be decreased or eliminated during the economic downturn. Frick's ACE makes micro-loans to small rural businesses in North Georgia.

Georgia/South Carolina Job forum

Dr. Mark Miller, Dean of the James Hull College of Business at Augusta State University, talks about the importance of keeping education fully funded to prepare students for tomorrow. "There will be jobs in industries that have not yet been thought of using technologies that haven't been invented yet." He's seated next to Reginald Barner, President and CEO of The Barner Group in South Carolina.

Submitted by EJ Stapler and Marlous Black, USDA Rural Development

To learn more, go to the Rural Development and FSA Job Roundtables Schedule, and the News Release, “USDA to Host Roundtables on Jobs, Economic Growth