Agriculture

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

On a hot, July day in Boone County, Iowa, farmer Brett Heineman shuttled a semi from one of his family’s fields to the local co-op. He and his uncle were harvesting the first crop of oats on this farm in decades.

Before corn and soybeans almost completely covered the landscape -- today, they account for 95 percent of crop acres in Iowa -- most Corn Belt farmers also grew oats or alfalfa. Now, the Heinemans are among the farmers taking a closer look at re-integrating the small grain into their operations.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

 

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee plans to examine proposed mergers among agricultural chemical and seed companies in a September hearing.

With Chinese chemical giant ChemChina in talks to buy Syngenta, merger discussions ongoing between Dow and DuPont, anBayer and Monsantoapparently inching toward a deal, regulators and lawmakers are worrying about decreased competition and higher prices for farmers.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Few things are more valuable to a farmer in the arid West than irrigation water. Without it, the land turns back into its natural state: dry, dusty plains. If a fast-growing city is your neighbor, then your water holds even more value.

Farm families in Western states like California and Colorado are increasingly under pressure to sell their water. It’s been coined “buy and dry,” as water is diverted from farm fields and instead used to fill pipes in condos and subdivisions.

Kristofor Husted / KBIA

Democrat Chris Koster has tallied another significant endorsement from an agricultural group in his race for Missouri governor.

The Missouri Soybean Association announced Thursday it is throwing its support behind Koster’s bid over Republican Eric Greitens. The endorsement is a big win for Koster as it will likely help him with the traditionally conservative vote of rural Missouri.

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media and KBIA

Larry Gerdes is having his barn taken down and disassembled in Malta Bend, Mo. It’s about the size of a three-car garage but stands much taller in a clearing surrounded by six-foot stalks of corn.

The barn’s exterior is graying, part of its roof is missing and there’s a gaping hole looking out from the hayloft. It’s about 100 years old and it’s not really useful.

“It’s deteriorated and it would cost a lot of money to repair it,” Gerdes says. “And it doesn’t fit into the modern farming. Unless you got two cows to let them loaf inside, nothing fits and it’s just obsolete.”

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

    

Growing up on a family farm in West Bend, Iowa, Haley Banwart and her brother were like other farm kids. They did chores, participated in 4-H, and even raised cattle together.

“My brother and I have had the same amount of responsibilities. I can drive a tractor, I can bale square hay,” Banwart says. “But it was just expected that my brother would return home.”

She says they never discussed it, she just accepted that she’d find a different path.

Suzanne Hogan / For Harvest Public Media

Urban farms and gardens are popping up in cities all over the country, often touted as the key to a sustainable lifestyle, as creating healthy vibrant communities and promoting economic development. A new study by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future , however, says urban agriculture advocates need to be careful about overselling the benefits.

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media and KBIA

The town of Brookfield, Missouri, in the north-central part of the state is a close-knit community. Population: about 4,500. Becky Cleveland, who grew up in town, says the area looks a little different today.

“When I was a kid, like I said, there was four grocery stores,” she says. Today there is just one and a nearby Wal-Mart.

Walking down Main Street past a few vacant storefronts among the businesses, it’s plain to see the town isn’t in its prime any more. Brookfield, though, is more vibrant than many other rural towns, Cleveland says. Rural life used to be centered around the farm, but farms today don’t work like they used to, which has caused a drop in jobs and left some small towns struggling for survival.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Chickens aren't a traditional pet. But with chicken coops springing up in more and more urban and suburban backyards, some owners take just as much pride in their poultry as their dog or cat. So much so that they're primping and preening them for beauty contests.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

  

In a brightly-lit lab at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, workers with tweezers hunch over petri dishes scattered with sprouted sorghum seeds. Sorghum produces grain and also a sugary stalk.

But this sorghum has a genetic tweak, explains plant scientist Tom Clemente. Instead of sugar, it’s engineered to make oil, which could be used to make fuel or chemicals.

