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Strategic Conversations, a Crisis Response at the Grass Roots Level

As Mark Twain once said, “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.” Recently, in Ohio, the staff of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), put that advice to work: rather than trying to communicate broadly, they took their message on the road, visiting with farmers face-to-face to talk about the importance of cover crops on improving water quality.

For two days this past summer, 400,000 Toledo, Ohio residents dependent on safe drinking water from Lake Erie could not use their water for drinking, bathing or washing. Toxins from algae contaminated their water, exceeding the city’s water treatment facilities capacity to remove it.  Boiling the water only concentrated the toxin. No one knew how long this would last.

Directions to a Prosperous Rural America

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 portfolio.

If you’re like me, the holidays are a time to pack our bags and set off to visit family members and loved ones.  When my family goes on a road trip -- with what seems like half the country doing the same thing -- the driver is always asked helpful questions like, “Do you know where you’re going?” or “Are we there yet?” At USDA, we’re often revisiting the same questions and potential solutions as we develop plans to strengthen the rural economy.

Tackling the problems rural America faces is not unlike a family road trip.  Directions are needed to help steer USDA programs supporting rural America toward our goals:  “Do you know where you’re going?”  As it turns out, the answer to this question is an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

Hearing First-Hand How Diversity Matters

The men and women who own and operate our country’s farms and ranches are increasingly diverse. In fact, according to USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, all categories of minority-operated farms increased between 2007 and 2012.  The number of farms operated by Hispanics has increased by 21 percent in just five years.

My agency, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), oversees all 22 industry-funded commodity research and promotion (R&P) programs.  Led by industry board members appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, these programs provide a framework for farmers and businesses to pool resources, set common goals and make collective decisions about how to best develop new markets, strengthen current markets and conduct important research and promotion activities.

Conference Explores Ways to Value Resources, Improve the Environment and Put a Check into Producers' Pockets

What is the monetary value of a supply of clean water?  Or the value of clean air or having places available to hike and fish?

For decades we have taken these resources for granted, or at least we have not put a monetary value on their benefits. That’s changing.  Participants from 30 nations met this week at the ACES: A Community on Ecosystem Services; Linking Science, Practice and Decision Making conference to talk about just how we can value these benefits and include that in our decision-making and planning.  As the conference kicked off, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tidwell talked about the need to quantify the benefits of public lands, building consensus and support for a multi-generational outlook, moving away from short term objectives and toward “sustaining the health and diversity of our forests and grasslands.”

Participants included a number of other federal officials, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie, and Jay Jensen of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

USDA Delivers on Ways to Prevent Food Waste

Less than 2 years ago, the USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, with the goal of reducing food waste in the United States.  We set an ambitious goal of having at least 400 businesses, schools, and/or organizations join the challenge by letting us know what they are doing to reduce food waste in their operations.  USDA also committed to finding ways in which its 33 agencies and offices could help reduce food waste through policy, partnerships, and research.

As of today, we have surpassed our membership goal by signing up 1,313 participants in the U.S. Food Waste Challenge.

The number and diversity of participants joining the challenge are indicative of a growing movement to reduce food waste that is spreading across the country.

Secretary's Column: Deadline Approaching for Health Insurance Coverage that Begins January 1

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is already making a difference in the lives of millions of rural Americans. Thanks to the ACA, families can choose from a variety of affordable insurance plans and many will qualify for financial assistance to help them pay for coverage.

The deadline is coming up to sign up for health insurance coverage that begins on January 1. To start the new year with coverage, you must sign up by December 15 at or call 1-800-318-2596 if you need help signing up.

Providing the Gift of Water for Poinsettias and Other Ornamental Crops

Happy Poinsettia Day!

Of the countless iconic holiday season images in American homes, perhaps the most popular and colorful of them started off as a humble bush from our neighbors to the south.

The poinsettia was introduced to this country in the late 1820s by Joel Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico, but only started on the path to holiday season superstardom in the early 1900s.  By 2013, poinsettias accounted for 23 percent of sales for flowering potted plants – to the tune of $146 million.

Exploration and Agriculture: Connecting the Next Generation with Science to Grow the Future

Last week, we entered a bold new era of exploration and discovery as NASA launched the Orion spacecraft, a major step testing the possibility of going to Mars.

As NASA contemplates sending human missions to Mars, one question we must answer is: what will the astronauts eat and what foods will assist future missions? NASA and USDA are working together to develop plants that can grow, thrive, and produce in new environments – signaling opportunities for fresh, nutrition-rich food for astronauts on long duration space flights.

A Potato's Eye on Idaho Agriculture

The Census of Agriculture is the most complete account of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. Every Thursday USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service will highlight new Census data and the power of the information to shape the future of American agriculture.

When it comes to potatoes, Idaho is #1. Results of the 2012 Census of Agriculture confirmed it. According to the census, Idaho farmers led the United States in acres of potatoes harvested, at 345,217 acres. And believe it or not, this was done by only 794 farms. On these farms, 58 percent of the potato harvested acres were for the fresh market and 42 percent were for processing.

Of course, the other parts of our agriculture are no small potatoes either. Overall, in 2012 we had 24,816 farms in our state, and our farmers sold more than $7.8 billion worth of agricultural products. Nearly a third of that amount – $2.3 billion – came from milk sales. Only three states, California, Wisconsin, and New York, had more milk sales than Idaho. Idaho’s Gooding County ranked fourth in the nation for milk cow inventory. The 2012 census counted nearly 179,000 head of milk cows there.

Tis the Season to Avoid Raw Meat

Everyone loves spending time with family and friends enjoying special winter treats, but you might want to think twice before reaching for some traditional dishes. Raw meat dishes like tartare may be more common this time of year, but they still come with health risks.

“Tiger meat” is another traditional winter dish. Despite the name, this dish is not made using meat from tigers. It’s a holiday mixture of raw ground beef, raw eggs, onions and other seasonings served on rye bread or crackers. Beef tartare, tiger meat, and dishes alike have ground beef and eggs that pose a health hazard when eaten undercooked or raw.