College of ACES
College News

Illinois researchers awarded NSF grant to expand computational science education in food, energy, and water

Published October 5, 2016

URBANA, Ill. - Researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been awarded a 4-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to address grand challenges at the nexus of food, energy, and water (FEW). Illinois collaborators include the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, (ACES), The College of Engineering, and the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment.

Luis Rodriguez, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in the College of ACES, is the principal investigator. The project, titled “The INFEWS-ER: a Virtual Resource Center Enabling Graduate Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems,” will provide a virtual environment for completing the Food, Energy, and Water (FEW) graduate student experience, thereby facilitating the generation of human capital who can address grand challenges at the nexus of food, energy, and water.

The INFEWS-ER will provide educational resources (ER) targeting innovations at the nexus of food, energy, and water by combining the fundamental sciences with the skills and knowledge of interdisciplinary problem solving and the latest computational modeling and analysis tools and data.

“Broadly, the INFEWS-ER aims to create a virtual resource center to foster the growth of students who are focusing on the nexus of food, energy, and water but may not be computationally strong, or vice-versa: computationally strong graduates who need a fundamental understanding of the disciplines of food, energy, and water,” says Rodriguez. “This ER aspect will ‘infuse’ these students with the skills and domain expertise necessary for helping to resolve these grand challenge problems.”

“NCSA and the U of I are a perfect fit for the INFEWS-ER project because it already hosts three key areas which are relevant to the award: the Earth and Environment theme, the CyberGIS Center for Advanced Digital and Spatial Studies, and the Midwest Big Data Hub,” adds Rodriguez.

“This is a wonderful program and a great opportunity,” says Prasanta Kalita, Associate Dean of Academic Programs for the College of ACES at Illinois. “This should help all of our INFEWS-ER partners engage with high quality students with very capable faculty with courses and research. An added benefit is INFEWS-ER will help us recruit quality students from near and far; it can help to expand our ‘human’ resources, who can then work in real life to solve grand challenges related to food, energy, and water."

Additional partners on the project include: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Iowa State University, University of California, Davis, North Carolina State University, West Texas A&M University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Michigan State University, South Dakota State University and

The INFEWS-ER project abstract can be found here.

News writer:  Travis Benjamin Tate, XSEDE Communications Coordinator, NCSA


High resolution images are available for this story at

Conservation decisions rely on balancing incentives with unpredictable variables

Published October 5, 2016
palm oil trees
  • Landowners like to keep their options open. In deciding whether to enter into a permanent conservation agreement or to convert their land to intensive agricultural use, they require a higher lump-sum payment to cover their loss of options.
  • If payments for not developing the land are positively correlated with the level of profit from developing, landowners are less hesitant to make a decision.
  • This study provides formulas to help conservation policy designers estimate payments needed to convince landowners to accept a conservation contract to not convert their land.

URBANA, Ill. - If you own land, as long as it’s not bound up in a legal restriction, you’ve got options. You might decide to convert it into farm land. You might develop it. You could decide to wait and see if the land increases in value. Or you could accept a temporary contract that sets it aside for conservation, or a more permanent one that binds you to never develop it. University of Illinois environmental economists examined some of the aspects of this conundrum.

“Developing land for intensive agriculture is in all practicality an irreversible decision. To convert, say, a palm oil plantation in Indonesia back to being a national forest, would be so costly that it is functionally irreversible,” says Amy Ando. 

In a recent study, Ando’s then student Payal Shah, models two such potentially irreversible decisions. In one scenario, a landowner gets a permanent lump-sum payment to never develop the land. In the other, the landowner receives a temporary lump-sum payment and agrees not to develop it for a while. At the end of that time, the landowner can choose to develop or re-contract. Shah, who is now a research scientist at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, and Ando look at how large a payment is necessary under those two conditions to induce a landowner to accept a contract.

“We find that the permanent lump-sum needs to be much higher for the land owner to agree. It’s more than just about the money. It’s what we call the ‘loss of option value.’ Having that flexibility to make the best choice tomorrow has real value,” Ando says.

