Amy Mayer

Reporter, Harvest Public Media

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also  previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth.  She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times,  Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.

Amy has a bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies from Wellesley College and a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Amy’s favorite public radio program is The World.

Field agronomist Angie Rieck-Hinz counts rows of corn in a study in Wright County, Iowa.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

As another harvest season wraps up, Midwest farmers are once again facing low commodity prices amid enormous supplies. And when they recover from the long days bringing in the grain, they will eventually sit down with their books and try to figure out how best to farm again next year.

Some of the world's largest agribusiness companies announced plans to combine, if regulators sign on.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

The massive industry that supplies farmers with the tools to raise crops is on the brink of a watershed moment. High-profile deals that would see some of the largest global agri-chemical companies combine are in the works and could have ripple effects from farm fields to dinner tables across the globe.

Protestors object to the presence of genetically modified organisms in food at a rally in Denver, Colo.
File: Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Five of the six biggest companies that produce and sell seeds and chemicals to the world’s farmers are pursuing deals that could leave a market dominated by just three giant, global companies. They say getting bigger means bringing more sophisticated and innovative solutions to farmers faster, but opponents say consolidation has irreversible downsides.

Iowa farmer Paul Heineman harvests a field of oats, marking the first time his family has planted oats in decades.
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.

Central Iowa farmer Roger Zylstra put a rye cover crop on strips of this field after he harvested corn last fall.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

On a gray day, just as the rain begins to fall, Roger Zylstra stops his red GMC Sierra pick-up truck on the side of the road and hops down into a ditch in Jasper County, Iowa. It takes two such stops before he unearths amid the tall weeds and grasses what he’s looking for.

“Here is one of the tiles,” he says, pointing to a pipe about six or eight inches in diameter. Water trickles from it into a culvert that runs under the road after flowing through a network of underground drainage lines below his farm field. “That’s where it outlets.”

St. Louis-based Monsanto, a world agribusiness leader, has agreed to be acquired by the German company Bayer.

Bayer will pay $57 billion dollars, or $128 per share, in a deal that has been in the works since last spring. Regulators still must approve the move. Two other mergers are underway in the industry, with Dow set to combine with DuPont (already the owner of Iowa-based DuPont Pioneer) and ChemChina planning to buy the Swiss company Syngenta.

Growing up on their family farm in West Bend, Iowa, Haley Banwart and her brother Jack were like any 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," says Banwart, 22. "I can drive a tractor, I can bale square hay. But it was just expected that my brother would return home."

Her family never really discussed it. "It was always kind of the unwritten rule," she says. "My brother would go back and farm" — and she'd find another path.

Pictured in the corn fields of the student-run farm she helped manage this summer, Taryn Riediger is an aspiring farmer.
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.

“It was always kind of the unwritten rule that my brother would go back and farm,” she says.

Miscanthus, shown growing in Iowa, is a perennial grass that could help keep nutrients out of waterways.
Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

A new study supports planting perennial grasses on current cropland as a way to reduce nutrient loss from farm fields.

The native black chokeberry is touted for its health benefits, leaving some Midwest growers hoping to capitalize.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

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.”

A weathered wooden shed that holds wheelbarrows, hoes and other basic tools is the beacon of the Student Organic Farm, a two-acre swath within the larger horticultural research farm at Iowa State University.

On a warm spring evening, a half-dozen students gather here, put on work gloves and begin pulling up weeds from the perennial beds where chives, strawberries, rhubarb and sage are in various stages of growth.

"I didn't know how passionate I [would] become for physical work," says culinary science major Heidi Engelhardt.

Processed foods generally don't experience price spikes.
Kristi Koser / Harvest Public Media

At the grocery store, processed foods like cereal, crackers and candy usually maintain the same price for a long time, and inch up gradually. Economists call these prices “sticky” because they don’t move much even as some of the commodities that go into them do.

Take corn, for example, which can be a major food player as a grain, starch or sweetener.  

Corn prices can fluctuate widely, so why don’t products containing corn also see price changes? Why does your cereal pretty much cost $3 per box every week?

It’s partly thanks to the futures market.

A weekday work session on the Student Organic Farm at Iowa State University has members weeding a perennial bed.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

A weathered wooden shed that holds wheelbarrows, hoes and other basic tools is the beacon of the Student Organic Farm, a two-acre swath within the Iowa State University Horticulture Research Farm. On a warm spring evening, a half-dozen students gather here, put on work gloves and begin pulling up weeds from the perennial beds where chives, strawberries, rhubarb and sage are in various stages of growth.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

The path to normalized relations between the United States and Cuba made a stop in farm country Friday.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his Cuban counterpart, Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero, toured Aaron Lehman’s corn and soybean farm in central Iowa. They talked about water, soil, and energy and compared strategies for managing hog manure, which has been a problem in Iowa.

