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Urban farming behind Extension’s Cook County expansion

Published February 23, 2015
Zack Grant, right, former manager of the Sustainable Student Farm and Mike Gray, a professor of crop sciences and assistant dean for agriculture and natural resources. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

URBANA, Ill. - With consumer interest surging in local foods, urban farming and sustainable agriculture, the time is ripe for U. of I. Extension to cultivate Cook County, Illinois.

Extension recently expanded its Local Food Systems/Small Farms team of educators to include Zack Grant, who was the manager of the Sustainable Student Farm on campus until stepping into the educator position with U. of I. Extension at the beginning of February.

Grant is passionate about agriculture, working with growers and sharing his knowledge with others interested in gardening and small-scale farming.

Thus, when Extension began looking for an educator to grow its urban agriculture program in Cook County, Grant was the natural choice, said George Czapar, associate dean and the director of U. of I. Extension and Outreach.

“Agriculture is a big economic benefit to our state, and urban farming and local food production are ways to reach new audiences,” Czapar said. “It’s a pretty exciting time, with the interest people have in knowing where their food comes from and even getting involved in producing it. We view this as generating a whole new generation of farmers interested in growing food.”

Grant is one of 16 educators statewide affiliated with the program, which was established as part of Extension’s reorganization process in 2011. Ten of those educators, including Grant, were hired since the reorganization.

“We have a lot of new, young people on this team who have really worked well and jelled together nicely,” said crop sciences professor Mike Gray, who also serves as the assistant dean for agriculture and natural resources with Extension.  “Quite honestly, these are busy folks. There’s a lot of interest on the part of the general public to consume food grown locally. There’s strong demand. I’m certain we did the right thing in establishing this team.”

Urban farming is a new focus for Extension, an organization that traditionally concentrated on large-scale commercial agriculture production in Illinois, especially corn and soybeans, Gray said.

“There are other land-grant schools that have similarly themed urban agriculture teams, but having this type of educator in an urban, concentrated area like Cook County is relatively new,” Gray said.

When state budget constraints prompted Extension’s reorganization in 2011, Gray saw opportunity for growth.

“I didn’t want University of Illinois Extension to just get smaller,” Gray said. “I said, ‘Let’s look toward the future. There’s tremendous interest in urban agriculture and local food production, and there are increasing numbers of folks who want to engage with small urban farming.’”

The Cook County region – and Chicago, in particular – is especially fertile ground for these types of programs, Grant said.

“Cities such as Detroit are investing heavily in functional production of foods within the city confines,” Grant said. “And in Chicago, there are food deserts, underserved areas where urban food programming is really relevant, and numerous vacant lots that could accommodate community gardens, as well as actual food production businesses.

“There’s also the whole environmental, urban green space, sociocultural aspect of urban agriculture. I think there’s always going to be a need for that, in addition to giving people within the city limits access to locally grown foods and connections with their communities.”

Crop science professors Sarah Taylor Lovell and Sam Wortman conduct research on the environmental challenges of urban agriculture – such as soil contamination, soil remediation and water quality – in Chicago neighborhoods.

 Grant, who has worked with both faculty members in the past, hopes to initiate new Extension programming based upon their work.

Urban agriculture has taken root in the Windy City under federal programs such as the Farm to School initiative and additional projects promoted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel aimed at reducing or preventing child obesity and making fresh, healthy food accessible to people in low-income neighborhoods and food deserts.

Through the Farm to School program, Midwest agriculture producers are partnering with Chicago Public Schools to bring fresh produce from farms in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin to the cafeteria trays of students in the city’s schools.

“Over the past year, we’ve looked at that program,” Gray said. “We want to make sure we have a presence in that area, but we wanted whoever filled the educator position to have some broader responsibilities, particularly in urban agriculture, and Zack has an excellent skill set there.”

Another program that presents opportunities for Extension is the learning gardens project, which installed 100 gardens in public schools throughout Chicago. The gardens function as outdoor classrooms and provide physical activity for students.

Both programs present opportunities for collaboration with educators and school staff members on curriculum development, Grant said.

Grant had been doing kitchen gardening and small-scale urban farming for several years when he came to Illinois to start the master’s program in natural resources. 

In 2008, when Grant was turning in his master’s thesis, the interim department head asked if he’d be interested in managing the Sustainable Student Farm.

The experience of building the farm from the ground up – which included marketing, recruiting and overseeing a small army of 200 to 300 volunteers during the academic year, installing irrigation and high tunnel systems, and collaborating on research and outreach with Extension educators – was good preparation for his new position, Grant said.

