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Trees supplement income for rural farmers in Africa

Published January 23, 2017
farming couple from W National Park, Benin
Farms near forests tend to have more trees, which provide income and other benefits for local people, such as these farmers in the buffer zone of W National Park, Benin.
  • Trees are prevalent on farms across Sub-Saharan Africa: 30 percent of rural households surveyed in five countries reporting growing trees on their land.
  • Trees on farms contribute an average of 17 percent to annual household income for tree-growing households.
  • Trees are typically less susceptible to drought and other weather extremes than annual agricultural crops.
  • National governance context and distance to forest are key determinants of on-farm tree adoption and management.

URBANA, Ill. – Trees may be easy to spot on the plains of Africa but they are often overlooked as a source of income for farmers. A University of Illinois study shows trees on farms may help reduce rural poverty and maintain biodiversity.

“Trees on farms in Africa often fall through the cracks—they’re not forests and they’re not agriculture,” says U of I’s Daniel Miller, who studies environmental politics and policy. ”In our study, we found about one third of all rural farmers across five study countries have and grow trees on their farms. Among those farmers, trees on farms contribute 17 percent to their annual household income, so they’re very important for generating economic benefits for households.”

Miller’s study used satellite images showing forest cover and nationally representative household-level data gathered from in-person interviews in Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda.

One thing he learned is that there are more trees on agricultural lands than expected—about a third to more than half of the rural households report having on-farm trees. Fruit trees and cash crop trees such as coffee trees were the two most popular types of trees. Tree for timber and fuel were only reported by 5 percent of the households.

Here’s a short video of Miller discussing his research on trees on farms in Africa.

Ecologically, trees could act as biodiversity corridors, Miller says. “One of the findings is that trees on farms are more prevalent near forests. They can provide wildlife or bird habitat linking different forested or natural areas, while at the same time providing income potential to poor farmers. They promise a potential win-win for conservation and development.

“Overall, the results suggest that trees on farms should be given more attention in agriculture, food security and poverty-related policy debates in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly as the need to tackle climate change becomes more urgent,” Miller says.

Trees can play an important role in both climate change adaptation and mitigation.

“Climate smart agriculture is a new buzzword,” Miller says. “The World Bank has committed to making their agricultural investments climate smart by 2019. Trees are climate smart because they aren’t as fragile as agricultural crops are to extreme shifts in climate. Oftentimes, trees can continue to produce when you might have a crop failure due to a drought. So, trees may provide a food source like mangoes or other fruit in times of difficulty.”

Trees on farms can also help mitigate some of the negative effects of climate change.

“Trees sequester carbon through photosynthesis, so by not clearing them, you’re not releasing the carbon into the atmosphere,” Miller says.

Because Miller looks at data from several angles, including the political implications, he is particularly excited about the national scale of the study. For policy makers, information presented at this scale—as done in this study—is especially useful in showing how trees benefit the five countries.

“One of the major findings from this work is that national-level differences explained a lot of the variation in whether people adopt or don’t adopt trees on their farms,” Miller says. “Particularly in Francophone countries, which I personally know better, central governments have historically claimed any tree as being the domain of forestry, which may shape farmer willingness to grow and use trees. For example, for a long time in Niger, farmers were wary of having trees on their farms because the central government had a legal right to come on their land and claim the trees as their own. It’s a legacy of colonial law in those countries.

“More recently, the law in Niger changed to allow greater farmer control of trees.  This change is a big reason for the exceptional re-greening that has happened across a large band of Niger,” Miller says. “That’s an extreme case, but it illustrates how national-level policies can affect farmer decision-making.  Tanzania, with its record of community forest management, provides a contrasting case.”

The research paper, “Prevalence, Economic Contribution, and Determinants of Trees on Farms across Sub-Saharan Africa,” is published in Forest Policy and Economics and is written by Daniel Charles Miller; Juan Carlos Muñoz-Mora, and Luc Christiaensen.

The Program on Forests at the World Bank provided partial funding for this work.

Boxwood blight confirmed in Illinois

Published January 23, 2017
boxwood branch

URBANA, Ill. - Boxwood blight, a serious fungal disease, has been confirmed in Illinois. According to a University Diagnostic Outreach Extension Specialist, two boxwood samples were submitted to the University of Illinois Plant Clinic in late 2016. The samples came from Lake and Cook Counties in northeastern Illinois. Both were from recent landscape additions.

“Although the characteristic leaf spots were not apparent on the samples, defoliation and stem cankers were noted,” says Diane Plewa. 

