Washington, DC - This year, millions of rural businesses and families were positively impacted by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) investments in their communities. This week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released a list of USDA's top achievements in 2015, demonstrating USDA's efforts to help farmers and ranchers bring their products to tables domestically and abroad, build critical infrastructure in America's rural areas, conserve our nation's natural resources through long-lasting partnerships, and continuously work toward improving the lives of all Americans.

"Since 2009, USDA has focused significant and targeted investments in America's rural communities to bring transformative change. Last year, those investments blossomed across the United States with substantial results in the burgeoning bio-economy, an exploding local and regional food system, unparalleled investments in renewable energy, improved nutrition interventions for young people, historic partnerships in conservation and greenhouse gas reduction, and major contributions in rural infrastructure, among some. Even with challenges in 2015, including an unprecedented animal disease outbreak and lower commodity prices, America's rural communities have proven once again that we are a nation of makers, creators and innovators, and our economy and security are stronger because of it. As we look to 2016, USDA will continue to seek out new and innovative ways to expand opportunity for America's farming families and rural communities," said Vilsack.

USDA invites all Americans to take a look back at 2015 through our archived In Case You Missed It series. Posted weekly, the In Case You Missed It report tells the stories of rural Americans who are working to meet ever-changing challenges, paving the way to empower future leaders to meet the world's growing food, fuel and fiber needs, and continuously adapting and evolving to ensure American agriculture remains a leader throughout the world.

Here is a list of USDA's top outcomes in 2015:

Agriculture and Trade

  • Delivered nearly $200 million to help poultry producers recover, and spent nearly $1 billion total in response to the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreak.
  • Achieved $139.7 billion of agricultural exports, the third-best year on record. Ensured passage of Trade Promotion Authority, and helped to complete negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
  • Enrolled 1.76 million farmers in the new Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs by conducting an unprecedented educational campaign. The program has provided $4.8 billion in financial help to more than 900,000 farms that experienced a $20 billion drop in revenues during 2015.
  • Helped 6,600 small, underserved and new farmers obtain credit through popular microloan program (16,000 since 2013), with 70% issued to new farmers.
  • The Value Added Producer Grant program, one of our most successful and effective drivers in helping agricultural producers grow their businesses, had another strong year, awarding $43.9 million for 363 grants that assisted 2,659 businesses and 2,548 farmers.
  • Announced that Whole-Farm Revenue Protection Insurance will be available in every county in 2016.
  • Supported nearly 10,000 farms and ranches, food entrepreneurs and communities through local food-related projects. Over 6,000 farmers markets and direct-marketing farmers are now authorized to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, more than five times the number in 2009. Between FY09 and FY14, USDA invested more than $800 million in more than 29,100 local and regional food businesses and infrastructure projects. As a result of our support, the market for local food has grown to an estimated $11.7 billion in 2014 from $5 billion in 2008.
  • Reached a record 19,474 certified organic operations in the United States.
  • Developed the first Process Verified Program claim for non-GMO/GE food products.
  • Launched www.usda.gov/newfarmers, an interactive web tool designed to connect new farmers with programs and resources.

Anti-Poverty Efforts and Nutrition

  • Launched 10 employment and training pilot projects to help SNAP participants find and keep gainful employment.
  • Announced 97% of schools successfully meet the updated, science-based nutrition standards for school meals under Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.
  • Reached more than 8.1 million kids with healthy meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Total breakfast participation increased by more than 3 million students since 2008. CEP has been successfully implemented in over 14,000 schools and has led to a 9% increase in school breakfast participation and 5% increase in school lunch.
  • USDA's StrikeForce initiative has expanded to include 880 counties, parishes, boroughs, and census areas in 21 states and Puerto Rico. In 2015, in StrikeForce target areas, USDA partnered with more than 1,000 organizations to support 56,600 projects that directed more than $7.5 billion in investments to the poorest places in rural America.
  • Named first 10 rural and tribal communities to participate in Rural IMPACT demonstration programs. Rural IMPACT helps communities adopt a two-generation approach to addressing the needs of vulnerable children and parents, with the goal of increasing parents' employment and education and improving the health and well-being of children and families.
  • In partnership with the University of Kentucky, announced establishment of the USDA Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center at the University of Kentucky in Lexington to reduce child food insecurity in states with the highest number of persistently poor rural counties.
  • In 2015, USDA and our partners served 190.6 million meals to low-income children during the summer months when school meals are not available. Since the summer of 2009, USDA has increased the number of summer meals served by 16.1% . Since the beginning of the Obama Administration, USDA has served a total of 1.2 billion summer meals.

Cost Savings and Process Improvements

  • Achieved $1.4 billion in savings, efficiencies, and cost avoidances since 2012 and saved more than 290,000 USDA staff hours through signature process improvements in the past year alone.

Climate Change

  • Announced 10 Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry, which, by 2025, will reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road.
  • USDA and EPA set the first-ever national food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030 in an effort to reduce the amount of wasted food in landfills producing methane emissions that fuel climate change.

Global Food Security

  • Feed the Future reached nearly 19 million households and helped nearly 7 million farmers gain access to new tools and technologies. New data demonstrate that, through Feed the Future and other U.S. Government efforts, childhood stunting rates have declined in Ethiopia, Ghana, and parts of Kenya by between 9 and 33 percent in recent years, while areas in Uganda have seen a 16 percent drop in poverty.
  • In 2015, the McGovern-Dole Program benefitted 2.5 million children in Africa and Central America.