Interestingly, the option value is higher the more uncertainty there is about the future. So, the more that returns fluctuate up and down, the more people want to wait and see before deciding what to do with their land.

“We model a world in which you get carbon payments if your land is not developed or you can get profit from farming if you develop it,” Ando explains. “Both of those choices are uncertain in the future. You don’t know what the market for carbon payments will be like. If you don’t develop it, you don’t know what profits would be like for the palm oil plantation. The more uncertainty there is, the more increasingly reluctant a landowner is to make any permanent decision about what to do with the land. They just want to wait and see.”

Ando says if the carbon payments for not developing land are linked to something, like the profits a landowner gets after developing the land, this creates a positive correlation between those two and reduces the overall uncertainty. “This makes people less hesitant to make a permanent decision.”

The case study in Indonesia is simulated, but based on real data on the profits on palm oil plantations and real data on carbon payments. The outcome from the study is formulas to help those who design conservation policies to estimate how much money is needed to pay landowners to be willing to accept a conservation contract, to not convert their land.

“It can be very complicated to estimate what payments need to be,” Ando says. “If there are multiple uncertainties and they’re not perfectly positively correlated with each other, simpler models can yield totally incorrect estimates of the payments you would need to give landowners in order to get them to agree to a conservation contract. Sometimes it’s an overestimate. Sometimes it’s an underestimate. You can’t even predict that. It depends on the particular circumstances. This is a more complicated model with dual uncertainties.”

Ando says anything you can do to reduce volatility in the returns to the land that you get when it’s not converted reduces the amount of money needed to pay land owners to be willing to conserve. For example, carbon prices. “Anything you can do to stabilize the prices makes it easier for landowners to agree to be a part of a conservation contract.

“If there are uncertainties in both what you get from developing your land and from permanently protecting it, anything you can do to put them in lockstep with each other lowers the price it takes for landowners to accept a conservation contract,” she says.

Ando adds that landowners who enter into conservation agreements can sometimes get two payments. A signed conservation easement agreement, currently 10 to 15 years in length, prevents landowners from doing some things but not everything.

“Landowners may use their conservation-dedicated land for other revenue streams,” she says. “The landowner might get payments for not cutting down trees on the land, but may allow people to tap maple syrup from their trees or allow hunting and fishing on their property. The landowner still owns the land. They’ve just sold part of the rights to the land – the right to cut down trees for example.”

The study, “Permanent and temporary policy incentives for conservation under stochastic returns from competing land uses,” is co-authored by Payal Shah from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University and Amy Ando from the University of Illinois. It is published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. The work was supported in part by USDA NIFA Hatch project #ILLU-470-316.  

Flavors of fall

Published October 4, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – The flavors of fall are anchored in tradition and memories. Many include a winter fruit which is part of the gourd family, the pumpkin. Pumpkins are often the thread that weaves the flavors of fall together at local festivals, family gatherings, and special celebrations.

Pumpkin is a delicious addition to any meal. “Always select pie pumpkins for cooking. Never consume pumpkins that have been carved or used as yard displays,” says Susan Glassman, a University of Illinois Extension educator and member of the Extension Nutrition and Wellness Team.

Rich in vitamin A, pumpkin packs a powerful punch of nutrition. The bright orange color provides beta-carotene which is converted by the body to vtamin A.  “Vitamin A helps with eyesight and promotes healthy growth of cells and tissue,” Glassman says. “Current research from the CDC indicates that a diet rich in foods containing beta-carotene may be associated with a lower risk of some cancers and cardiovascular disease.”

Glassman notes that adding pumpkin to recipes is an excellent way to enjoy the flavors of fall.  Pumpkin is part of a well-balanced diet as recommended in ChooseMyPlate; a serving of pumpkin is 1 cup. Pumpkin is versatile in its ability to flavor and enhance the nutrition content of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and desserts.

