Stories about agriculture

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

The immigrant workers that pick crops like cotton and melons in the U.S. can have a tough time finding a place to live. The rural areas where they can find work often lack the social services and affordable housing. That means many farm worker families end up in dilapidated buildings, which can come with health risks.

Migrant workers planting roots

Angel Castro’s old road is muddy and covered with flooded potholes. He lived here during the 1990s just behind a large John Deere store in Kennett, Mo.

Peggy Lowe / Harvest Public Media

Blake Hurst rides ten feet above his soybean field in northern Missouri, looking more like he’s playing a video game than driving a $350,000 high-tech piece of machinery.

As he rolls across the land in his John Deere combine, joystick in hand, three computer monitors offer him a host of information. He knows how much fertilizer was used, the beans’ moisture content, how full the grain tank is, and that he’s getting 60 bushels an acre.  

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Known for their calm temperaments and soft fleece, alpacas were at one time the next hot thing to backyard farmers. A decade ago, the market was frenetic, with some top of the line animals selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the bubble burst, leaving thousands of alpaca breeders with near-worthless herds. Today, craigslist posts across the country advertise “herd liquidations” and going-out-of-business deals on alpacas, some selling for as little as a dollar.

A researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture has filed a whistleblower complaint against the federal agency, alleging the USDA suppressed his research on a popular class of pesticides. We talk to the journalist who broke the story this week.


  • Carey Gillam is a contributing reporter for Harvest Public Media based at KCUR.

Updated: Wednesday, 11:30 a.m., to include USDA comment

A senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture filed a whistleblower complaint on Wednesday accusing the federal agency of suppressing research findings that could call into question the use of a popular pesticide class that is a revenue powerhouse for the agrichemical industry.

Erik Terstriep, perched in the captain’s chair of his combine, glides through eight rows of corn at a time. When he lifts up the harvesting head to turn the machine around, it lets out a quick, staccato, “beep, beep, beep.” Terstriep is fluent in the language of this machine, able to decipher every chirp.

“You sit in here long enough, you know what’s going on instantly by the tone or by how many times it beeps,” he said.

Earl Dotter / Oxfam America

Americans eat more chicken than any other meat, an average of 89 pounds a year.

That enormous demand for a high protein source that’s considered relatively inexpensive is literally feeding the $50 billion poultry industry. While many people are concerned with the welfare of meat animals, there appears to be little consumer concern for how the workers are treated.

Logan Layden / For Harvest Public Media

Generations of tilling and planting on the same land have left the nation’s soil in poor shape. And if farmers don’t change the way they grow crops, feeding the future won’t be easy.

As farmer Jordan Shearer from Slapout, Oklahoma, puts it, “we’re creating a desert environment by plowing the damn ground."

Taking a toll

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.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

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.

Beef, poultry and pork are staples of the American diet, baked into the country’s very culture, and backbones of the agricultural economy. But lately, the meats have been saddled with some baggage.

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

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.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

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.

One of the most important tools of modern medicine is in jeopardy. In the 20th century, antibiotics turned once-lethal infections into manageable diseases. They also contributed to the transformation of meat production in America.

Abby Wendle / Harvest Public Media

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.

Drive down a dirt road, a two-lane country highway, even many Interstates in the Midwest and the view out the window is likely to get monotonous: massive fields filled with acres of corn sprawled in all directions.

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.



Dinner. It comes every night, whether you look forward to coming up with a menu or dread figuring out how to fill your plate.

Maybe you're whipping up a gourmet supper. Perhaps you're indifferent — whatever your significant other makes is fine with you.

You could be running out for a quick bite or dining out for a four-course meal. Or maybe you're lucky just to heat up some leftovers.

Tell KCUR: What's for dinner?

Frank Morris / KCUR

China’s rapid industrialization and economic expansion over the past few decades has been a boon for U.S. farmers — especially soybean farmers. But China is slowing down, leaving American farmers exposed to the downside of being tied to the world’s second largest economy.

With tall stands of corn, and green soybean fields stretching for miles, the river bottom land around Langdon, Missouri seems a long, long way from Beijing, but economically it’s right next door.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Nilvio Aquino weaves through a tangled jungle of marijuana plants at an indoor grow facility in Denver.

“Throw your nose in there. It’s nice and pungent,” he said, pulling a seven-foot tall plant down to nose height at one of the company’s grow facilities.

