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. Amyââââ

Courtesy Stephen Carmody / Michigan Radio

  President Barak Obama signed the new farm bill into law Friday at Michigan State University in East Lansing, ending years of negotiations and wrangling.

With farm equipment, hay bales and crates of apples setting the stage, the president told the crowd that this farm bill – officially called the Agriculture Act of 2014 – will save taxpayer dollars while also offering support to farmers and ranchers. And he says that helps the whole country.

greetarchurch / Flickr--CC

It’s getting so close now … Last week the U.S. House passed the Agriculture Act of 2014, the new farm bill. The Senate is expected to take it up Monday. President Obama’s signature could be on it in the coming days and then … boom!

Pork producers across the country are grappling with a virus that's going after piglets. Livestock economists estimate the porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, virus has already killed about 1 million baby pigs in the U.S. since it was first found in Iowa last spring.

Canada reported its first case Thursday, and the disease shows no sign of abating. That has veterinarians worried.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Pork producers across the country are continuing to grapple with a virus that’s killing their piglets. Experts estimate Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) virus has already killed about 1 million baby pigs and the disease shows no sign of abating.

Frank Morris / Harvest Public Media

For the second straight year, farmers are heading into a new year without a farm bill. The massive package provides government support for farmers and ranchers. But, divisions in Congress, including over the nutrition programs that make up the bulk of the spending, have kept it from the president’s desk.

Farmers say it’s difficult to plan their crops and make other business decisions without a farm bill. Instead, Iowa State University agricultural economist Chad Hart says farmers must focus on the information they have.

A bipartisan group of senators is pressuring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finalize changes to the way poultry is inspected.

The new system is controversial. Advocates say it would save taxpayer money by shifting certain inspection duties from federal employees to company workers and allowing for faster processing. Some inspectors and consumer groups, though, oppose the changes and say it could compromise food safety.

House Agriculture Committee / Facebook page

If it seems like Congress just can’t get the farm bill done, well … that’s because it can’t.

All year long, Washington lawmakers have been saying they want to pass a full five-year farm bill. But even though leaders of the House-Senate conference committee say they are close, they have acknowledged it just won’t get done this year. They’re pushing it off until January.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Farmers and scientists have long understood that what lives beneath the soil affects how crops grow. Often, they work to fight plant diseases—warding off infectious viruses and damaging fungi, for example. But now some microbiologists are focused on how to harness the good things microbes can do, with the goal of increasing farmers’ yields and diminishing their dependence on chemical inputs.

School districts in both Kansas and Missouri spent more than ten percent of their food budget buying from local farms in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Census. That means efforts to fill cafeteria trays with local foods have plenty of room to grow.

Across the Midwest, most states report 25 to 50 percent of their school districts are buying from local farms, growing edible gardens or teaching nutrition—all parts of USDA’s Farm to School effort.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Hot-button food issues of the day, such as the use of genetically modified organisms or the treatment of livestock, tend to pit large industries against smaller activist groups. Often, both sides will claim the science supports what they are saying. That can leave consumers, most of whom aren’t scientists, in a bit of a bind.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Across the rural Midwest, landscapes are dotted with tall, cylindrical storage containers for grain. Some belong to commercial grain elevators, but increasingly farmers want to market their grain throughout the year so they install their own storage bins right on the farm. Maintaining the quality of that grain requires vigilance—and can present safety concerns. In particular, the risk of entrapment when a person enters a bin to check on the grain.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

When a new disease — known as PEDV —turned up in the U.S. hog industry in May and threatened to kill whole litters of piglets, the National Pork Board quickly responded with $450,000 in research funding.

A fast-track review process put funds in U.S. labs in two weeks, said Paul Sundberg, the board’s vice president for science and technology. Normally, it takes months for the board’s volunteer committees to decide research priorities.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

On a clear fall day in central Iowa, Aaron Lehman climbed into the cab of his green combine with a screwdriver to do some maintenance. He was hoping his corn had a couple more weeks to grow before harvesting because the price per bushel this fall is much lower than it has been for the past three years.

Corn farmers have been riding high prices for the last few years. But an expected bumper crop has prices falling this harvest season, and many economists expect the price of corn to drop to its lowest level in recent years.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Howard Hill pulls his red Chevy pick-up truck up to a barn near Union, Iowa, that houses 1,000 of his hogs. In the truck’s bed is a 55-pound bag of Rumensin 90, a common antibacterial ingredient in cattle feed that helps reduce bloating. Pigs don’t eat it. Hill brought it here to dump into the manure pit under the hogs.