Glassman offers some ideas to enjoy the flavors of fall using pumpkin:

  • Make pumpkin smoothies.
  • Add pumpkin to pancakes.
  • Make pumpkin butter.
  • Pumpkin added to chili is a welcome treat.
  • Use pumpkin as a lasagna filling.
  • Enjoy pumpkin in desserts.

To prepare pumpkins for baking in the oven, cut pumpkin in half and scrape away strings and seeds. Rinse under cold water and place pumpkin, cut side down, on a large cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees F for one hour or until fork tender. Cool pumpkin, remove the skin, and process into puree using a food mill, ricer, strainer, or potato masher. 

Glassman adds these food storage and preservation tips:

  • Select pie pumpkins for cooking.
  • Buy pumpkins with 1 to 2 inches of stem to stay fresh.
  • Store pumpkins in a cool, dry area at temperatures between 55 to 65 degrees F.
  • For recipe planning, 1 pound of raw pumpkin will result in 1 cup of puree.
  • Cooked pumpkin puree freezes well. To freeze, puree in 1-cup portions. Place in freezer containers or pack in zip closure bags.
  • Label, date, and freeze at 0 degrees F for up to one year.

For more information, contact Glassman at 815-224-0889 or visit

Soil microbes flourish with reduced tillage

Published October 4, 2016
disc plow
The type of tillage equipment used can influence microbial biomass.
  • Microbes improve soil quality by cycling nutrients and breaking plant residues down into soil organic matter.
  • In an effort to detect consistent patterns across a large geographical area, University of Illinois researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 62 studies examining the effect of tillage on soil microbes.
  • No-till systems had greater soil microbial biomass and enzymatic activity. Tilled systems that used a chisel plow were equivalent to no-till systems, in terms of microbial biomass. 

URBANA, Ill. – For the past several decades, farmers have been abandoning their plows in favor of a practice known as no-till agriculture. Today, about one-third of U.S. farmers are no longer tilling their fields, and still more are practicing conservation tillage—using equipment that only disturbs the soil to a minimal degree. No-till and, to a lesser degree, conservation tillage maintains or improves soil quality by preserving soil structure and moisture, increasing soil organic matter, and providing habitat for soil microbes.     

It’s the microbes that matter most.

“Soil microbes are the workhorses of the soil. They break down crop residues and release nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other nutrients back to the soil so they’re plant-available. We want a healthy, diverse microbial community so that those processes can happen and improve our soils,” says University of Illinois doctoral student Stacy Zuber.

Until now, most studies linking tillage intensity and microbial activity have been done at the scale of individual farms. Most of these studies do find more soil microbes with no-till management, but the magnitude of that result varies a lot from farm to farm. That’s because each farm is influenced by different environmental factors, agronomic practices, and soil type. Where no-till is compared with tillage, the type of equipment and tillage depth also differs.

Zuber wanted to cut through the confusion to detect a true “signal” of the effect of tillage on soil microbes. To do that, she compiled and analyzed data from 62 studies from all across the globe.

“When you’re doing individual field experiments—even if you have several in one area—you’re still focused on the one region,” Zuber notes. “Sometimes it’s hard to see the big picture because there’s so much variability. The meta-analysis allowed us to look at different field studies from around the globe to determine the overall effect. This process lets us see that big picture.”

Zuber compared measures of microbial biomass and metabolic activity in no-till and tilled systems. For tilled systems, she included categories that accounted for the type of tillage equipment and tillage depth. She also accounted for the nitrogen fertilization rate, mean temperature and precipitation, the presence or absence of cover crops, and other variables.  

When the data from all 62 studies were analyzed together, it turned out that microbial biomass and enzymatic activity were greater in no-till than in tilled systems. In tilled systems, the type of tillage equipment mattered. In contrast to other tillage equipment, such as moldboard plows or disc plows, the use of chisel plows was associated with greater microbial biomass. Chisel plows, which theoretically result in minimal soil disturbance, are commonly used as part of a conservation tillage system.