The samples were quarantined and, after sufficient incubation, fungal spores consistent with the Calonectria spp. fungi were recovered. The Illinois Department of Agriculture was notified, and samples were sent to the United States Department of Agriculture Animal Plant Health Inspection Service Laboratory in Maryland, where the genus identification was confirmed. Species identification is ongoing. 

“To our knowledge, the infected plants where not from Illinois production facilities,” Plewa adds.

Symptoms of boxwood blight include leaf spots, stem cankers, and defoliation. Leaf spots usually appear as light or dark brown circular lesions, often surrounded by a large yellow halo. If the infection occurs near the margin of the leaf, the lesion may be semi-circular or V-shaped. Stem cankers are easiest to see on new, green stem tissue. The cankers are dark brown or black, and are often linear or diamond-shaped.

“Defoliation occurs as the final symptom,” says Suzanne Bissonnette, director of the U of I Plant Clinic.

“Because these symptoms can be similar to other, common fungal and environmental problems on boxwood, we strongly suggest submitting samples to the U of I Plant Clinic for confirmation. We recommend scouting boxwood and pachysandra plants, especially those that were installed in the last few years or plants that are near host plants that were planted recently.”

Boxwood blight is a potentially devastating disease affecting members of the Buxaceae family. The disease has been found on boxwood, pachysandra, and sarcococca. The disease is caused by the fungi Calonectria pseudonaviculata (syn. Cylindrocladium pseudonaviculatum and C. buxicola) and Calonectria henricotiae. To date, C. henricotiae has not been found in the United States.

Bissonnette adds that boxwood blight was formerly federally regulated, but is now regulated at the state level. “Although it can cause widespread death of hosts in the environment, the spores of the pathogen do not appear to travel extensively, reducing its overall impact. However, in production facilities where equipment can be contaminated and expose hundreds or thousands of plants, the pathogen is a much larger concern.”

The pathogen was identified for the first time in the United States in 2011, and has since been found in 18 states. Most are located in the eastern part of the country, though confirmations have been made in Missouri and Ohio.



Calling Illinois soybean growers

Published January 19, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Last spring, a new multi-state research project funded by the North Central Soybean Research Program was initiated to investigate the effects of weather, soils, and management on soybean yields. The project’s University of Illinois leader put out a call to soybean farmers to help gather data for the project.

“We were looking to gather basic information on at least 500 Illinois soybean fields for each of the crop years 2014 and 2015; the project runs through 2017,” says U of I crop sciences professor Emerson Nafziger. “We appreciate that some farmers provided information, but we ended up with less than a quarter of the fields we needed for the first two seasons.”

The team is asking for help to fill in the holes. Producers are asked to provide information for up to four soybean fields on a form (one per crop year, 2014 to 2016). The form is located at

The form requests about 20 pieces of information for each field, including field location, planting date, variety, and seeding rate. Most farmers will be able to record information for a field in 10 or 15 minutes.

“This project can be described as a search to find what we should work on next with regard to soybean research. The goal is to have thousands of fields in a large database, then to see how soil, weather, and management interact to produce yield,” Nafziger explains.

Nafziger encourages FFA and college students to participate, giving them experience with scientific studies and a reward for their efforts.

To provide an incentive, anyone who fills out information forms and returns a gift card request form along with the information sheets will receive a $50 gift card.

“The more fields we’re able to get information on, the more useful this effort will be,” Nafziger explains. “As the largest and best state for soybean production, we are hoping to produce the largest and best set of information of all states involved in this effort.”

Farmers who want to participate can fill out the form posted at the link given above, or can contact Nafziger at or to have forms sent by email. The project is also described on the Bulletin.

Better early nutrition, better brains: Study discusses model for understanding nutrition and brain development

Published January 18, 2017

URBANA, Ill. –Pediatric nutrition research has shown the important effects of early-life nutrition on a baby’s development—especially the gastrointestinal tract—and more recent research indicates that nutrition may also have an influence on an infant’s brain as it develops.

Does nutrition in the first weeks of life play a bigger role in later behavioral outcomes like memory and fine motor skills?

For nearly a decade, researchers at the University of Illinois have studied the piglet as a translational model to understand which aspects of early brain development are affected by nutrition interventions.

Because of striking similarities in human infant and piglet brain development patterns, studies using the piglet have helped lead to advances in pediatric nutrition. This is important as makers of infant formula seek to create a product that more closely reflects the composition of a mother’s milk.

