Grant Gerlock

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

During the season of Lent, many Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays. Fish, though, is considered fair game, so the Friday night fish fry has become an annual tradition at churches across the country. 

Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter you’ll find hundreds of hungry parishioners lining up at church fish frys around the Midwest.  All of that frying uses up vegetable oil that can just go to waste, but there are some people putting it to good use.

Friday Night Tradition

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

There are mounting concerns about the direction of the farm economy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects farm income to fall for the third year in a row in 2016. At the same time, farmers are borrowing billions more from banks to get by.

The change in farm fortunes follows a drop in prices for corn and soybeans, the top Midwest crops. Supply and demand are both working against the commodity markets. Farmers have raised an oversupply of grain, while at the same time the slow global economy has brought down demand.

At the Lee Valley consignment sale near Tekamah, Neb., dozens of used tractors, planters and other equipment were on the auction block for farmers trying to save a few extra dollars. It was a muddy day, with trucks and four-wheelers leaving deep black ruts — fitting conditions for an industry wallowing in bad news.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

The middle of winter is when the stream of locally grown fruits and vegetables in the Midwest begins to freeze up.

Nicole Saville knows first-hand. Saville is the produce manager at Open Harvest, a grocery coop in Lincoln, Neb. The store promotes food grown by local farmers, but this time of year there just isn’t much available.

“We can get kale and some culinary herbs this time of year,” Saville said. “Otherwise the only other local option is a soil mix in our garden center.”

For the Midwesterner who likes to eat local, this time of year is a challenge. Browse the produce shelves in middle America — or any place where snow falls in winter — and you'll find carrots from Mexico and peppers from Peru.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

High on the Nebraska plains, there’s a citrus grove with trees holding up a canopy of lemons, grapefruit-sized oranges, green figs, and bunches of grapes.

Yes, it’s indoors. And it’s only possible because it taps in to the core of the earth’s own energy, geothermal heating in the winter and cooling in the summer.

Russ Finch, a former mail carrier and farmer, designed the greenhouse, which he calls the Greenhouse in the Snow. The original, which he built more than 20 years ago, is connected to his home.

Brian Seifferlein / Harvest Public Media

By some estimates, producing our food consumes about a fifth of the nation’s energy supply. It takes a lot of diesel to move tractors and semis around the farm, and electricity to pump water and dry grain. But some farmers are trying to cut back on the coal and gas they use and make our food system more energy efficient.

When winter comes to Greg Brummond’s farm in northeast Nebraska, he spends his days in the machine shed fixing all the things that broke through the year.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Wheat is one of the world’s staple foods and a big crop on the Great Plains, but it has been left in the dust. A corn farmer can grow 44 percent more bushels per acre than 30 years ago, but only 16 percent more wheat. That’s led many farmers to make a switch.

“Wheat acres have been going down since 1981 or 1982 when they were up around 86 million acres,” said Steve Joehl, director of research with the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG). “I think last year we had a little over 56 million. It’s just a straight trend line down.”

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Like all business owners, farmers want to get paid for their work. Sometimes, that work creates problems for the environment, so regulators are advancing the idea of creating environmental markets to allow farmers to make money off of their conservation practices.

Under plans in development, farmers could generate environmental credits by farming in ways that store carbon, filter out water pollution, or preserve wildlife habitat. Those credits could be bought, sold, and traded by companies that need to balance out their own emissions or pollution.

Courtesy NET Television

All week, Harvest Public Media’s series Choice Cuts: Meat In America is examining how the meat industry is changing the U.S. food system and the American diet.

Americans have a big appetite for everything meat. We smoke it, grill it, slice it, and chop it.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Farmers in the Midwest are facing a situation they haven’t seen in years. Grain prices are down. After some of the most lucrative growing seasons they’ve ever seen, some producers could lose money on this year’s crop. That could slow down the rural economy.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Show day at the Pierce County Fair in Nebraska starts early and goes fast.

I arrived around 9 in the morning, but Emily Lambrecht had already spent an hour and a half in the wash stalls, scrubbing and shampooing her calves so they would sparkle in the show barn.

This was showtime. The 17-year-old 4-H and FFA exhibitor spent months working up to this one day.

Brian Seifferlerin / Harvest Public Media

Rodeo season is getting into full swing and at most rodeos, bull riding is the main event. But when the bull ride ends, the work begins for rodeo bullfighters, and a young bullfighter is making a name in the business by putting himself in the middle of the action.

At bull riding time at the Plum Creek Rodeo in Lexington, Nebraska, the rodeo corral is under the lights and the sun is a ripe orange in the west. Rowdy Moon bounces on the balls of his feet like a boxer waiting for the match to start.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

California grows almost half the fruits and vegetables in the U.S. It’s also deep in drought and some farms are short on water. That may sound like a chance for Midwestern farmers to churn out more peppers and broccoli, but it’s not that simple.

The California drought is not the golden opportunity that it may seem. Not yet. Even in a drought California still has big advantages over the Midwest.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Thousands of people get sick every year from E. coli bacteria in their food. While the beef industry has gone to great lengths to limit illnesses in meat, the industry has been slow to adopt an E. coli vaccine that could keep people from getting sick.

Ground beef has a track record of causing some serious outbreaks of food illness, like E. Coli O157 H:7. The problem is, when cows carry E. coli bacteria in their gut it’s totally harmless, but if the bacteria gets on your meat and then you undercook it, you could easily end up in the hospital.

