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November 2012

Energy Advisor Says a Host of Factors Affect Food Prices

Rob Green’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed “The cause of higher grocery bills isn’t the drought. It’s the failed federal ethanol policy” fails to take into consideration a host of factors, other than demand for corn, that affect food prices.

In the domestic and global markets commodity, labor, transportation, energy costs, processing, and marketing costs all contribute to what we pay for food in our local grocery store or restaurant. In some cases, factors such as higher oil prices affect one or more of these underlying costs producing higher domestic and world food prices.

Native American Heritage Month is an Opportunity for Learning and Sharing

Earlier this month, I submitted a blog discussing plans to observe Native American Heritage Month in South Dakota. USDA Rural Development South Dakota staff held a Native American interactive day on November 28, which included traditional teachings, significance of the circle, meal, a game of “all my relations” and Native Pictionary.  Today marks the final day of Native American Heritage Month, 2012.

Native American Heritage month is an opportunity for learning and sharing of Native American culture.  USDA staff were educated on the symbolism of the circle and its relevance to the Native American people with Rural Housing Specialist Ken Lynch reading a quote from Black Elk Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux; USDA Rural Development State Director Elsie Meeks provided comments in support of this event and traditional foods included smoked white fish, salmon, herring, and fish spread.  The hand smoking with native hardwoods brings out the delicate flavor of these fish.  Chicken, a wild rice dish, and squash was provided by Rural Housing Technician Hetti Cekalla and her husband Leroy.  Also served were Indian fried bread, vegetables, dessert and drinks.

Secretary's Column: The Millions of Jobs Supported by Rural America

Every day I am reminded of the many ways in which the work of rural America impacts all of us. Rural America provides us with a clean environment, opportunities to get outdoors, greater energy security, and a safe and abundant food supply that’s the envy of the world. From our smallest towns to our biggest cities, work ongoing today in rural America has a tremendously positive effect for the United States.

Perhaps most important, rural America is driving job growth across our nation.

Last year, the agriculture sector and its related industries directly provided more than 16 million American jobs, the highest number since 2008. Many of these jobs are in rural America – while other agriculture-related jobs, from food manufacturing to textile work, are supporting millions of families in our cities.

A Word about the Importance of Work/Life from Deputy Secretary Merrigan

Last month, Hurricane Sandy prevented Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan from addressing USDA employees and guests at the Open House planned for National Work & Family Month.  However, she wanted to be sure to take the time to emphasize the importance of USDA’s Work/Life & Wellness programs and what they mean for employees, supervisors and managers at the Department.

Pueblo of Acoma Tribal Youth Connect to the Land Through Science

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 profile.

Known for its vibrant culture, distinctive art, and customary traditions rooted in Native American pottery and connection to the land, historians consider the Pueblo of Acoma to be one of the oldest and continuously inhabited communities in North America dating back to 1150 A.D.  Determined to foster that connection to the land with today’s generation, USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station Albuquerque lab scientists partnered with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services Los Lunas Plant Materials Center to host a minority outreach natural resources science day camp for the Pueblo of Acoma tribal youth.

From Futile to Fertile: Midwest Farmers, Federal Partners Address Drought

The 2012 drought dried up more than just crops. For many U.S. farmers, it also dried up savings, material resources, and perhaps saddest of all, hope.

“The drought of course impacted our crop yields tremendously,” said veteran Ohio dairy farmer Leon Weaver. “Corn yields were about 50 percent of normal. Dairymen are exiting this business in droves.”

But for Weaver and nearly one hundred other Ohio, Michigan and Indiana farmers who gathered recently in rural Henry County, Ohio, hope was a commodity worth trading as they shared, in roundtable fashion, their ideas on how to access resources and rise from the dust.

USDA's 2013 Agricultural Outlook Forum - Feb. 21-22, 2013

USDA’s 2013 Agricultural Outlook Forum, “Managing Risk in the 21st Century,” will be held at the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, on Feb. 21-23.  Speakers will include USDA policymakers and 85 distinguished experts in the fields of international trade, insurance, forestry, conservation, risk management, transportation, energy, nutrition, local foods, and food safety. The Forum continues to feature the traditional USDA commodity supply and demand and food price outlooks.

A USDA Broadband Grant Connects a Bering Sea Island to the World

The significance of a recently awarded USDA Community Connect Broadband grant to the predominantly Native town of Saint Paul, Alaska, can’t really be appreciated until you know about this isolated community on one of the Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea.  It is not served by the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system and the major shipping routes are 250 miles to the south.  The island is too far from the closest urban centers (more than 700 miles) to reach by light aircraft.  No commercial jet service is available.   Most supplies arrive by charter or flying service while freight arrives by barge, seasonally when the Bering Sea is ice-free.  Winter travel in the Bering Sea can be extreme with violent seas and high winds.  Air travel throughout the remaining months is often disrupted by heavy fog and ice fog.  To say this is a remote area is an understatement.

The Community Connect project is desperately needed on Saint Paul Island.  Available 2010 Census statistics show the community in distress.  In 1990 the population was 763; by 2010 it was 479.  This is at a time when Alaska’s less remote non-Native rural population is growing.  With few available natural resources on this treeless island, Internet Connectivity is the core foundation for economic and demographic turn around.

Wheat Genome Sequenced in Breakthrough for Global Food Security

The Journal Nature today published a paper reporting that scientists from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), as part of an international team, have completed a shotgun sequencing of the wheat genome. The achievement is expected to increase wheat yields, help feed the world and speed up development of wheat varieties with enhanced nutritional value. Wheat is one of the world’s “big three” crops, along with rice and corn, upon which the world’s growing population depends for nutrition.

Sequencing the genome of wheat was unusually daunting because the wheat genome is five times the size of the human genome, and has 94,000 to 96,000 genes.  This sequencing effort involved the identification of essentially all of those genes and mapping their relationship to other genes.  Previously, the size and complexity of the wheat genome had been significant barriers to performing a complete analysis, but the scientists overcame that problem by developing a new strategy that compared wheat genetic sequences to known grass genes, such as from rice and barley.

Food for Thought Exhibit: Putting the Dietary Guidelines into Action at the Koshland Science Museum

On November 15, 2012, the National Academy of Sciences Koshland Science Museum here in Washington, DC, premiered its new Food for Thought exhibit. This engaging experience offers an interactive and thought-provoking opportunity for visitors to explore the practical how-to of healthy eating.

To kick off the grand opening of the exhibit, the Koshland held its second Healthy Plate Cook-Off, which featured healthy meals prepared by teams of students from the DC Central Kitchen culinary training program. The student teams were required to follow the guidance that supports MyPlate (at in preparing their recipes and meals. The teams’ meals were judged by a panel of nutrition and health professionals for taste, appearance, and nutritional value.  I was honored to represent the Department and serve as a judge at this event.