In a recent review article published in Advances in Nutrition, Ryan Dilger, a U of I animal scientist and Austin Mudd, a doctoral student in the neuroscience program, provide background for the work they do with nutrition and neurodevelopment using the piglet as a model.

The new paper highlights several studies on pediatric nutrition of which brain development outcomes were the primary interest. The paper also describes technologies, including advances in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), that are being used to assess brain development, as well as outlines areas for future nutrition and neurodevelopment research.

“This review integrates all the background material for what we do in our lab. We are hoping that this serves as a reference that others can go to for why we use the piglet to study pediatric brain development,” Dilger says. “It’s the cornerstone for what we’ve been studying.”

Click here for a video of Dilger discussing his lab’s work with pediatric nutrition and neurodevelopment.

The hope with the review is to standardize the types of outcomes that are used to assess brain development, Dilger says, and then to find out which of those outcomes are sensitive to dietary interventions.

Part of that is having a clear understanding of how the infant brain is developing in the early days and weeks after birth. Dilger explains, “The brain is made up of individual regions that are interconnected in what they do and how they function, and in the way they are growing and maturing over time.”

MRI methods have allowed researchers to characterize volume changes in areas of the piglet brain from 2 to 24 weeks of age, showing a similar growth pattern as of that in human infants. Mudd describes that one month of volumetric brain growth in a human is approximately equivalent to 1 week in piglet growth. This allows for assessment of learning and memory during critical times of brain growth, which can be translated to humans.

“When people first started researching the pig and nutrition and brain outcomes, they were only weighing the brain or assessing global fatty acid content of the brain. However, we know from human work that different brain regions mature at different rates. So you may not see an effect of dietary intervention in the whole-brain, but if you were to look at specific brain regions at different time points you might see a dietary effect. It is clear now that we should be looking at individual brain regions in a dietary intervention study, rather than assessing the brain as one unit. From these types of studies, we can start to identify optimal windows in which developing brain regions are differentially sensitive to nutrition,” Mudd says.

Dilger explains that previous nutrition research has focused on the effect of fatty acids in milk (or infant formula), but in the review the researchers discuss studies on other aspects of milk composition such as choline, iron, cholesterol, amino acids, milk fat globule membranes, and other milk bioactives, including sialic acid, gangliosides, and alpha-lipoic acid.

Another important aspect of the review is a listing of techniques that are available and that have been used in assessing neurodevelopment in the piglet. Some of those techniques include advanced MRI methods, such as voxel-based morphometry, which compares gray and white matter tissue volumes, and diffusion tensor imaging, which measures microscopic water movement in the brain and helps infer structural changes.

Other techniques described involve behavioral assessments with piglets, such as spatial mazes, to assess learning and memory. References to what dietary references were used with each method have also been provided.

“A focus of this paper is standardizing the procedures we use,” Dilger says.

Dilger says he also hopes the review can help nutritionists understand the neurodevelopment side of pediatric nutrition and research. “It is written for a nutrition audience, but it translates the language that a neuroscientist would use.”

“As a review, it is less about reporting novel findings and more about focusing on what is known to date. The novelty is bringing the neuroscience piece into the nutrition realm and helping nutritionists to understand and to better interpret their findings,” he adds. 

Although Dilger’s lab is not alone is studying early-life nutrition and development using the piglet model, he explains that their partnership with the U of I Beckman Institute has allowed a unique opportunity to use advanced MRI equipment and access to technicians. Along with U of I researchers Rod Johnson and Brad Sutton, Dilger also helped to create a pig brain atlas that has been made public for use by other researchers. Dilger adds that upgrades to that atlas to a higher resolution and that shows more brain areas will enable even greater sensitivity in understanding brain development outcomes.

The work in Dilger’s lab continues to draw from a long history of using the neonatal piglet as a translational model to study pediatric nutrition at the U of I. Sharon Donovan a food science and human nutrition researcher, along with Johnson, an animal sciences researcher have used the young pig to understand how nutrition influences the immune system and microbial ecology of the neonate, as well.

“Early-life nutrition and neurodevelopment: Use of the piglet as a translational model” is published in Advances in Nutrition. Co-authors include Austin T. Mudd and Ryan N. Dilger. The article can be accessed online at

USDA reports provide support to corn and soybean prices

Published January 17, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – On Jan.12, the USDA released a set of reports with major implications for corn and soybean prices in 2017. The National Agricultural Statistics Service released the final estimates of the 2016 U.S. corn and soybean crops and estimates of the stocks of corn and soybeans in storage as of Dec.1, 2016. 

