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Digital Plant Diagnosis: Turning a Mobile App into an Agricultural Game-Changer

Ireland lost about 20 percent of its population to starvation and emigration during the great famine of 1845-1849 because disease destroyed that nation’s major food source – potato.  Today, an Irish-born professor at Penn State University believes that a similar situation in other regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, could be a thousand times worse.

But there’s hope, he said, because modern food producers have a tool the 19th century Irish did not – smartphones and mobile apps, like PlantVillage.

Simple Measures Pave Way to Recovery for Rare Kentucky Plant

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.

A hike through Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is a trip that outdoor enthusiasts never forget. The adventure begins amid rugged terrain with towering sandstone cliffs that contour steep, forested slopes. Visitors discover hundreds of natural stone arches and other unique rock features that create some of the most splendid geological formations east of the Rocky Mountains. Within the beauty and solitude of the gorge resides a rare plant found nowhere else in the world.

The white-haired goldenrod occurs predominantly in the Daniel Boone National Forest, typically found growing along the base of cliffs or on ledges. In areas where the ground is undisturbed, this plant thrives in moist, sandy soil underneath rock shelters. During the fall, the plant blooms with bright yellow flowers along its upper stem. Alternating white-haired leaves line the stem from its base.

A Banner Year for Research: 5 Innovative Projects Aimed at Helping Growers

USDA scientists work 365 days to provide safe and sustainable food, water, and natural resources in the face of a changing climate and uncertain energy sources. To recognize the contribution that agricultural science and research makes in our daily lives, this week’s “Banner Year” series features stories from 2015 that show the successes that USDA science and statistical agencies made for us all.

Making a success in agriculture and rural communities in today’s competitive world requires a toolbox of cutting-edge knowledge and ways to put that information in people’s hands so they can put it to work. Whether it’s designing these tools, developing the data to prove them, or breeding a new crop variety to outwit a plant disease to avoid a harvest’s devastation, the scientists of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are always coming up with something new to enhance rural opportunities.

Here are five research highlights from 2015 you should read:

Poinsettias: Helping an Icon to Bloom at the Right Time

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.

Poinsettias are more than just an icon of the Christmas season. They’ve become the go-to plant for decorating homes, hotels, offices and just about everywhere from the Friday after Thanksgiving to well past New Year’s Day.

This wasn’t always the poinsettia’s story. In the 1950s, poinsettias were flashy plants that made a brief appearance in public places shortly before Christmas, only to drop their leaves and colorful flower-like bracts a few days later. They were expensive to grow because their blooming time was difficult to synchronize with the holidays, and the plants easily grew tall and leggy.

Preserving "Heirloom" Collections - Microbial, That Is

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.

As a plant pathologist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Rice Research Unit in Beaumont, Texas, Toni Marchetti oversaw a new program in 1972 to develop new cultivars that better resisted costly diseases like rice blast.  

Marchetti retired from ARS in 2001, leaving behind not only a legacy of excellence in rice breeding and plant pathology, but also a prized collection of 1,000 rice blast specimens he isolated from Texas, Arkansas, and other rice-growing states. The Beaumont unit was closed in 2012, and the collection was relocated to ARS’s Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Arkansas.

The Nuna Bean: 'Power Popper' Has Funny Name, Serious Nutritional Benefits

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.

Indigenous people of the Andes Mountains in South America have farmed the nuña bean (a.k.a. “Peruvian Popping bean”) as a staple crop for centuries. Its colorful, nutty-flavored seed is especially prized for its tendency to pop open when roasted—a cooking method that requires less firewood than boiling in fuel-scarce regions.

At the Agricultural Research Service’s Western Regional Plant Introduction Station in Pullman, Washington, plant geneticist Ted Kisha curates an edible dry bean collection that includes 91 accessions of high-altitude nuña beans grown by Andean farmers in Peru, the origin for this legume member of the Phaseolus vulgaris family.

Second Morrill Act Redux: America's 1890s Land Grant Universities Academic Excellence

Booker T. Washington.  George Washington Carver.  Educators par excellence.  Pioneers in food and agricultural scientific research. Dedicated their lives to helping "lift the veil of ignorance" by bringing knowledge to African-Americans and others with limited resources.

For 125 years, since passage of the Second Morrill Act on Aug. 30, 1890, which created a "broader education for the American people in the arts of peace, and especially in agriculture and mechanics arts," the legacy of innovations has been sustained.

Discovery Could Rekindle Interest in a USDA Trailblazer

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.

Bountiful harvests don’t magically appear on store shelves and supermarkets. USDA scientists strive to make sure that the variety of meats, fruits, vegetables and grains we enjoy are hardy enough to withstand insects, diseases, droughts and other natural threats familiar to anyone with a garden or farm.

David Fairchild, a USDA scientist, was a key part of that effort. Fairchild collected plants from all over the world so they could be studied and bred. He organized the USDA's Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction and served as its chairman for more than 20 years. He is credited with introducing about 30,000 plant species and variations into the United States, and he was instrumental in establishing gardens throughout the United States to screen plants with potential for improving our diets, gardens and landscapes.

Surf's High for a Desert Plant

When you hear “surf’s up,” the last thing you might think of is a desert shrub called “guayule” (pronounced “why-oo-lee”). But technology that began with a partnership between USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and a small Arizona-based company, Yulex Corporation, recently put wetsuits made with this daisy relative on the market that are more elastic and more comfortable than those made with conventional, petroleum-based neoprene.

The wetsuits were created with Yulex’s guayule natural rubber by Patagonia, a high-end outdoor clothing company, which currently produces and sells the wetsuits.  They are also available from other retailers. The wetsuit—with its 60/40 guayule and petroleum-based neoprene blend—is proving to be popular. Surfer Magazine said: “It’s the cashmere of wetsuit material.”

USDA Seeks Variety to Help American Agriculture Flourish

While most of the country is braving cold and blustery winter conditions, farmers and gardeners are busy looking ahead to the spring. They are contemplating the variety of seeds or the plants that they will use. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) increases the options for our farmers, gardeners, and plant breeders by making sure there is an abundance of varieties available.

We do this through our Plant Variety Protection Office (PVPO), which grants certificates of intellectual property protection to developers of new plant varieties. These certificates enable breeders to market their variety exclusively for 20 years. The protection is an incentive for the development of new and improved varieties.