But experimental use of a chisel plow, as represented in the studies Zuber analyzed, may be different from how they are used in the real world.

“Tillage seems simple: you break up the soil or you don’t. Things get complicated when you start looking at tillage implements, because there is no clear definition and common use for them. You can have two implements called chisel plows, but they can work the soil completely differently. For example, if they go across the field in one pass, that’s not much disturbance. But if they make two or three passes, it’s a lot more disruptive,” Zuber explains.

The study suggests that since soil microbial biomass and enzymatic activity can stand in as proxies for soil quality, farmers should consider moving toward no-till or conservation tillage systems.

Zuber says, “Helping the soil function better helps your crops grow better, and can also maintain high quality soil for sustainability purposes. In Illinois, we have such great soil; it’s our biggest resource. Farmers can help protect it by making sure the microbial community is healthy.” 

The article, “Meta-analysis approach to assess effect of tillage on microbial biomass and enzyme activities,” is published in Soil Biology & Biochemistry. Zuber and co-author Maria Villamil are in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I. The work was part of a regional collaborative project entitled “Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project (CSCAP)” and was supported by USDA-NIFA.

News Source:

Stacy Zuber

Pork outlook turns sour

Published October 3, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – Hog prices have collapsed to levels far below a breakeven point. There is worry that there are more hogs headed to market this fall than available packing capacity, and the latest USDA inventory indicates there are more hogs than had been anticipated. According to a Purdue University Extension economist, these factors are providing a sour taste for the industry’s financial outlook through 2017.

“Pork markets have been concerned about packing capacity this fall and the September Hogs and Pigs report from USDA provided reasons for additional concern,” Chris Hurt says. “Producers indicated that the number of market hogs was up nearly 3 percent on Sept. 1, and numbers in the heaviest weight categories were up 4 percent. This is consistent with September slaughter numbers that were up about 5 percent. However, the greatest concern was in the last half of September when the packer head counts were up almost 8 percent. Over the past two weeks, slaughter numbers have averaged about 2.45 million head per week and packer capacity is thought to be around 2.5 million head per week. This means capacity is just 2 percent higher than the head counts for the past two weeks.”

Hurt says the slaughter numbers should ease a bit through the last quarter of the year. The USDA report suggests the numbers will be up 4 percent in October, but drop to 3 percent higher in October and then 2 percent higher in December. If those projections are correct, packer capacity will be sufficient.

The nation’s breeding herd was reported as up just .5 percent, continuing a modest expansion that began in 2014 following record-high hog prices and record producer profits. Although the breeding herd expansion has remained small this year, the number of pigs per litter is setting new records. The summer weaning rate was up nearly 2 percent to a record 10.58 pigs per litter and the annual rate for 2016 is expected to reach a record 10.5 pigs per litter. Farrowing intentions for this fall are unchanged from a year ago, and are down slightly for the winter.

“Still, with the number of pigs per litter rising about 1 percent per year, these modest farrowing reductions will result in increases in pork production in 2017,” Hurt says.

According to Hurt, market weights dropped a bit more than 1 percent in September and could be an indication that producers have recently been pulling some hogs forward to avoid even lower prices later in the fall.

“If this is the case, it may provide some relief to slaughter numbers into October and November,” Hurt says. “Pork supplies are expected to be up 2 to 3 percent in the final quarter this year. In the first quarter of 2017 pork production is expected to be up 1 percent and then be unchanged to up 1 percent for the second and the third quarters next year.

“Hog prices have been dropping under the pressure of higher than expected market hog numbers, concerns about inadequate fall packer capacity, and continued increases in the supply of competitive meats,” Hurt says. “National lean prices on a liveweight basis have fallen to the higher $30s. These are prices not seen since 2008 and 2009 when the Great Recession weakened meat demand. Liveweight prices are expected to average in the mid-to-higher $30s this fall, in the higher $30’s this winter, and then in the mid-to-upper $40s for the second and third quarters of 2017. Hog prices averaged about $50 in 2015, but will drop to an average near $46 this year and to around $43 next year.”

