• OpTIS: Where Technology Drives Conservation Results

    By Pipa Elias, Soil Health Program Manager, The Nature Conservancy and LaKisha Odom, Scientific Program Manager, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research The global population is estimated to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, placing unprecedented pressure on American farmers to grow even more of the crops that clothe, fuel and feed the world. One way to help alleviate this pressure is to significantly improve soil health on cropland. By adopting practices like planting winter cover crops and reducing—or better yet eliminating—tillage practices, farmers can significantly improve productivity of their fields, reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and increase carbon storage. In fact, agricultural soils are among the planet's largest reservoirs (or sinks) of carbon. Improving soil on American croplands has the potential to mitigate 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent to taking 5 million passenger cars off the road for one year. But how do we know if the adoption rate of these soil health practices, specifically cover crops and conservation tillage, is increasing? Before we can answer that question, we need to understand how many acres are currently managed with these practices (baseline data), and we need the ability to track progress over time.COVER CROPS Multiple cover crop and pasture plant species are improving soil health and overall production capacity. © Ron Nichols, USDA-NRCS  Technology is Key New Hampshire-based Applied GeoSolutions(AGS) has developed the Operational Tillage Information System (OpTIS), a GIS tool that uses data from several earth-observing satellites to map and monitor cover crop development and detect plant residue left on cropland to determine the tillage activities. AGS and the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) conducted a successful pilot project to test the capability of OpTIS to map tillage practices and cover crops from 2006 to 2015 in Indiana. Multiple investors recognize how this technology will advance soil health and a deliver numerous environmental benefits. In fact, Bayer Crop Science, DuPont Pioneer, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Monsanto, Mosaic, J.R. Simplot Company, Syngenta, the Walmart Foundation, and The Nature Conservancy have matched a $500,000 grant from FFAR to support expanding the application of the OpTIS technology. This FFAR grant, in addition to support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is making it possible for AGS, CTIC, the Conservancy and other partners to apply the OpTIS technology across the Midwest and ultimately throughout the country. Not only are the partners mapping soil health practice trends, but they are using a computer simulation model to determine the environmental impacts of cover crops and reduced tillage practices. The DeNitrification-DeComposition Model (DNDC) measures benefits such as nitrous oxide emissions, nitrate loss, soil organic carbon, and water-holding capacity. It is important to note that OpTIS calculations are made using publicly available data, and reported at watershed scales to ensure the privacy of individual growers is fully protected.COVER CROP RESIDUES Soybeans emerge through a mat of diverse cover crop plant residues, reducing evaporation, lowering soil temperatures and protecting soil from erosion. © Ron Nichols, USDA-NRCS  The better we—goverments, academia, conservation organizations and businesses—understand the trends in adoption rates of these practices, the better we can focus resources and tools that will help farmers secure their future while benefiting communities and nature. For instance, OpTIS can helpSoil and water conservation districts establish priorities and to evaluate progress in achieving county or statewide goals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state governments track progress towards and better focus efforts to meet the ambitious goals of the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force to reduce harmful nutrient (primarily nitrogen and phosphorous) loading in the Mississippi River basin. Stakeholders throughout the agri-food system supply chain better understand market trends in the adoption of cover crops and specific tillage systems that impact environmental sustainability, such as greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration. Conservation organizations target efforts to improve soil health and water quality. Regional and national agricultural offices evaluate and compare the effectiveness of conservation programs across large regions. These groups can use this information to identify areas with low rates of conservation technology adoption and target these areas for future support. Academic researchers use spatial information on conservation practices for modeling water quality and the carbon cycle.Knowledge is power, and OpTIS will help to empower a wide range of stakeholders with vital data to help improve farmers’ productivity, safeguard our water and lands and ensure a sustainable future.ResourcesOpTIS Fact Sheet (1.66 MB PDF) See how remote sensing data can map conservation agriculture practices and help farmers be more efficient and effective. Download PDF


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  • The Buzz About Pollinators

    Happy National Pollinator Week! This week, we honor the many insects and animals that allow agriculture to flourish. A pollinator is any animal that transfers pollen within a single plant or from one plant to another of the same species, aiding in the reproduction process. There are over 200,000 species that serve as pollinators, including bees, butterflies, birds and bats. Even lemurs in Madagascar are pollinators! Healthy pollinator species are directly correlated to a thriving ecosystem. In fact, nearly 75% of all crops require pollination for producing the food we eat and it is estimated that approximately 1/3 of all food and beverage products come from pollinated plants. Farmers rely on pollinator species for higher quality crops and increased yield. Yet pollinators have been declining since at least the mid-20th century. For managed honey bees, their population of 5 million in the 1940s has declined to 2.89 million today – that’s nearly half our bees disappearing! The Monarch butterfly population has declined by 95% just in the past two decades. The deterioration of these various species may be due to factors like increased use of herbicides and pesticides, urbanization, and the spread of invasive species. But it’s not just about numbers. Poor pollinator health leads to lower pollination efficiency, susceptibility to disease, and decreased benefits to crops. We all have something to lose when our pollinators aren't thriving. At FFAR, we believe research and innovation will promote the growth of pollinator populations back to health. In 2017, FFAR awarded more than $7 million to 16 teams to support science and technology to support health and maintenance of various pollinator populations. These projects are funded by more than 50 universities, companies, and organizations committed to improving pollinator health for a total investment of $14 million in pollinator health. By working together, we can restore the health of our pollinators and ensure a flourishing future for agriculture.About the AuthorDr. Sally Rockey became the inaugural Executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in September 2015. Prior to this role, Dr. Rockey was a leader in Federal research, overseeing the operations of the extramural programs in both agriculture and biomedicine.  She spent 19 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before taking on the extramural research program at the National Institutes of Health. As Deputy Director for Extramural Research, Dr. Rockey led groundbreaking initiatives and activities that have and will have a lasting positive impact on the research community. Dr. Rockey received her Ph.D. in Entomology from the Ohio State University.