“You know if we can get oil in a stock of sorghum anywhere greater than 5 percent, that’s a winner,” Clemente says. “That’s a grand slam.”

Peggy Lowe / Harvest Public Media

On this sunny, summer morning in late June, Ronnie Russell is “windshield farming.”

Driving from field to field in his Ford pick-up, he can see that his corn is about to tassel, his soybeans are mostly weed-free and white butterflies are floating above the alfalfa.

All three crops, adding up to about 1,500 acres, are grown with genetically-engineered seeds, a technology Russell views as a boon to farming.

Peggy Fogle and her dog, Abe, walk among rows of aronia berry bushes on the family property outside Carlisle, Iowa. Plants on the ends of rows are smaller from years of being nibbled by deer and rabbits. But on nearly nine acres, filling four separate fields, the bushes are reaching maturity, eight years after Fogle and her husband decided to put in their first ones.

“We had looked for something organic, sustainable, native to the area, low-maintenance,” Fogle says, “that could be done here to provide a secondary income and be a healthy alternative.”

Wikimedia Commons

The city of St. Louis is preparing to chop down thousands of ash trees that are at risk of infection by the emerald ash borer, a beetle that showed up in the area last year.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the removal of about 15,000 trees will start Thursday and occur over the course of five years.

The city will also begin injecting 1,000 more trees with a type of organic botanical treatment to try and stop the bugs from spreading.

Courtesy Nebraska Appleseed

    

The meatpacking plants that enable American consumers to find cheap hamburger and chicken wings in the grocery store are among the most dangerous places to work in the country. Federal regulators and meat companies agree more must be done to make slaughterhouses safer, and while there are signs the industry is stepping up its efforts, danger remains.

The rate of meatpacking workers who lose time or change jobs because they’re injured is 70 percent higher than the average for manufacturing workers overall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

E. Coli
brentmarketing / Flickr

Scientists have discovered a third instance of a bacteria resistant to one of the strongest antibiotics available, raising concerns about the spread of so-called “superbugs.”

Brian Seifferlein / Harvest Public Media

The nights were often worse for Gabriel, even after long days working on the production line at a pork slaughterhouse in Nebraska.

He had nightmares that the line – what the workers call “the chain” – was moving so fast, that instead of gutted hogs flying by, there were people.

“You’ve been working there for three hours, four hours, and you’re working so fast and you see the pigs going faster, faster,” he says. 

Dan Boyce / Rocky Mountain PBS for Harvest Public Media

On the worst day of Greta Horner’s life, she was dressed in a burlap robe, waiting by the window for her husband to come home from work.

The couple was down to one car. The other one was in the shop. She donned the costume for a play, set in Old Jerusalem, later that morning, part of Vacation Bible School at the church. She just needed the car to get there. 

Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

The big flocks of snow geese flying over the Midwest each spring and fall may make for a pretty picture, but the booming population of those fluffy, noisy, white birds is creating an environmental disaster in Canada. And it’s partially thanks to decisions made by Midwest farmers. 

“The birds have grown exponentially, almost now to a concern that they’re causing destruction to their tundra breeding grounds,” said Drew Fowler, a doctoral student at the University of Missouri.

Sandy and Chuck Harris/Creative Commons-Flickr

Monarch butterflies are disappearing. Scientists agree that in the last 20 years, populations of the black and orange insect have been in precipitous decline. But there's much less certainty on what’s causing them to vanish.

As each new scientific paper on monarch decline is published, the image becomes slightly less opaque. So far, potential culprits include disease, climate change, drought, deforestation, and nectar plants. Blame has been cast on everyone from loggers to farmers to suburban developers.

Brian Hardzinski for Harvest Public Media

    

If there are any rattlesnakes in the rocky hills of northwestern Oklahoma, Ty Judd knows where to find them.

Judd and his friends have been rattlesnake hunting these gypsum hills for years, armed with long metal tongs, a plastic bucket and a few simple rules.

