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A Root Beer-Based Discovery that Saved Lives

Science can do more than improve people’s lives; sometimes it can save them.

Consider the contributions of the late Allene Rosalind Jeanes, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) chemist at what is now the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois. Her efforts are particularly worth celebrating this Veteran’s Day.

Jeanes studied polymers (large molecules composed of many repeated subunits) found in corn, wheat and wood. She spent long hours investigating how bacteria could produce polymers in huge fermentation vats. Eventually, she found a way to mass produce dextran, a type of polymer, so that it could be used as a blood volume “expander” to sustain accident and trauma victims who have lost massive amounts of blood and need to get to a hospital for a transfusion.

Agricultural Data Users Weigh-in on USDA Statistical Programs

As I’ve learned over my years with the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), in order to make an impact, our information needs to meet the needs of the people who use the data we produce. And while we constantly try to gauge and meet their needs, it is imperative to speak to our data users directly to get their input. We are open to feedback all the time and we hold annual special Data Users’ Meeting in Chicago every October.

Of course face-to-face interaction has its limitations since not everyone can travel to Chicago to meet with us. To address this concern, for the first time this year, we are also adding a social media component to our Data Users’ Meeting. Immediately following the panel session at the meeting, from 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Central Time, I will be answering questions via Twitter during our monthly #StatChat.

Where the People and Prairie Restore Each Other

Meandering along a rustic trail surrounded by towering prairie grasses and blooming flowers, you feel a sense of simplicity as you come to a quiet overlook that slopes onto a bench where you can observe the activity of birds and small mammals surrounding a still pond. This beautiful prairie landscape leaves the viewer with an appreciation for nature’s wide open spaces.

And, amazingly, you’re in the middle of one of America’s most populated regions because this could only be the Midewin (mi-Day-win) National Tallgrass Prairie, the largest piece of contiguous open space in the Chicago metropolitan area, located just an hour’s drive from the heart of the Windy City.

New Quarter Showcases the Shawnee National Forest

The Shawnee National Forest is one of few places in Illinois where you will find large open spaces to explore and be immersed in nature. One of its special places is the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area. Each year several hundred thousand visitors are drawn to the strange and beautiful rock formations found at Garden of the Gods. One of the most famous formations is Camel Rock.

This special place was recently celebrated through the launch of the latest America the Beautiful Quarter, featuring the Shawnee’s unique Camel Rock formation. More than 1,300 people came out to celebrate; forever placing the beauty of the Shawnee into pocket change.

Celebrating the New Face of Agriculture

At the Agricultural Marketing Service and across USDA, we often talk about the fact that the face of American agriculture is changing. The ranks of our farmers, especially young and beginning farmers, include a growing number of women, people of color, veterans or folks in their second careers. So-called “traditional” agriculture defies the term as it pursues new strategies, new products, and new markets. Across the country, agriculture is diversifying and evolving to meet changing consumer demands.

I saw the new face of agriculture last week during travels to Illinois and Indiana. My first stop was a roundtable on Women in Agriculture held at FarmedHere in Bedford Park, Illinois, about 15 miles from Chicago. Twenty or so women gathered to talk about their farming goals and to hear about how USDA could support them. This topic is close to my heart – I’m a New Hampshire native, a state with the second highest percentage of women farmers in the country. The women around the table with me represented the new face of ag, but so too did the setting – an indoor, vertical farm that produces basil and microgreens in a facility designed to reduce energy costs and shrink the carbon footprint of growing food.  FarmedHere is managed by Megan Klein, an attorney by training who found her calling in urban agriculture and became part of this “new face.”

Unlocking the Toolkit for Stronger Local Food Systems

Every community wants to support initiatives that promote economic growth and create new jobs, but sometimes it can be hard to decide on the best way to accomplish these goals.  Now there is a new resource to help communities make the economic case for investments in local food. Today, Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the availability of “The Economics of Local Food Systems: A Toolkit to Guide Community Discussions, Assessments and Choices” at the Good Food Festival’s Financing and Innovation Conference in Chicago. Secretary Vilsack highlighted USDA’s continued support of local and regional food systems, much of which is coordinated through USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.

Bridging Nutrition and Tradition: Abriendo Caminos

When preparing your meal, what’s the first thought that comes to mind? Do you have the right ingredients to create a meal that is both fulfilling and packed with enough nutrients to meet the daily requirements? But, what if the only foods that were available were unhealthy?

According to USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), 30 percent of Hispanic households with children are food insecure, meaning they have limited or uncertain access to healthy food. Many of the options that are available to these families do not meet the standard requirements for a sufficient healthy, balanced diet.

Market News - Indispensable to Producers on Earth, Now Goes to MARS

Editor's Note: The free webinar on the Market Analysis and Reporting Services (MARS) has been moved to Thursday, April 14, 2016 at 2 p.m. Eastern.  Sign up using this link:  http://bit.ly/1MxNAWj

For over 100 years, USDA Market News has been an indispensable service, used by agricultural producers of all sizes to get timely, unbiased data from Market News reporters across the country.  Farmers, ranchers, and the entire agricultural supply chain turn to USDA Market News – administered by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) – for data that serves as the information lifeline for America’s agricultural economy.  Now, Market News is entering a new phase, deploying the Market Analysis & Reporting Services (MARS).  It’s a big step forward for AMS, Market News and for the markets and producers that use our data every day.

MARS was formally unveiled during the recent USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum.  It includes the ability to capture livestock auctions for commodities like feeder cattle and will eventually include more than 600 commodities in real time (where applicable), and moves reporter’s data capture from the paper age to a connected digital age.  That means a reporter at a livestock auction in, for example, Kansas will know in real time what comparable feeder cattle is selling for at an auction in Texas.

Bioreactors Form a Last Line of Defense against Nitrate Runoff

NOTE: This year, we’ll be highlighting some of 2015’s conservation practice innovations in a monthly series. NRCS supports science-based conservation by offering technical and financial assistance for nearly 170 conservation practice standards. As conservation science and technology advances, NRCS reevaluates each standard every five years and incorporates new advancements into conservation practice standards.

Walk to the edge of certain crop fields in Iowa and look down. You might not notice anything unusual, but just beneath the surface hordes of woodchip-dwelling microorganisms are busy removing excess nitrates from water before it leaves the field. By filtering nitrates, this organic gauntlet safeguards local streams and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.

Local Food Systems at Work in the Driftless Area

So called because it was left untouched by retreating glaciers that flattened much of the Midwest, the Driftless Area of northeast Iowa, southwest Wisconsin, and bits of Minnesota and Illinois is home to more than just beautiful rolling hills. It’s also the site of inspiring efforts to develop a strong regional food economy. I had the honor of visiting the region in my first trip as Acting Administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).

With Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, USDA has put local and regional food front and center over the last seven years. We realize that consumer demand for local food can create economic opportunities, help develop systems that bring healthy food to underserved communities, and better connect consumers with agriculture. Building these systems often brings together unlikely partners – farmers, economic development experts, local government, school officials and supply-chain businesses – in the pursuit of shared goals.