Over its first six years, the Sustainable Student Farm flourished, expanding from its original 2-acre plot to its current 6 acres. An additional 10,000 square feet of high tunnels extend the growing season to about 10 months a year.

The majority of the farm’s produce is sold to University Housing’s Dining Services for consumption in campus residence halls, and the remainder is sold directly to consumers through a seasonal farm stand, which operates from May to November on the Quad, south of the Illini Union.

Matt Turino, who was assistant manager of the Sustainable Student Farm, is serving as the farm’s interim manager.

Projected soybean plantings are surprisingly low

Published February 23, 2015

Projected soybean plantings are surprisingly low

Published February 23, 2015

URBANA, Ill. – On Feb. 20, USDA released the Grain and Oilseeds Outlook as part of the 2015 Agricultural Outlook Forum. The report includes projections of the anticipated supply and consumption of corn and soybeans for the upcoming 2015-16 marketing year. Among the highlights of this report are projections of 2015 planting intentions for corn, soybeans, and wheat.

“Current expectations are for lower commodity prices in the 2015-16 marketing year ($3.50 per bushel of corn, $9 per bushel of soybeans, and $5.10 per bushel of wheat),” said University of Illinois agricultural economist John Newton. “In large part, due to these lower commodity price expectations, USDA projects total wheat, corn, and soybean planted acreage at 228 million acres in 2015, down 3.1 million acres from 2014.”

According to Newton, although USDA projects that plantings will decline among the three commodities, recent reports actually suggest that many U.S. farmers may be preparing to switch more acres from corn into soybeans due to the lower costs of production. Such a scenario would lead to increases in soybean plantings for 2015. Trade guesses on soybean plantings for 2015 range from a low of 82.1 million acres to a high of 88.3 million acres, 4.8 million acres above the record plantings of 2014. On average, the trade guess suggests a 2.3-million-acre increase to 86.0 million acres of planted soybeans for 2015.

“In light of the average trade guess, USDA surprised the market by dismissing expectations for increased soybean plantings and projecting fewer soybean acres planted in 2015,” Newton said. “For 2015, USDA projects planted acres of soybeans at 83.5 million acres. If realized, this total would represent a 200,000 acre decline from 2014 and is significantly less than the average trade guess of 86.0 million acres. With respect to harvested soybean acres, the USDA projection is for 82.6 million acres, down 500,000 acres from 2014 but 2.7 million acres less than the average trade guess of 85.3 million acres.

USDA projections for the U.S. average soybean yield are 46 bushels per acre, 1.8 bushels below the record 2014 yield, and 0.8 bushels above the average trade guess. The USDA yield projection is approximately 1.7 bushels higher than a trend-yield forecast of 44.3 bushels per acre.

“Combining the USDA projections for soybean yield and harvested acres, the 2015 soybean crop is projected to be 3.8 billion bushels and would only be 169 million bushels below the record 2014 crop,” Newton said. “Importantly, while USDA projections are surprisingly low for planted and harvested soybean acres, USDA projected yield is above market expectations. These two measures effectively offset each other, and the projected size of the soybean crop is only 56 million bushels below the average trade guess of 3.856 billion bushels.

“Consumption of soybeans during the 2015-16 marketing year is expected to increase on improved exports and crush to a total of 3.776 billion bushels,” Newton said. “Despite the improvement in soybean consumption, supply is still expected to outpace demand, and projected 2015-16 ending stocks are 430 million bushels, up 45 million bushels from current marketing year projections but 76 million bushels below the average trade guess of 505 million bushels. Due to the projected increase in stocks, USDA forecasts that the marketing-year average soybean price will decline $1.20 per bushel to $9.”

With respect to corn, USDA projects planted acres of corn in 2015 at 89 million acres. If realized, this total would represent a decline of 1.6 million acres from 2014 but is only slightly less than the average trade guess of 89.1 million acres. With respect to harvested corn acres, the USDA projection is for 81.5 million acres, down 2 percent from 2014 and only 100,000 acres less than the average trade guess of 81.6 million acres.

USDA projection for U.S. average corn yield is 166.8 bushels per acre, 4.2 bushels below the record 2014 yield, and 1.8 bushels above the average trade guess. “Depending on how yield is estimated, the USDA projection is approximately 2.8 to 4.7 bushels higher than trend-yield forecasts (farmdoc Daily February 9, 2015),” Newton said. “Combining the USDA projections for corn yield and harvested acres, the 2015 corn crop is projected to total 13.595 billion bushels and would only be 621 million bushels below the record 2014 crop. This total is 131 million bushels higher than the average trade guess and is driven by the higher yield estimate.”