Hill is among the many Midwestern pork producers who use deep pits under their barns to accumulate manure throughout the year. In the fall, after fields are harvested, the nutrient-rich slurry gets pumped out of the pits and injected into the cropland.

Courtesy / Val Wagner

The farm bill is, once again, entering a critical stretch. As was the case last year, the current law expires at the end of September. There’s no election to dissuade elected officials from tackling the major piece of agriculture and nutrition policy—but Congress does have a pretty full plate, with the crisis in Syria, immigration reform and a measure to continue funding federal government programs all set to come to a head.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Danelle Myer owns a small vegetable farm and like many other small farmers, she’s passionate about the kind of operation she wants to grow: a small, local business.

Myer’s farm just outside Logan, Iowa, sits in the middle of true farm country. Thousands of acres of row crops make up the landscape. Her vegetable farm is almost out of place, even though Myer is a native – she grew up on her family’s conventional farm, a quarter-acre of which she has turned into One Farm.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was in farm country Monday continuing to push Congress to send a farm bill to President Obama’s desk.

Vilsack doesn’t consider extending the farm bill beyond the September 30 expiration a sound option.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

The world’s soil is in trouble, even in the fertile Midwest. Some experts warn that if degradation continues unchecked, topsoil could be gone in 60 years. That has implications for agriculture and the broader environment.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

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.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a picture embedded with lots of words worth?

Quite a lot in terms of connecting with an audience, according to Douglas Gayeton, who brought his California-based Lexicon of Sustainability project to Iowa at the end of May.

The non-profit organization, which Gayeton founded with his wife Laura Howard-Gayeton, creates large collage images of farmers and their farms overlain with text. Each collage is meant to explain some aspect of sustainability that the farmer practices.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

I met Mark Kenney on his family’s farm in Nevada, Iowa, when I was working on a story about farmer taxes. He turned out to be perfect for that—a farmer with a keen interest in spreadsheets.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

At a basin in central Iowa’s Onion Creek Watershed, Sean McCoy pulls a state truck up near a brand-new wetland. It looks like a construction zone, with lots of bare earth.

Raising pork can be a tough business for producers, who've lately been watching feed prices rise along with the cost of corn. That's one reason why a small but growing number of former commodity pork producers are trying their luck with specialty breeds instead. These premium pigs, raised on small farms with methods that appeal to consumers, can also fetch a premium price.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

There’s more than one way to sell a pig.

And when the hog market plunged to 8 cents a pound in 1998, Iowa producer Randy Hilleman decided it was time to make a change. Hilleman raises Berkshire pigs, a breed that’s fattier than traditional pigs and costs a little more to raise. Back then, that was hurting him.

“If we took them into Marshalltown, [Iowa] to the big packing plant, we would get docked because they’re too fat,” Hilleman said. “What they pay on is lean, and we like to have some fat on ours.”

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Mark Tjelmeland’s 700 free-range chickens lay 45 dozen eggs per day in indoor nesting boxes on his farm in McCallsburg, Iowa. The rest of the time, unless it’s too cold, they roam and peck in a fenced pasture.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

This tax season is an unusual one for farmers.

“Farmers didn’t necessarily have a great crop to harvest, but they harvested a huge amount of income last year. It was one of the biggest years, inflation-adjusted, since going back to the 1970s,” said Roger McEowen, who runs the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at Iowa State University.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

At an open house at DuPont Pioneer’s Dallas Center Corn Research Center near Des Moines, Iowa, retired corn breeder Bill Ambrose marveled at the tools available today to do the job he did for nearly 40 years.

“We could do a few hundred things and they do mega thousands of things,” Ambrose said.

In his day, he said, much more was done by hand—a team of five might harvest 250 plots in a day, while now “these guys that work in this place here have got huge combines that they can harvest 250 plots an hour,” he said.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

The vast majority of the corn and soybeans in United States grow from seeds that have been genetically modified. The technology is barely 30 years old and the controversy surrounding it somewhat younger. But how did it even become possible?

Photo courtesy of Whistleblower.org

Retired federal inspector Phyllis McKelvey spent 44 years looking for blemishes and other defects on chicken carcasses. She started as an inspector’s helper, worked her way up, and in 1998, became part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture trial.

“I was one of the first group of inspectors ever put on HIMP,” she said in an interview from her home in north Alabama.

Clay Masters / Iowa Public Media

When Congress recessed for the election season without passing a new farm bill, many observers thought farmers would demand explanations as campaign trails blazed through small towns.

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