There are red-letter days and then there are red-letter days. Although it didn't receive the national attention it deserved, USDA celebrated one of the latter on Dec. 11 when it observed the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Agricultural Research Service.

While so much of what ARS has accomplished is taken for granted, it is difficult to imagine what the world, and certainly production agriculture, would be like if it wasn't for the efforts of its dedicated scientists over the past 50 years.

Here are a few of the things that wouldn't exist if not for the ARS that were cited by Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman during a speech saluting the agency's 50th anniversary:

  • DEET, the most effective mosquito repellant on the market.

  • Cotton fabrics which resist wrinkles.

  • Frozen food technology.

  • Disposable diapers.

  • Poinsettias that bloom throughout the Christmas holidays.

Farmers can think of a host of other developments that have originated in ARS laboratories or field trials.

As Secretary Veneman noted, “ARS has been a key to the success of production agriculture in the United States, contributing to doubling of wheat production per acre since 1953 and tripling of milk production per cow to name just two examples.

“It has also been a critical ally of animal and plant health, food safety, resource conservation, nutrition and not least of all, consumers. In fact, at any given moment, ARS scientists are working on about 1,000 different projects across a broad range of applications.”

ARS scientists were among the first to develop erosion models that led to an awareness of extent of soil loss and the birth of a new way of farming that relied more on chemicals and less on plows for weed control.

In the Mid-South, scientists at the USDA/ARS Soil Sedimentation Laboratory in Oxford, Miss., have conducted studies that are helping farmers find new techniques for preventing chemical runoff from fields.

Researchers with USDA/ARS's Boll Weevil Research Laboratory at Mississippi State University and other facilities discovered the boll weevil sex attractant pheromone. The pheromone made possible the trap that became a key element in the boll weevil eradication program.

Agricultural engineers at the ARS Southern Field Crops Mechanization Laboratory at Stoneville, Miss., designed several innovative products including a herbicide sprayer that activates when a TV camera detects a weed. The technology has not been widely adapted but could prove indispensable as farmers adopt more precision farming practices.

Besides those practical, down-to-earth developments, ARS scientists have been involved in many long-range endeavors, including the discovery of two new forms of life, the viroids and spiroplasmas, which are the cause of many plant diseases.

Its researchers also are pioneering in the field of genomics, “which holds the promise for future breakthroughs in pest and disease management and the quality and safety of agricultural products,” the secretary said.

Makes you wonder just what these folks will accomplish over the next 50 years.