Lower corn and soybean meal prices this fall will drop estimated costs of production to about $47 to $48 per live hundredweight, Hurt adds. With hog prices in the higher $30s this fall and winter, estimated losses will be $25 to $30 per head. Losses are expected to moderate in the spring and summer of 2017 and intensify once more in the fall of 2017.  For the year 2016, estimated losses are about $10 per head and for 2017, projected losses are at $16 per head.

“The issue of inadequate packer capacity should be eliminated in 2017 with the opening of two new facilities in Iowa and Michigan that will expand capacity by around 6 percent,” Hurt says. “With the recent squeeze on capacity, packer margins have been strong. The new capacity should reduce packer margins and provide the opportunity for farm level prices to be higher. However, this is not likely to be helpful this fall and winter.”

Losses are expected to be large this fall and winter, Hurt says, and at levels not seen since late 2012. Expected losses for 2017 should begin to move the industry toward thoughts of reducing the breeding herd.

“If price prospects do not improve it will likely be the second half of 2017 when a movement toward liquidation gets underway,” Hurt says. “This means that hog prices could begin to improve in the spring of 2018.

“Feed costs from the 2016 crops are expected to be at their lowest level in years,” Hurt concludes. “Higher feed costs can be expected for the 2017 and 2018 crops assuming a normal world weather situation. If 2017 weather should be adverse in a major growing region of the globe, then higher feed prices would be a greater stimulus to initiate a liquidation period.”



Doris Kelley Christopher Hall celebrates 10th anniversary

Published October 3, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – A fabric art piece hangs in the atrium of Christopher Hall, where students, faculty, and guests pass daily. It visually represents the mission and impact of the building and its family-centered programs from the last decade: a coming together.  

Doris Kelley Christopher Hall, the building’s full name, sits just at the east edge of the University of Illinois campus and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It is home to the Family Resiliency Center and a unique combination of research, education, and outreach centered on helping families thrive under challenging conditions. It has been a place for both the campus and the community to find solutions to the problems families face.   

“I believe in some ways the fabric art that you see on the wall is a reflection not only of a piece of beautiful artwork, but the notion of coming together, of many different colors and spaces and shapes and forms intertwined,” says Connie Shapiro, a former director of the FRC.

A Visit from Doris

The vision for a new space began in the early 2000s when Doris Kelley Christopher, founder and chairman of the Pampered Chef, Ltd. and an Illinois graduate, returned to campus to observe programs related to family and food in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. In 2000, Christopher and the Pampered Chef assisted in establishing the Family Resiliency Program in the Department of Human and Community Development, recently renamed the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

After touring a windowless observation lab in the basement of one building where researchers observed families from a furnace room, Christopher recalls, “I was intrigued by the concept of family interactions, and amazed to see the work these researchers were doing considering the crudeness of the setup. But it wasn’t really a place where a family would have an interaction. And the idea came to me that this was work that deserved a better place. It deserved a more state-of-the-art facility.

“I mentioned it to the folks in the College of ACES, and eventually we came up with the idea of a state-of-the-art facility that would house classrooms, that would pull together the faculty, who were spread out all over the campus, so they could collaborate more easily.”

On her tour that day, Christopher observed Professor Laurie Kramer’s research on children and sibling relationships. “I brought Doris down to my lab and I was so proud and so excited to tell her about the work I was doing,” Kramer says. “She was very attentive and said it was great work.”

After the lab visit, both Shapiro and Diane Marlin, a former coordinator of the Family Resiliency Program, recall Christopher announcing, “We have got to get Laurie’s research out of the basement!”

Strengthening families is what excited Christopher, and what, Kramer says, connected her to the Human and Community Development department. “Doris saw the experience of families being around the table at mealtimes as formative in child development and the glue that helped families remain cohesive and strong over time.

“Doris’ interests paralleled what the research in the department was trying to accomplish.”