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  • Happy National Ag Week

    Happy National Ag Week! Our closest relationship to Earth is through agriculture – it serves as the foundation on which our country and all of civilization has flourished. This week, we celebrate the farmers, ranchers, and producers who work tirelessly to put food on our tables. Thank you for everything you do to cultivate the abundance provided by American agriculture. But we’re faced with a monumental challenge in the coming years. More food will be consumed in the next 50 years than in the last 7,000 years. We will need to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 and we must do this with the same about or diminishing land while protecting our national resources. Science is accelerating at breakneck speed. Our ability to couple new tech with what we rapidly discover about living things means that the agricultural enterprise is benefiting so rapidly from research that it is truly breathtaking. I truly believe there is no better time to be engaged in agricultural science and research. America’s support of food and agriculture research has helped us become the world’s leader in agriculture production, but public investment in ag science is declining. Now, more than ever, we need food and agriculture research to help farmers put food on our tables. At FFAR, we believe that public-private partnerships will be essential to spur the innovation we need to feed the world. We must continue to bring together the best and brightest scientists to address challenges in food and agriculture – plus provide them the support they need to make the discoveries that will accelerate innovation. Let’s work together to support agriculture research that spurs innovation and leads us to a future where we all have access to healthy, nourishing food produced by thriving American farms.About the AuthorDr. Sally Rockey became the inaugural Executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in September 2015. Prior to this role, Dr. Rockey was a leader in Federal research, overseeing the operations of the extramural programs in both agriculture and biomedicine.  She spent 19 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before taking on the extramural research program at the National Institutes of Health. As Deputy Director for Extramural Research, Dr. Rockey led groundbreaking initiatives and activities that have and will have a lasting positive impact on the research community. Dr. Rockey received her Ph.D. in Entomology from the Ohio State University.


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  • The Time is RIPE for Agricultural Innovation

    By Sally Rockey, FFAR Executive Director Greetings from Champaign, Illinois! By now you’ve heard about the groundbreaking RIPE project and its quest to improve photosynthetic efficiency in plants. I had the pleasure of joining co-funders from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and U.K. Department of International Development along with agricultural leaders and USDA representatives to see firsthand where the innovation happens during the RIPE Reinvestment event at the University of Illinois.From left to right: FFAR Board Member Pam Johnson, RIPE Deputy Director Don Ort, FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey, and University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones.  RIPE, or Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, researchers have already redesigned photosynthesis to increase test crop yields by 20 percent. Now, with an additional $45 million investment, the team of University and USDA scientists is working to provide those same yield increases to soybeans, cassava, and cowpeas. Imagine what this could mean in the fight against world hunger. Farmers across the world could produce more food simply by harnessing the power of the sun. There is endless potential in this project to improve human health and increase economic opportunities for farmers.  Johannes Kromdijk, Postdoctoral Researcher for RIPE, explained the rigorous process of studying the photosynthetic process of plants in his lab in the Carl. R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois.  The RIPE team brings together experts from around the world to look at photosynthesis – the process that makes a plant a plant! It’s basic for plant survival, yet it can be very inefficient. By studying plant genetics, RIPE will lead the way in creating crops that will feed the world. Tackling big problems with big science is what FFAR is all about. It was amazing to see how many labs and researchers are involved in this project, not only at University of Illinois but also at partner institutions across the U.S. and overseas – it really is a team effort! I’m excited to see what discoveries they make and how it will change the world. I’m proud to support RIPE researchers and their work toward ending hunger with innovative science.   About the AuthorDr. Sally Rockey became the inaugural Executive Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in September 2015. Prior to this role, Dr. Rockey was a leader in Federal research, overseeing the operations of the extramural programs in both agriculture and biomedicine.  She spent 19 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture before taking on the extramural research program at the National Institutes of Health. As Deputy Director for Extramural Research, Dr. Rockey led groundbreaking initiatives and activities that have and will have a lasting positive impact on the research community. Dr. Rockey received her Ph.D. in Entomology from the Ohio State University.


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  • Getting Smarter During Smart Irrigation Month

    Guest Co-Author: Deborah M. Hamlin, CEO, Irrigation Association  Pivot irrigation systems are one…


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  • Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms: New Cover Crop Initiative

    Today, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation announced a $6.6 million initiative to improve soil health through development and adoption of cover…


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  • First FFAR Grantees: Meet the 2016 New Innovators

    Today I am honored to announce the first scientists to receive Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research grants. Our New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Award program sought…


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  • FFAR at the Borlaug Dialogue: Celebrating the New NAS Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences

    Greetings from Des Moines, Iowa! By now you’ve heard a lot from me about the National Academy of Sciences Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences Established by the Foundation for…


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  • Next Great Frontier in Plant Breeding: Phenomics

    As the first half of 2016 has proved to be the hottest ever recorded, Earth is on track to have yet another…


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  • Phytobiome: Emerging Potential

    A reflection on FFAR’s Phytobiome Convening Event Incredible challenges face the agricultural enterprise today: water…


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