Vilsack said he hopes Cuba can increasingly be an export market for farm products like soybeans, rice and, eventually, poultry.

Expansion in the country’s beef cattle herd is bringing cheaper meat prices to the grocery store just in time for the summer grilling season, but those reduced prices might get some scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

Austin Kirk / Creative Commons

You’re about to start paying less for eggs at the grocery store because egg farms are recovering from last year’s bird flu outbreak a bit faster than expected.

A farm hand on the Nelson farm in north Iowa drives a tractor pulling a 24-row planter as it drops corn seeds into the field.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Near Alexander, Iowa, on a cloudy spring Tuesday, Josh Nelson watches a bright red Case IH Magnum tractor pull a 24-row planter and crest a small hill, dropping corn seed at careful intervals. Nelson says his family farm dodged a weather bullet this week, but it’s just one of many hurdles this season promises.

Hungry animals come right up to the feed being delivered at the Iowa State University Beef Nutrition Farm, where researchers can test different feed formulas.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

On a cold windy morning, Kelly Nissen feeds the cows at the Iowa State University Beef Nutrition Farm north of Ames. Far from just tossing hay, he weighs out specific rations and carefully delivers them to numbered feed bunks.

“When you’re feeding, you’re always double-checking yourself to make sure it’s going in the right lot,” Nissen says.

On a cold windy morning, Kelly Nissen feeds the cows at the Iowa State University Beef Nutrition Farm. He weighs out specific rations and carefully delivers them to numbered feed bunks.

"When you're feeding, you're always double-checking yourself to make sure it's going in the right lot," Nissen says. It's important — because these cows munch on more than just the common mix of hay, corn and distiller's grain. They're also charged with testing out different formulas developed by the researchers in the animal science department at Iowa State.

Iowa farmer Kelly Tobin has experimented with cover crops for 10 years in the hopes of increasing the health of his soil.
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.

File: Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Newly published research shows the pig virus that swept through the United States beginning in 2013 and killed more than six million piglets could survive a trip around the world, if it catches the right ride.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Hundreds of lawsuits against seed company Syngenta could develop into a major class-action potentially involving almost every corn farmer in the country.

Courtesy Sebastián Lorenzo Pisarello / Senasa

The normally dry northern region of Argentina has a problem of biblical proportions.

Farmers there are struggling with a massive outbreak of locusts. Dark clouds of the green-brown bugs cast shadows when they fly overhead and when they land, they cover the ground.

“It is really, really, amazing when you see the locusts because you see millions of them together,” said Juan Pablo Karnatz, who raises cattle in Santiago del Estero, about 600 miles northwest of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. “When you think they can be more millions flying around, it could be a disaster.”

Courtesy Adam Dolezal

The persistent decline of honeybees has scientists scrambling to understand what’s causing the problem and how to correct it. Humans may be part of the problem.

U.S. beekeepers report losing about a third of their colonies each year and the figure increased from 2014 to 2015.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

For almost a year, presidential candidates have been crisscrossing Iowa, wooing voters in a state that relies on agriculture for about one-third of its economy. But even here, most voters live in cities or suburbs and don’t have a first-hand connection to the farm.

That makes it difficult to get candidates talking about food system issues from school lunches, to crop supports, to water quality. Yet these all fall under the federal agriculture department. If candidates aren’t talking about them in Iowa, it’s possible they’ll be left out of the campaigns entirely.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

The time is ripe for the sharing economy in farm country.

Much like other Web-based companies like Airbnb or Uber, a site dedicated to leasing and using farm equipment is making available expensive machinery during the times producers need it most. And the idea is taking root as crop and livestock prices trend lower and costs climb higher.

“You get innovative when things get tighter,” said Chad Hart, an agriculture economist at Iowa State University. “We're looking for ways to enhance income right now especially in a low margin environment.”

File: Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

One of the ways researchers study and try to contain outbreaks is by tracing the virus’ path. But that was especially confusing with the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus, or PED.

The Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Iowa State University first identified PED in the U.S. in May 2013. Then, they went back to samples from hog farms they had in storage and were able to track the virus back to an Ohio farm in April 2013.

Pipestone Veterinary Services

Veterinarian and researcher Scott Dee doesn’t much look the part of a detective, in his jeans and company polo shirt.

But when a virus never before seen in North America swept through the network of hog farms where he works, Pipestone Veterinary Services, in January 2014, he had his first clue.

“These farms had the same pattern of infection,” Dee said.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

A fast-spreading virus never before seen in the United States hit the pork industry more than two years ago, racking up roughly $1 billion in losses and spiking prices for consumers.

While researchers are still trying to track the culprit, it appears to be an intrepid world traveler that may have been delivered directly to farmers’ barn doors, creating an intriguing international back story traced to China.

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.

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