Additionally, the World Agricultural Outlook Board released new forecasts for U.S. and world supply, ending stocks, and consumption levels during the 2016-17 marketing year on both crops.  According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs, these estimates and forecasts will affect corn and soybean price dynamics through the spring of 2017.

Hubbs provides the following to recap corn and soybean crop estimates and the price implications associated with them. 

Soybean production for the United States in 2016 is estimated at 4.307 billion bushels.  Production is down 1 percent from the November forecast of 4.36 billion bushels but is still a record level of production. The harvested acreage estimate of 82.7 million acres is down from the November forecast of 83.0 million acres.  Average soybean yield of 52.1 bushels per acre is 0.4 bushels lower than the November forecast. Dec. 1 soybean stocks of 2.895 billion bushels came in 40 million bushels below trade expectations. The stocks estimate for the first quarter of the marketing year indicates a disappearance of 1.61 billion bushels. The Dec. 1 soybean stocks number is a record high and 181 million bushels larger than last year. 

The World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report maintained the forecasts for major soybean consumption categories projected in the December report. Soybean crush and exports retained the forecast levels of 1.93 and 2.05 billion bushels respectively. Total use is forecast at 4.108 billion bushels. At 420 million bushels, the ending-stocks forecast decreased 60 million bushels based on lower soybean production. The U.S. marketing-year average price is projected in a range of $9 to $10, compared to last month’s projection of $8.70 to $10.20.

World production forecasts for the marketing year decreased from 12.4 to 12.32 billion bushels on the smaller U.S. crop. The Brazilian soybean production forecast increased by 73.48 million bushels over the December forecast to 3.79 billion bushels. The Argentinian soybean production forecast stayed at 2.08 billion bushels despite reports of delayed planting in many regions. The Brazilian soybean export forecast is raised 40 million bushels reflecting the increased crop production levels. Brazil and Argentina soybean exports are forecast to be 2.51 billion bushels over the marketing year. 

Corn production for the United States in 2016 is estimated at 15.15 billion bushels. Production is down 1 percent from the November forecast of 15.2 billion bushels. The harvested acreage estimate of 86.7 million acres is down from the November forecast of 86.8 million acres.  Average corn yield of 174.6 bushels per acre is 0.7 bushels lower than the November forecast.  Dec. 1 corn stocks came in at 12.38 billion bushels, a record high. The estimate is 84 million bushels above trade expectations and indicates a total disappearance of 4.56 billion bushels in the first quarter of the marketing year. The lower domestic supply numbers combined with higher stocks indicating lower-than-expected corn use sent a mixed signal for corn prices. 

The WASDE report for U.S. corn forecast during 2016-17 reflected the dichotomy of the corn reports. At 5.6 billion bushels, the forecast for corn feed use and residual moved lower by 50 million bushels. An increase in the ethanol use forecast by 25 million bushels offset the feed use forecast reduction for the marketing year. United States exports for corn maintained the 2.225 billion bushels forecast in December. The ending stocks forecast came in at 2.35 billion bushels for the 2016-17 marketing year. The ending stocks forecast is 48 million bushels lower than the December forecast. The range of the U.S. marketing-year average price increased by 5 cents from the December projection to a projected in a range of $3.10 to $3.70.

World supply and demand projections for corn in the 2016-17 marketing year moved lower due to a reduction in United States production numbers. Brazil’s corn production forecast stayed at 3.41 billion bushels despite numerous reports indicating the possibility of a larger crop in the country. For the marketing year, Argentinian production forecasts stayed at 1.44 billion bushels.  In total, Brazil and Argentina production forecasts exceed 2015-16 production estimates by 1.07 billion bushels and signify a recovery from the poor crop last year. Argentina and Brazil are forecast to export an additional 635 million bushels each above the 2015-16 estimates. South American corn exports for the marketing year are forecast to be 2.08 billion bushels. Given the increase in South American production and exports, the evolution of crop conditions in the region will be a major driver of corn price dynamics in 2017.

The reports provide support for soybean prices in the short term and are ambivalent for corn prices. Despite lowering corn and soybean ending stocks forecasts, one cannot ignore the large crop potential currently unfolding in South America and the implications for U.S. exports in 2017.

Corn and soybeans prices will reflect the pace of consumption and crop prospects in South America. Corn prices will likely average in the upper range of the USDA’s projection through the spring while soybean prices show the potential for falling into the lower half of the projected range as we move through the marketing year.  


News Source:

Todd Hubbs, 217-300-4688

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension