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.

Farmer Wendy Johnson markets hogs, chickens, eggs and seasonal turkeys from her farm near Charles City, Iowa.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

On a cloudy summer day, Iowa farmer Wendy Johnson lifts the corner of a mobile chicken tractor, a lightweight plastic frame covered in wire mesh that has corralled her month-old meat chickens for a few days, and frees several dozen birds to peck the surrounding area at will. Soon, she’ll sell these chickens to customers at local markets in eastern Iowa.

The demand for beef, pork and chicken raised on smaller farms closer to home is growing. Now, some Midwest farmers, like Johnson, are exploring how to graze livestock to meet those demands while still earning a profit.

The South Sudanese Community Lutheran Church meets at Zion Lutheran Church in Denison, Iowa, on Sunday afternoons.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

This story is part of the special Harvest Public Media series United And Divided, which explores the links and rifts between rural and urban America.

As Highway 30 enters Denison, Iowa, a city of 8,000, the national fast food chains stand next to Mexican groceries and restaurants. In this small city near the Nebraska border, waves of immigrants have been arriving since at least the 1980s.

Farmers complained when China rejected shipments of U.S. corn after finding unapproved varieties.
File: Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

This story was updated at 3:12 p.m.

A federal jury in Kansas City, Kansas, awarded nearly $218 million to Kansas corn farmers after finding seed giant Syngenta AG was negligent when it introduced strains of genetically engineered corn seed into the marketplace that were not approved for import by the Chinese government.  

The eight-member jury returned its $217,700,000 verdict after an 18-day-long trial, the first of eight certified class actions lawsuits against Syngenta brought in state court.

A study that received funding from the Leopold Center demonstrated that planting small grains, such as the oats pictured here in 2016, can reduce the need for chemical inputs.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

A leading research center focused on local farmers and environmental conservation is hanging on by a thread, even as the movement to diversify agriculture, which it helped launch, continues to thrive.

At Iowa State University's Plant Sciences Institute, Pat Schnable leads a group that collaborates with data scientists.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

This summer, in cornfields in Iowa and Nebraska, about a thousand small point-and-shoot digital cameras will be enclosed in waterproof cases, mounted on poles and attached to solar-powered battery chargers. They will take pictures every ten minutes as plants grow; all part of a plan to create better seeds.

“We watch plants go through their normal growth and development and also we watch them respond to environmental stressors, like drought and so forth,” says Pat Schnable, director of the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University.

The nation has a new agriculture secretary.

The U.S. Senate on Monday voted to confirm former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to lead the Department of Agriculture. He takes over a department that was without a top boss for three months after former secretary Tom Vilsack resigned. Vilsack served the entire eight years of the Obama administration (one of the longest-serving agriculture secretaries in recent decades).

Three months after his nomination, Sonny Perdue faces a confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate Monday for the post of secretary of agriculture.

If confirmed, Perdue will find a desk at USDA piled high with priorities and will be one of the last members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet to be seated.

Rob Fleming, a grand-nephew of Henry A. Wallace, uses this 1947 Ford 2n as he works to restore the prairie around his childhood home in Carlisle, Iowa.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Hybrid seed corn and nitrogen fertilizer transformed farming in the 20th century, but they are also closely tied to some of today’s major agricultural challenges. That has prompted some members of two families that played pivotal roles in developing farm innovations to work on putting a lighter, 21st century stamp on the landscape.

In Carlisle, Iowa, Rob Fleming still uses the 1947 Ford 2n tractor he drove on the family farm as a teenager. Back then, neat rows of corn lined his family’s fields. Not anymore.

President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, testified in a confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture committee today, but remains far from the head job at USDA.

Iowa Farmers Union president Aaron Lehman says farmers, politicians and consumers will need to work together to draft the best possible Farm Bill.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

As President Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, goes in front of the Senate, it bucks a recent trend of Midwest leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And it is making many in the farm country of the Midwest and Great Plans a little leery.

A Colorado farm field
File: Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

The agriculture sector needs to ramp up its response to climate change, especially in the Midwest, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  

Researchers at the University of Maryland used climate projections and historical trends in agricultural productivity to predict how changes in temperature and rainfall will impact food production.

Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students Liz Hada, left, and Melissa Garcia Rodriguez say they have experienced racial tension in some of their classes, despite feeling generally welcomed by most students and faculty.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Farmers in the U.S. like to point out that their products feed people all over the world. And while this is a diverse country, the people working on farms and elsewhere in agriculture often don’t reflect the nation’s demographics. Changing that is becoming a priority, in hopes new people will bring fresh ideas to meet some of our food system’s greatest challenges.

Pigs at a hog barn near Odelbolt, Iowa, sometimes receive antibiotics in their feed.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

In a hog barn in rural Iowa, veterinarian Paul Thomas’s approach sends pigs scurrying. He watches for unusual behavior. As he walks the length of the barn, Thomas notices one of the two-month-old hogs nestled against the railing at the edge of its pen and reaches over to gently pet the pig’s back. The pig shakes its head and drowsily gets up.

“He’s just sleepy,” Thomas says, and by the time he’s spoken the words, the pig has trotted off to join its pen-mates.

In the next room, Thomas hears something different.

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.

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