Conservation and Forestry

  • Through an unprecedented voluntary conservation effort with landowners, the greater sage-grouse no longer needs Federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Increased the pace and scale of forest restoration by nine percent since 2011 and increased timber harvest by 18 percent since 2008, despite record droughts, longer wildfire seasons, and the increasing percentage of the budget spent fighting wildland fires. In 2015, 2.87 billion board feet were harvested and sold.
  • USDA's overall investment in drought disaster relief and long term conservation practices exceeded $1.2 billion in 2015.
  • Provided $3 million in funding to support the development of tall wood demonstration projects in New York and Portland, Oregon.
  • Leveraged $800 million to 115 high-impact conservation projects across the nation through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
  • As of September 2015, 24.2 million acres were enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). CRP also is protecting more than 170,000 stream miles with riparian forest and grass buffers, enough to go around the world 7 times. This year marks the 30th anniversary of CRP. Since 1985, the program has sequestered an annual average of 49 million tons of greenhouse gases, equal to taking 9 million cars off the road; prevented 9 billion tons of soil from erosion, enough to fill 600 million dump trucks; and reduced nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by 95 and 85 percent, respectively.
  • USDA invested $20.5 million through the Conservation Innovation Grants program for 45 projects, including efforts to increase habitat for pollinators, develop new ways to attract private investment in natural resource conservation, give agricultural producers greater access to greenhouse gas markets, and help farmers and ranchers make their operations more resilient to climate change.
  • Independent study by Mississippi State University found efforts to create migratory bird habitat on more than 470,000 acres in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided significant benefits to ducks, geese and other birds. Following the spill, USDA worked with farmers and landowner to create wetlands and winter habitat for migratory birds.
  • Invested $30 million this year in 33 new projects and 40 existing projects to improve water quality in high priority watersheds the Mississippi River Basin.

Energy and Bioeconomy

  • Made available $100 million in grant funds, with matching funds from state and private partners, which will provide $210 million to nearly double the number of fueling pumps nationwide that supply American-made renewable fuels, such as E15 and E85.
  • Issued a report that examines and quantifies the effect of America's biobased products industry from an economics and jobs perspective. The report notes that in 2013 alone, that industry contributed four million jobs and $369 billion to the U.S. economy.
  • The BioPreferred Program now has more than 14,000 biobased products listed in its online catalog and, to date, more than 2,400 products are certified to use the BioPreferred label.
  • USDA's Rural Energy for America Program provided 1,945 projects with a total of $82.9 million in grants and $161.2 million in loan guarantees, the largest funding level in the history of the program.
  • Made one conditional commitment through the 9003 program to a biorefinery in New Orleans.
  • Through the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, USDA provided assistance to 890 growers on 49,000 acres for costs associated with harvesting and transporting agriculture or forest residues to facilities that convert biomass crops into energy.
  • Research projects funded through NIFA's Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) is leading to the development of economically and environmentally sustainable sources of renewable biomass. Projects include a grant to Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. in Findlay, Ohio, which is working to use remaining plant residue from the guayule shrub for rubber production.

Food Safety

  • Developed the first-ever Salmonella standard for chicken parts, which will reduce illnesses by about 50,000 annually.
  • Unveiled a National Action Plan designed to advance the appropriate use of antibiotics in food animals and promote collaborations among partners in medicine, veterinary medicine, and public health.
  • Launched the Foodkeeper App, which helps reduce food waste by showing users how to store foods properly and reminding them to use items before they are likely to spoil.

Rural Development

  • Made the first investments through the $10 billion Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund and the first Rural Business Investment Company, both launched in 2014. Established two additional RBICs in 2015.
  • Provided new or improved high-speed internet access to nearly 6 million rural Americans through investments made by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
  • Announced $3.4 billion in funding to build or improve more than 15,277 miles of transmission and distribution lines for rural electric cooperatives and utilities, including $134 million in Smart Grid Technology.
  • Funded $1.8 billion in Community Facilities projects over the course of fiscal year 2015. Since 2009, USDA has awarded $9.7 billion under its Community Facilities programs, including $4.9 billion for 1,052 health care projects; $266 million for improvements to 206 public schools; $133 million for 555 libraries; $39 million for 240 day care centers; and $791 million to support 4,876 public safety facilities in rural areas. Through investments made through its Community Facilities programs, over the past two years, USDA has provided more than $213 million to support 80 rural mental health facility projects in 34 states.

Research

  • Supported the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research in its effort to provide awards to support the next generation of agricultural scientists.
  • In 2015, USDA's intramural researchers executed 35 licenses, issued 73 patents, filed 114 patent applications, and released 50 new cultivars and enhanced germplasm lines. USDA's funding to extramural entities in 2015 led to 20 new issued patents, seven plant variety protections, 11 patent cooperation treaty applications, 36 non-provisional patent applications and 22 provisional applications.
  • Transformative innovations that can be found in USDA's 2014 Technology Transfer Report include: Procedures to remove up to 98-percent of the allergens from peanuts without affecting the flavor; A portable method for identifying harmful bacteria in food that could improve the response to foodborne illness outbreaks; A new soil nitrogen test that rapidly and inexpensively determines the total amount of nitrogen in the soil that is available to a plant, reducing costs for farmers while benefiting the environment.

Civil Rights

  • To address long-standing allegations of past discrimination, we settled large-scale class-action lawsuits with Native American and African American farmers and ranchers and established a voluntary claims process for women and Hispanic farmers and ranchers, providing payments of more than $2.5 billion combined and over $118 million in debt forgiveness.