Harvest Desk

KBIA's Harvest Desk covers food and agriculture issues in Missouri and beyond. The desk is a collaboration between KBIA and Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field.  The desk is headed by reporter Kristofor Husted.

dicamba, cotton seeds,
Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media/KBIA

The herbicide dicamba is thought to have been the culprit in more than 3 million acres of damaged soybeans across the country, destroying plants and leaving farmers out millions of dollars in crops.

 

The chemical has been in use for decades, so why is it today apparently causing farms so much damage?

 

The answer is two-pronged, according to Kevin Bradley, a University of Missouri assistant professor and weed specialist who has studied the reported damage. Here’s what he says:

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media/KBIA

 

During the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, spectators will turn their eyes upward to see the moon pass in front of the sun.

But many Midwest scientists will turn their eyes and cameras to the plants and animals here on the ground. And they're not sure what will happen.

“It's never really been studied systematically,” says Angela Speck, director of astronomy at the University of Missouri Columbia. “We have ideas about: Is this an illumination thing? The amount of light they’re receiving goes down. Is that what it is? Is it a temperature effect? Is it all of that?”

On a sweltering summer morning, Rob Mitchell surveys a plot of switchgrass at a research field near Lincoln, Nebraska. The grass is lush, green and nearly six feet tall.

“And it will get a couple feet taller than this,” says Mitchell, an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “So we’re putting on a lot of biomass right now.”

Twenty-four-year-old Kalee Woody says that when she was growing up in Bronaugh, Missouri, she saw the small town slowly fading. Businesses closed, growth stagnated and residents had to drive to other places to see a doctor.

It is a town that, like many towns in rural areas of Missouri and other Midwest and Great Plains states, is recognized by the federal government as having a shortage of healthcare providers.

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media/KBIA

This story is part of the special series United And Divided, which explores the links and rifts between rural and urban America.

Schools in rural school districts often don’t have the budget or the teachers to offer students all of the courses they would like to take. One rural district in a Missouri county decided to offer credit for online classes in an effort to give its students the educational opportunities it can’t otherwise afford.

In Jefferson County in eastern Missouri, the high school, middle school and elementary school that make up the Grandview R-II School District all occupy the same campus.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

 

The Missouri Department of Agriculture announced a temporary ban on the sale and use of agricultural products containing the pesticide dicamba on Friday, following a similar step by regulators in Arkansas.

Dicamba, a popular weedkiller, is suspected in the damage of tens of thousands of farm acres primarily in Arkansas, but also in southeast Missouri and in neighboring states. After farmers sprayed the chemical on their fields -- sometimes with illegal and outdated versions -- the pesticide allegedly drifted over to neighboring farmland, destroying crops.

More than 130 complaints about drift damage have been filed in Missouri this year, according to the state’s Agriculture Department.

Brandon Biesemeier climbs up a small ladder into a John Deere sprayer, takes a seat in the enclosed cab, closes the door, and blocks out most of the machine’s loud engine hum. It is a familiar perch to the fourth-generation farmer on Colorado’s eastern plains.

Zoe Moffett, Colorado College

See a bee; hear a buzz.

That’s what researchers studying the declining bee population are banking on. A new technique based on recording buzzing bees hopes to show farmers just how much pollinating the native bee population is doing in their fields. 

Vegetable and fruit growers depend on pollinators to do a lot of work in their greenhouses and fields. Pollinators, like bees, flutter about the blossoms on plants and orchard trees, transferring pollen from plant to plant and ensuring that those organisms have a chance at reproducing.

Two giants of American agriculture and industry are closer to becoming one.

 

As a group of visiting scientists prepared to board a plane in Hawaii that would take them back home to China, U.S. customs agents found rice seeds in their luggage. Those seeds are likely to land at least one scientist in federal prison.

A leading research center focused on local farmers and environmental conservation is hanging on by a thread, even as the movement to diversify agriculture, which it helped launch, continues to thrive.

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media/KBIA

President Trump made campaign promises to pull the U.S. out of big international trade deals and focus instead on one-on-one agreements with other countries. But that has farmers worried they will lose some of the $135 billion in goods they sold overseas last year.

Two years ago, Missouri rancher Mike John expected the U.S. beef industry to grow by providing steaks and hamburgers from the Midwest to hungry eaters in Japan. He was planning on the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a massive trade deal among 12 countries, including the U.S. and Japan. It took eight years of negotiations to get each nation involved to agree to lower tariffs. Some economists expected the pact to add $3 billion dollars to the U.S. agriculture industry. Trump, however, called the TPP a disaster and pulled the U.S. out.

This summer, in cornfields in Iowa and Nebraska, about a thousand small point-and-shoot digital cameras will be enclosed in waterproof cases, mounted on poles and attached to solar-powered battery chargers. They will take pictures every ten minutes as plants grow; all part of a plan to create better seeds.

“We watch plants go through their normal growth and development and also we watch them respond to environmental stressors, like drought and so forth,” says Pat Schnable, director of the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University.

Nathan Lawrence / KBIA

Two of the top questions I get as an agriculture reporter for Harvest Public Media are:

  1. What are pesticides, actually?
  2. How are they used on my food?

From foodies to farmers, pesticides are a sensitive subject.

Peggy Lowe / Harvest Public Media

 

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Friday said President Trump may be open to creating a way for some undocumented immigrant workers to stay in the U.S. and Perdue is already working on a “blueprint” of policy guidelines to offer the president.