“Watch where you step,” Judd said. “Never put your hand on the side of a hill unless you’ve looked it over because little snakes will curl up there and bite you on the hand.”

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

 

Genetically-engineered crops are generally safe to eat, but in the 20 years since the first commercial GMO crops hit the market, they haven’t delivered on all their promises, according to a new analysis from a National Academy of Sciences panel released Tuesday.

For more than two decades genetically-engineered crops -- plants in which scientists have transferred genes among species to achieve new traits like herbicide tolerance or insecticide -- have been lightning rods in food discussions.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

    

Schools across the U.S. served more than 5 billion meals in the national school lunch program to millions of students last year. Each one of the meals has to meet federal rules for nutrition. Now, those rules are up for debate and Congress could impose changes on the cafeteria.

School lunch was transformed by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. The law, passed in 2010, forces schools to switch to whole grains, cut calories, limit fat and sugar, start reducing sodium, and serve more fruits and vegetables.

Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

We all learned it as kids: Old MacDonald has a farm and on that farm he has a cow that says “moo.” But why? Why do cows moo?

Whenever I’m out reporting in the field I can tell many ranchers have a powerful connection with their cattle – they can almost understand them. But researchers today are trying to figure out exactly what cows are saying.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

 

The population of Northern Colorado is booming. People are flocking to the area and population numbers are on the rise.

The same thing is happening with dairy cows.

Weld and Larimer counties already sport high numbers of beef and dairy cattle, buttressed by the region’s feeding operations. But an expansion of a cheese factory owned by dairy giant Leprino Foods will require even more cows to churn out the milk needed to produce bricks of mozzarella cheese and whey protein powder.

Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

 

  

Turn on the TV and you can barely escape it: presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle deriding free trade agreements, like the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP is a bum deal that will hurt the U.S. economy and especially low-wage workers, according to pols from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton.

But if you venture into the Midwest and ask a farmer about the TPP, you’re likely to get a different answer.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

 

There’s a heated debate happening right now about GMOs and labels.

Big food companies like General Mills, Mars and Kellogg’s say they plan to put labels on their products that tell consumers whether or not the food contains ingredients derived from genetically engineered plants.

So what’s the big deal? What are GMO labels, and what do they tell you?

bottlerocketprincess / Flickr

 

Midwest farmers are expected to plant a huge corn crop this year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts farmers will plant nearly 94 million acres of corn this season. That’s up 6 percent from last year’s planted acreage and would be the third-highest planted acreage in the U.S. since the 1940s.

Kristofor Husted / KBIA/Harvest Public Media

 

Cotton fabric has been a staple in our closets for decades, but times are tough for farmers in the U.S. cotton belt who are caught in the middle of a storm of changing global demand.

Cotton acreage in the U.S. has been declining for years, with 2015 hitting the lowest mark in decades.  It has dropped from nearly 15 million acres to less than 9 million acres in just the past five years.

“One of the main issues facing the world cotton market is just a sluggish demand,” said Jody Campiche, vice president of economics and policy analysis at the National Cotton Council.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

 

 

Take a road trip through the Midwest during the growing season, and it feels like you’re moving through a sea of corn and soybeans grown largely for livestock feed or ethanol. But now, low grain prices and increasing pressure to clean up waterways may push some farmers to consider other options.

Corn and soybeans make up, incredibly, nearly 40 percent of what’s currently grown in 13 farm country states (Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Colorado), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  So changes are likely to come slowly, if they come at all, and plenty of obstacles remain.

Marisanne Lewis-Thompson / for Harvest Public Media

 

Driving along rough and muddy gravel roads next to what was once a rich soybean field, farmer Adam Thomas gazes out on an upended mess of tubes, wheels and hoses from a nearby farmer’s irrigation system.

Nowadays, his farmland in Miller City, Illinois, looks like a scene from “Lawrence of Arabia.” Layer upon layer of sand as much as 4-feet deep covered nearly 100 acres. Large sand deposits, fallen trees and fragments of a damaged road wreaked havoc on his once fertile farm ground.

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