Meat companies have been trying to clean up their E. coli problem. Infections are down 30 percent from the late 90s. Still, most E. coli outbreaks are from beef.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Walking through the warehouse of food processor Heartland Gourmet in Lincoln, Nebraska shows how complicated the food safety system can be. Pallets are stacked with sacks of potato flour and smell of fresh baked apple-cinnamon muffins is in the air. 

Heartland Gourmet makes a wide range of foods from muffins and organic baking mixes to pizzas and burritos. That means business manager Mark Zink has to answer to both of the main U.S. food safety regulators, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

A proposed change to livestock rules has put Nebraska hog farmers at the center of a debate that gets to the very core of what it means to be a farmer today.

In the top pork producing states like Iowa, Minnesota and North Carolina, many farmers are under contract with giant meatpackers like Tyson or Smithfield Foods – the companies actually own the pigs and pay the farmers to raise them. That arrangement is illegal in Nebraska.

Like many other Midwest states, Nebraska barred corporations from owning livestock in the late 1990s in order to protect smaller farm businesses. After a slew of court challenges, Nebraska’s ban on meatpacker-owned livestock is one of the only laws still standing. And a bill introduced in the state’s legislature seeks to change that.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

You’ve probably seen, but may not have noticed, labels on the meat at your grocery store that say something like “Born, Raised, & Harvest in the U.S.A.” or “Born and Raised in Canada, Slaughtered in the U.S.”

These country of origin labels, as they are known, are part of an ongoing international trade dispute that has swept up Midwest ranchers. And they may not be long for store shelves.

Courtesy USDA NRCS South Dakota

Scientists have noticed a change in the atmosphere. Plants are taking in more carbon dioxide during the growing season and giving off more carbon in the fall and winter. Recent research shows the massive corn crop in the Corn Belt may be contributing to that deeper breath.

It comes down to the Carbon Cycle. Over the winter when corn fields lay dormant, corn stalks and roots break down, sending CO2 into the air. Then in the summer when a new crop is growing, it takes up carbon from the atmosphere.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

As drought, feed costs, and urban development wear on West Coast milk producers, states like Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa are pitching themselves as a dairy heaven. Even in California, the nation’s No. 1 dairy state, many dairy farmers are listening.

For the Midwest, an influx of dairies isn’t just about milk. It’s about pumping dollars into the rural economy.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

After getting pummeled by drought and low cattle prices, many ranchers are across the Midwest are eager to grow their herds. As they do, grass is turning into a hot commodity.

The national beef herd is down to the size it was in 1951. Shoppers know that beef is more expensive, which has people switching to chicken and pork. To raise more cattle and perhaps bring down meat prices, ranchers need more pasture. The trouble for many ranchers is grass has grown expensive.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

U.S. farmers are bringing in what’s expected to be a record-breaking harvest for both corn and soybeans. But all that productivity has a big financial downside: plunging prices that have many Midwest farmers hoping to merely break-even on this year’s crop.

Farmers will haul in 4 billion bushels of soybeans and 14.5 billion bushels of corn, according to USDA estimates. Those are record-breaking numbers, made possible by producers planting more corn and soybean acres and near-perfect weather in the Corn Belt.

Pat Aylward / NET News

It’s a hot summer day outside of Lincoln, Neb., and Jack Chappelle is knee-deep in trash. He’s wading in to rotting vegetables, half-eaten burgers and tater tots. Lots of tater tots.

“You can get a lot of tater tots out of schools,” Chappelle says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s elementary, middle school or high school. Tater tots. Bar none.”

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

When they heard Dan Hromas’ truck rolling in, the chickens came strutting. The auburn-feathered Rhode Island Reds stood out, even in the tall, green brome grass of Hromas’ rented 3-acre pasture outside of York, Neb.

The pasture is the center of Hromas’ new farming enterprise. For a little over a year he’s been selling farm eggs to local restaurants, grocery stores, and direct to customers in southeast Nebraska.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Drought is re-shaping the beef map and raising the price of steak. Ranchers are moving herds from California to Colorado and from Texas to Nebraska seeking refuge from dry weather. And cattle producers in the Midwest are making the most of it.

Sarah McCammon / Harvest Public Media

Cargill, one of the country’s largest pork producers,announced Monday that it will stop using gestation crates, the controversial narrow cages meant to house and separate sows. Cargill is joining other major meatpackers, like competitors Tyson and Smithfield Foods, in planning to move away from hog crates.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

The Missouri River burst out of its banks in epic fashion three years ago. The flood covered thousands of acres of land and dredged up old debates about how the river should be run. Now, flooded landowners are suing the Army Corps of Engineers, saying the agency isn’t protecting their land.

isnapshot / Flickr--CC

The number of farms in the U.S. is shrinking, according to the latest Census of Agriculture, released Friday. The census is taken every five years and shows the changing landscape for farmers.

Since 2007, the U.S. lost 95,000 farms, or about 4 percent. There was a similar drop in the number of farmers. But the number of Latino farmers grew by 20 percent, according to the Census. There are also more African American farmers.

Biofuels made in the Midwest from corn stover, the leftovers of harvested corn plants, may be worse for global warming than gasoline in the short term, according to a recent study. It’s casting doubt on the greenhouse benefits of cellulosic ethanol.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

  Nebraska hog farmers aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on a proposal that would allow meatpacking companies more control over the state’s hog industry. And farmers all over the country are watching.

Currently, a 1998 state law bans meatpacking companies from owning and raising the hogs the process. But lawmakers have proposed an end to the ban, which would allow for more vertical integration of the hog industry.

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