With a commitment of funding from Christopher, the conversation began about a new building. 

At the top of the list was creating a place that felt like home.

“We wanted to do research in a home-like setting,” Marlin recalls. “Many of the studies this department does involves going into people’s homes to observe them interacting. But we thought it would be wonderful to have a research home on campus where we could conduct research with families in a home-like setting. We wanted it to be state-of-the-art, and we wanted space for classrooms, places for faculty and students to interact, and to make it available for the community.”

“The location of the building was also very important. This corner of Lincoln Avenue and Nevada Street is like the gateway to the eastern edge of campus. We wanted it to be accessible to the community for various community functions,” she adds.

Crews broke ground on an empty tract of land in late 2004.

From Vision to Reality

In 2006, the new Christopher Hall became home to the FRC and Kramer was named as its first director.

Some of the first projects and programs to benefit from the new building included Kramer’s sibling relationships research, a siblings group for The Autism Program, and other community groups such as parent support groups.

Kramer remarks how intentional each component of the building design was in order make the building not only useful for research, but accessible to the public. “We have a parking lot, when we could have had a bigger building, probably. And it’s on the bus line.”

Even the colors of bricks were intentionally chosen to look more like a home, and less like the institutional buildings on campus.

“It’s a beautiful building and I still think it’s unique,” Marlin says.

Today, the building’s “research home” features a living room, dining room, and fully functional kitchen. The research home, slightly separate from the rest of the building, is a unique observational facility, equipped with seven unobtrusive video cameras and microphones that allow for 360-degree recording of family, couple, and group interactions. A control room houses recording equipment, allowing for different views of the scene and close-up recording.

“The research home has been a game changer in terms of having a space to see what families are really doing with each other, without them feeling like they are in an artificial situation,” Kramer says.

Classrooms, project rooms, and a studio give students and researchers spaces to learn and collaborate. The atrium is often used as the site for celebrations by the HDFS department as well as by other units on campus.

Highlighting the importance of community outreach, Christopher Hall is also home to The Autism Program’s resource room. The program, through the HDFS department and the Department of Special Education at U of I, offers the community free education and training materials, and staff consultations. 

Christopher Hall’s Impact

Over the last 10 years and today, the FRC continues to help families by researching issues such as childhood obesity and health with the STRONG Kids program, or looking at the connections between food and family life with initiatives such as the Food and Family Program.

Christopher says the programs within the FRC are “creating tools that all families need to be successful. And it’s so important for me when I see a family sitting around a table, like the one in our research home here, enjoying food and conversation and learning about each other. Ultimately, this building is the coming together of people doing research about what makes families strong. This is a place where research and data collection is accomplished every day that can in turn be put into programs and teachings that can help families everywhere, not just in Illinois, not just in the local community, but all across the country and beyond. That’s the lasting impact of this facility.”

Bob Hughes, a former HDFS department head, says that those who were involved in the planning of Christopher Hall could not have known all the ways this building could have been used over the last decade.

“There’s always been the desire to have faculty from across campus come interact in that space and take advantage of the specific things in the building itself. I think the idea was to have all these people interacting in the same physical space and then hope that in those interactions people would do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise, or have conversations they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

U of I Extension specialist Angela Wiley uses the space to create training materials for childcare workers and to do cooking demonstrations and taste testing with families in the Abriendo Camino research project.

“This building has become a place of comfort, a place of familiarity, a place where research participants and students can develop relationships with us, with graduate students. The welcoming features of this building become a part of their experience,” she says.

Current FRC director Barbara Fiese says the environment of the building will keep allowing for important research on strengthening families. “Although we’ve accomplished a lot of great work, the work isn't done, that’s for sure. But we’re on the right trajectory. And you know, there are so many times where I walk through the building and think that Doris would be so happy because it’s such a vibrant place and so many great things are happening here.”

For more information about the Family Resiliency Center, visit

The fabric art in the Christopher Hall atrium is titled, “Serendipity,” and was created by Champaign artist Mary MacDonald.