Driving out of the western Iowa town of Panora, the winding roads offer broad vistas of rolling hills. Many of the mailboxes along Redwood Road show the name Arganbright. Jim Arganbright grew up in this area, one of 10 children. He and his wife, Beverly, have eight kids.
Though Jim Arganbright farmed here his whole life, three years ago at the age of 80 he started renting his cropland to his son Tom, the only one of his children who farms full-time. Now, all Jim Arganbright has to worry about is the livestock — and he doesn’t have too much of that.
Working beyond retirement is a fairly common refrain these days. In 2012, 5 percent of the U.S. workforce was beyond retirement age. But farmers seem to work longer than most. In the last Agriculture Census 25 percent of all farm operators were over 65 years old.
Why do farmers keep working? For one thing, modern machinery makes it easier to work longer.
“It’s more you use your mind rather than your back, so you can go longer,” said Mike Duffy, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University.
Americans eat millions of pounds of fish and seafood and government figures show that 80 percent of it is imported. But two cousins in Iowa are hoping to find a place in that market by investing in aquaculture in a part of the country where pork is king.
Jeff and Mark Nelson have raised corn and hogs for years, but they were looking to diversify their operation. Farm raised fish in Iowa has been tried before but with limited success. It involved outdoor ponds and mostly catfish. The Nelsons’ have moved their venture inside.
Right now, Missouri Vegetable Farm located 70 miles south of St. Louis doesn’t have anything in its fields. But come summer and fall, peppers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, sweet corn and pumpkins will be harvested and sold at Wal-Mart.
Credit Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media
Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is muscling in on one of the fastest growing segments of American agriculture: local food.
Wal-Mart says 11 percent of the produce sold in its stores nationwide comes from local farms, a large increase from the mere 4 percent it sold two years ago when the chain announced its intention to step up local sourcing as part of a larger sustainability platform and a commitment to buy from small businesses.
It's no secret that agriculture in the U.S. has gone through major changes in the past century. But let's focus in on ag labor for a second: back in 1900, 41 percent of the national workforce worked in the agricultural sector. By 2000, just 1.9 percent did, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Over the same time period, millions of residents left rural communities behind, seeking job opportunities in cities.
Tammy Sellmeyer bends to pick up a strawberry in the middle of a hoop house on the 25-acre farm she owns and operates with her husband, Greg, just south of Fulton, Mo. The Sellmeyers plant some 3,000 strawberry plants here each year and sell them at the Columbia, Mo. farmers market. This past May, they sold 400 quarts in just three hours. But two years ago, they didn't have many berries to sell at all because pests got to their crop.
Howard Audsley, who wears dark glasses and has his hair cut short in a crew cut, has been driving his Toyota truck through the state of Missouri for the past 30 years to assess the value of farmland. Barreling down the flat roads of Saline County, Mo., on a recent day, Audsley stopped his truck at a 160-acre tract of newly tilled black land. The land sold for $10,700 an acre last February, double what it would have gone for five years ago.
On Friday, I left the rolling hills of Columbia, Mo., and headed northwest, to the flat farmland of Saline County. The purpose of the drive was to get a look at the priciest cropland in Missouri for a story I'm doing on how investors with no connection to farmland are increasingly interested in buying acreage in the Midwest. I had heard from farmers and real estate brokers that cropland values were at all-time highs in the Corn Belt, and incredibly many of the tracts of land are being paid for in cash.
This past weekend, for the first time in 25 years, my dad and I visited our family’s farm in Woodhull, Ill.
By family, I mean extended family. Brothers Doug and Darwin Swanson — my dad’s first cousins — run the farm, which got its start with land bought in 1890 by my great-great grandfather, Swan Swanson, when he moved to Illinois from Sweden.
Back in April, Harvest Public Media’s Grant Gerlock headed to Tekamah, Neb., to see how planting was going for farmers on the Missouri River floodplain. The river's surging waters put thousands of farm acres in Nebraska under water last summer, causing more than $100 million in crop losses in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.
Parts of the Midwest got a reprieve from the drought this week, according to the latest US Drought Monitor report released on Thursday. The report found that last weekend’s cold front brought up to five inches of rain to southeastern Missouri, eastern Illinois and central Indiana.
Brandt Dairy sits on Swan Creek at the end of a meandering gravel road in Linn, Missouri. The farm is bucolic with its twin silos, red barn and black-and-white Holstein cows. But the brown pastures, dry river bed and burnt corn fields are a reminder that there have been less than two inches of rain here in the last two months.
Farmers growing crops have insurance to ward off the financial failure of their season during this terrible drought. But there’s no safety net like that in place for livestock producers. And any emergency aid is tied up in Washington politics.
The rock and the hard place where Stacey McCallister now sits looks like this:
Rock: McCallister’s herd of 200 dairy cattle in south central Missouri have feed for about the next 60 days.