Aquino, the lead grower for Sticky Buds, a chain of marijuana shops in Denver, is in his element among the plants. He’s like a proud gardener showing off blue ribbon varieties, bustling from plant to plant, picking out his favorites.

File: Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

As China’s president tours the U.S. this week, a bipartisan group of senators is urging the Obama Administration to push China to streamline trade of biotech crops. U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran from Kansas, and Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, all signed the letter.

Regulators in China have in the past rejected shipments of U.S. corn after determining they contained genetically modified varieties that had not been approved in China.

As the third youngest of four siblings, Karla Thieman, says her favorite chore growing up on her family’s farm in Concordia, Mo., came during calving season. Family members would take shifts getting up very early on cold mornings in February or March to check on the cows that were calving. “There was always this sense of excitement of potentially finding a new baby calf, and the person who found the calf or pulled the calf would get to name the calf so, that was always a very special honor.”

Abby Wendle / Harvest Public Media

In order to grow massive amounts of corn and soybeans, two crops at the center of the U.S. food system, farmers in the Midwest typically apply hundreds of pounds of fertilizer on every acre they farm. This practice allows food companies to produce, and consumers to consume, a lot of relatively cheap food.

But that fertilizer can leach through soil and wash off land, polluting our drinking water, destroying our fishing rivers, and turning a Connecticut-sized chunk of the Gulf of Mexico into an oxygen-depleted hypoxic zone, suffocating aquatic life.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Throughout the cropland of the Midwest, farmers use chemicals on their fields to nourish the plants and the soil. But excess nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients can wash off the fields and into streams, rivers and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

New tools can help farmers monitor their soil and water so they can become part of the solution to this widespread problem.

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

The Obama administration is challenging America to reduce food waste by half in 15 years.

In an announcement Wednesday, officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency said they would team up with food retailers, charity groups and local governments to meet that goal. 

(Read the NPR story here.)

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.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Jeff Siegfried knows just about anything you’d ever want to find out about a 50-acre corn field in northern Colorado.

The 24-year-old easily rattles off the various gadgets he uses to measure soil moisture, plant health, air temperature.

Peggy Lowe / Harvest Public Media

Adding extra preparations following the disastrous bird flu outbreak this year, federal authorities have tapped Kansas State University to share its course on responding to agricultural emergencies.

K-State's National Agricultural Biosecurity Center, or NABC, is helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency provide training to first responders, according to a release from K-State.

Amy Mayer

Farmers and agriculture officials are gearing up for another round of bird flu this fall, an outbreak they fear could be worse than the devastating spring crisis that hit egg layers and turkeys in the Midwest, wiped out entire farms and sent egg prices sky-high.

The potential target of the highly pathogenic avian flu this fall could be broilers, or meat chickens, as the outbreaks have been triggered and carried by wild birds, which will be flying south in great numbers this fall through several U.S. flyways.

File: Kristofer Husted / Harvest Public Media

Some of the nation’s largest farm groups are cheering after a federal judge blocked implementation Thursday of new rules governing water pollution.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson issued a preliminary injunction delaying the rules, which had been set to take effect Friday, saying that the Environmental Protection Agency had overstepped its bounds. Thirteen states sued the agency, seeking to prevent implementation, and Erickson said the “states are likely to succeed in their claim.”

File: / Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

The rural economy across the Midwest could take a hit this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects a 36 percent drop in net farm income, according to economic forecasts released Tuesday.

Lower prices for wheat, corn, soybeans and hogs will hurt many Midwest farms, though USDA economist Mitchell Morehart said the impact could be lessened on some farms thanks to lower production costs. Fuel and feed expenses are both lower this year, while labor costs are higher.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

Slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants throughout the country employ a lot of people. About a quarter of a million workers in the U.S. stun, kill and eviscerate the animals we eat. Most of those jobs are physically demanding and require few skills.

So why haven’t we started using more robots to cut up our beef?

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

Kendra Lawson doesn’t have the typical schedule of a nine–year-old.  With just a week of summer left, she spent her days working with her dad and mom on the farm and preparing her pigs to show at the state fair.

Here in central Missouri, the Lawson family raises cattle and pigs with a lot of help from Kendra. I met her at her house near Centralia, Mo., where she had just come back from helping her dad in the hay fields.