Consumption of corn during the 2015-16 marketing year remains unchanged from earlier estimations and is projected at 13.760 billion bushels. The anticipated decline in corn production, combined with the increase in corn use, results in projected 2015-16 ending stocks of 1.687 billion bushels, down 140 million bushels from current marketing-year projections but 83 million bushels higher than the average trade guess. Despite the projected reduction in carryover stocks, USDA forecasts the marketing-year average corn price will decline 15 cents per bushel to $3.50.

“At this point in time, and contrary to market expectations, USDA does not anticipate a significant increase in soybean acres,” Newton concluded. “In fact, when including cotton, other feed grains, rice, and Conservation Reserve Program, total cropland is expected to decline by 4.7 million acres to 278.8 million acres in 2015. Whether or not the trade believes these projections will be tested in the coming months, information to monitor includes the ongoing pace of 2014-15 marketing-year consumption and USDA’s 2015 Prospective Plantings report released on March 31, 2015.”

Following the Prospective Planting report USDA will update the 2015-16 Grain and Oilseeds Outlook in the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report released on May 12, 2015.

New sensor will help predict yield in bioenergy crops

Published February 19, 2015

New sensor will help predict yield in bioenergy crops

Published February 19, 2015
Hao Gan and Jason Buss assemble the stem bending biomass yield sensor
Hao Gan and Jason Buss assemble the stem bending biomass yield sensor for a John Deere sugarcane billet harvester.

A “look-ahead” sensor that converted the bending load of napiergrass to a measure of yield was one of four yield-sensing approaches developed by University of Illinois researchers. The study was conducted in Lorida, Florida and funded by the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI).

Napiergrass, also known as elephant grass, resembles sugarcane in stature and in methods of propagation. The grass is emerging as a candidate bioenergy crop, but there are limited studies available for napiergrass yield sensing, a technology that could play an important role in implementing precision agriculture and reducing harvesting cost. Alan Hansen, a professor in the U of I Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and Sunil Mathanker, a postdoctoral researcher in the department, worked with colleagues from John Deere and BP Biofuels to field test the four yield-sensing approaches and document their correlation to napiergrass yield.

In this study, a stem-bending yield sensor was developed to fit a John Deere 3522 sugarcane billet harvester. Four load cells were fitted between two parallel pipes to form a push bar. The push bar was installed between the crop dividers about 1.2 meters above the ground and 1.5 meters ahead of the basecutter. The study also investigated the hydraulic pressures of basecutter, chopper, and elevator drives as indicators of yield. Three pressure sensors were fitted to the inlets of the hydraulic motors operating the basecutter, chopper, and elevator on the John Deere harvester.

The sensor that measured stem-bending force was the most accurate among the four methods tested. “What’s particularly good about this sensor,” said Hansen, “is that you’re able to measure yield at the point of entry. This is somewhat unique. In combine harvesters, for instance, you’re monitoring a yield sensor at a point much farther along in the flow of material, where the grain is about to enter the tank at the top of the combine. The delay between when the grain comes in and when it reaches the point of measurement creates a potential for error, and we have to come up with an estimate in relation to the time lag. So having this look-ahead sensor right up front is of significant value.”

While the look-ahead sensor showed the best correlation with yield, Mathanker said there are issues, such as crop lodging, harvester speed, and the ability of critical components to respond to sudden changes in ground speed, that pose a challenge for this sensing approach. Varietal characteristics, harvest time, moisture content of the stems, soil conditions, sensor height, and physical properties of the stems could also influence the bending force experienced on a push bar. 

Among the three hydraulic pressure-sensing approaches, the chopper pressure showed the highest correlation with yield. A reasonable correlation was found between the basecutter pressure and yield, although in addition to yield, it was expected that the basecutter pressure would depend on cutting height. Chopper and elevator pressures were less affected by factors other than yield compared to basecutter pressure.

“Based on the results of this study,” Mathanker said, “the stem-bending yield sensor showed potential for real-time napiergrass yield prediction. It can also be used to control operating parameters of the harvester [such as travel speed] and to generate yield maps for precision agriculture. We believe this stem-bending force sensing approach can be extended to other thick-stemmed crops.”

Hansen and Mathanker published their findings in Computers and Electronics in Agriculture 111 (2015). Co-authors of the paper were H. Gan (Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), J.C. Buss (John Deere, Thibodaux, LA), and J.F. Larsen (BP Biofuels North America, Houston, TX.)