Refusing to call it a pathway to citizenship, Perdue says he would like to find a solution that would allow workers in the ag industry to remain in the U.S. legally. That’s despite Trump’s campaign promises to step up deportations of undocumented immigrants.

New U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday explained President Donald Trump’s turn-around on the North American Free Trade Agreement as just part of the negotiations in his deal making.

 

Imagine you’re a farmer and it’s time to decide what to plant. You need information on supply, demand, prices, outlook -- information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, university extension services, even economists at the Federal Reserve.

All of those agencies depend on data pulled from surveys sent out to farmers. The answers are often compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which makes data available free. Fewer farmers are responding to surveys, the Agriculture Department says, which could throw the accuracy of the data off, leaving farmers to fend for themselves when making choices for their businesses.

Hybrid seed corn and nitrogen fertilizer transformed farming in the 20th century, but they are also closely tied to some of today’s major agricultural challenges. That has prompted some members of two families that played pivotal roles in developing farm innovations to work on putting a lighter, 21st century stamp on the landscape.

Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor nominated by President Donald Trump, is one step closer to becoming U.S. Secretary of Agriculture after the Senate Agriculture Committee approved his nomination Thursday.

Yet Perdue remains one step shy of the post; the full Senate has not yet scheduled a vote on his nomination. Perdue, however, is widely expected to be approved.

US Embassy Montevideo/Flickr

President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, testified in a confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture committee today, but remains far from the head job at USDA.

The committee did not indicate when it would vote on whether to advance Perdue’s nomination.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Blink while driving on Highway 34 east of Greeley, Colorado, and you might miss the former Great Plains town of Dearfield.

Abandoned towns from the early 20th century are far from unique on this stretch of plains. Withered storefronts and collapsed false-front homes are common. Boom and bust economics and harsh weather made it tough for turn of the century settlers to succeed long-term.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

 

After court documents unsealed Tuesday raised questions about its research methods, chemical giant Monsanto says it did not ghostwrite a 2000 study on the safety of glyphosate, the active ingredient in its flagship pesticide Roundup.

As the New York Times reported, the unsealed records suggest that Monsanto had contributed to research attributed to academics and that a senior official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had worked to stall a review of Roundup’s main ingredient by U.S. regulators.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Farmers in the U.S. like to point out that their products feed people all over the world. And while this is a diverse country, the people working on farms and elsewhere in agriculture often don’t reflect the nation’s demographics. Changing that is becoming a priority, in hopes new people will bring fresh ideas to meet some of our food system’s greatest challenges.

Take monoculture, the long-standing practice of planting only corn or soybeans on millions of Midwest acres. While it has resulted in massive crops and billions of dollars in revenue for decades, the strategy can also contribute to problems.

Bryan Thompson for Harvest Public Media

Low crop prices have many Midwest wheat and corn farmers looking for ways to supplement their incomes. One possibility for conventional farmers: producing food for farmers markets.

“Food is a multi-billion-dollar economy in Kansas,” says Missty Lechner of the American Heart Association, who works with local governments to encourage the development of local food systems. (PDF) “If we can change that to increase local food sales by just 1 percent in Kansas, we’re talking multi-million-dollar impact on our local food economy.”

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media/KBIA

 

 

President Donald Trump issued an executive order Tuesday directing the Environmental Protection Agency to revise a controversial environmental rule opposed by many Midwest farm groups.

Trump ordered new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to formally revise the Obama Administration’s 2015 Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the U.S. Rule, which was meant to explain which rivers, streams and creeks are subject to regulation by the EPA.

Ag Leaders Hope To Avoid Budget Cuts In New Farm Bill

Feb 24, 2017
Bryan Thompson for Harvest Public Media

 

At a stressful time for U.S. farmers, the government’s efforts at calming the agricultural waters took center stage Thursday, when the heads of the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture Committee left Washington for the Midwest to solicit opinions on priorities for the next Farm Bill.

U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts, R-KS, and Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, heard from Midwest farmers at their first field hearing on the 2018 Farm Bill at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

Liz Graznak runs an organic farm near Jamestown, Missouri, which she calls Happy Hollow Farm. She sells her vegetables to local restaurants, in CSA boxes and at the farmer’s market.  But eight years ago, after falling in love with the idea of growing her own local produce, the farm she runs today looked like a near-impossible dream.

While on track to earn a PhD in plant breeding, Graznak bought her first box of produce from a nearby farmer. Soon after, she decided then that instead of studying plants, she wanted to grow them. Easier said than done, though.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

A war is brewing over what you pour on your breakfast cereal.

Dairy farmers say the makers of plant-based milks – like almond milk, soy milk and a long list of other varieties – are stealing away their customers and deceiving consumers. And they’d like the federal government to back them up.

At its heart, the fight boils down to the definition and use of one simple word: milk.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

 

Is organic meat more humane than conventionally raised meat?

Rules that would create animal welfare standards for livestock certified as organic have been delayed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday, giving opponents new hope that they will be quashed.

Courtesy Okanagan Specialty Fruits

Genetically engineered crops are nothing new. But new technology that allows scientists to alter plants more precisely and more cheaply is taking genetically engineered plants from the field to the kitchen.

The first version of the Arctic Apple, a genetically modified Golden Delicious, is headed for test markets in the Midwest in February, according to the company that produced it. It is the first genetically engineered apple, altered so that when it is cut, it doesn’t turn brown from oxidation.

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