The Energy Biosciences Institute is a public-private collaboration in which bioscience and biological techniques are being applied to help solve the global energy challenge. The partnership, funded with $500 million for 10 years from the energy company BP, includes researchers from the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Details about EBI can be found on the EBI website

News Source:

Alan Hansen, 217-333-2969

News Writer:

Leanne Lucas, 217-244-9085

Department mourns passing of Dr. Barbara Klein

Published February 18, 2015

Department mourns passing of Dr. Barbara Klein

Published February 18, 2015
Dr. Barbara Klein

The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition is saddened to announce the passing of Dr. Barbara (Bobbi) Klein on Tuesday, February 17, 2014. Dr. Klein is survived by her beloved husband Miles, daughters Cindy and Gail, and many other family and friends. 

Dr. Klein was an internationally recognized professional in the area of sensory evaluation. Her academic career, research accomplishments, and service to her professional field have positively impacted the area of foods and nutrition. As a faculty member at the University of Illinois, Dr. Klein advised more than 40 graduate students, garnered over $2 million in grant funds, and was instrumental in the founding of the Illinois Center for Soy Foods, which she served as co-director. During her more than 30 year career, she served in a variety of administrative roles, including assisting with the reorganization transition of the College of ACES in 1996. Additionally, she has served in numerous leadership roles within the Institute of Food Technologists and was the Associate Scientific Editor for the Journal of Food Science.
Dr. Klein earned her Ph.D. in Home Economics at the University of Illinois in 1974. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Home Economics from Cornell University. In addition to her strong commitment to the food science field, Dr. Klein and her husband Miles, are avid supporters of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, serving on their Marquee Council. She was also active in the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation.

News Source:

Marla Todd

News Writer:

Marla J. Todd, 217-244-2875

Study: Pigs can regulate sulfur retention when distillers dried grains are included in diet

Published February 18, 2015

Study: Pigs can regulate sulfur retention when distillers dried grains are included in diet

Published February 18, 2015

URBANA, Ill. - Distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS), a co-product of the ethanol industry, is becoming a more common ingredient in swine diets. However, DDGS can be high in sulfur, and data are limited on the amount of sulfur that pigs can tolerate in the diet. Therefore, researchers at the University of Illinois have conducted research to investigate effects of high levels of sulfur in diets for pigs.

"The sulfur content of DDGS can range from approximately 0.3 to 0.9 percent," explained Hans H. Stein, professor of animal sciences at U of I. "In a previous study, we determined that you can feed diets containing up to 0.38 percent sulfur without affecting palatability or pig growth performance. We wanted to follow up by determining whether or not the quality of the carcass was affected by the sulfur in the diets."

Stein's team used a source of DDGS that contained 0.3 percent sulfur. One of the experimental diets in the study contained this low-sulfur DDGS at an inclusion rate of 30 percent. The other diet had calcium sulfate added to simulate the use of high- (0.9 percent) sulfur DDGS. The sulfur content of the second diet was 0.38 percent.

Carcass length, 10th-rib fat depth, loin area, and fat-free lean were the same among pigs fed the control, low-sulfur, and high-sulfur diets when adjusted for hot carcass weight. No effect on organ weights, loin quality, loin pH, drip loss, loin subjective color, marbling, or firmness was observed in pigs fed either of the DDGS diets compared with pigs fed the control diet.

Pigs fed the diets containing DDGS did not have elevated concentrations of sulfur in their organs compared with pigs fed the control diet. Instead, Stein said excess sulfur was excreted in the urine. Thus, excess dietary sulfur does not accumulate in tissues from pigs, as is the case for some other minerals, because pigs appear to be able to regulate sulfur in the body by increasing or reducing urinary excretion in response to changes in sulfur intake.

Stein said that the results of this research should give producers more confidence about incorporating DDGS into swine diets. "What these results tell us is that even DDGS with a high sulfur content can be fed at up to a 30 percent inclusion rate without negative effects because pigs have the ability to regulate sulfur retention and excretion," he said.

"Effects of dietary sulfur and distillers dried grains with solubles on carcass characteristics, loin quality, and tissue concentrations of sulfur, selenium, and copper in growing–finishing pigs," was published in a recent edition of the Journal of Animal Science. Co-authors were Beob Gyun Kim of Konkuk University in Seoul, South Korea; Dong Yong Kil of Chung-Ang University in Anseong, South Korea; Donald Mahan of The Ohio State University; and Gretchen Hill of Michigan State University. The full text is available online at

Funding for this research was provided by the National Pork Board and the Nutritional Efficiency Consortium, both of Des Moines, Iowa.