Grant Gerlock

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.

Nearly a third of the food available to be eaten in the U.S. is thrown out instead. And all of that wasted food comes with a steep price tag.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

The average age of American farmers has been climbing for decades, and many say rural towns are at-risk without new blood. There are enough people who want to farm, but there’s trouble connecting beginning farmers and the communities that need them.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

The EPA wants to roll back the amount of ethanol mixed into the fuel supply for 2014, worrying farmers across the Corn Belt. Ethanol supporters warn that if the EPA follows through, the rural economy will take the fall. But many economists predict a soft landing.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

  For the first time in nearly 10 years, the nation’s beef herd may be poised for growth, which could mean relief from rising meat prices. But with the fewest cattle in the beef supply since the 1960s, slow growth won’t cut prices anytime soon.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

New herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans are a step closer to reaching farm fields in the U.S. They would help farmers control weeds that are no longer killed by the popular herbicide, Roundup.

Dow Agrosciences has engineered new crops that can withstand the herbicide 2,4-D, giving farmers a new tool against weeds resistant to Roundup.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

With rootworms building resistance to genetically modified corn that makes its own pesticide, seed companies are working on new crops that target the insects’ genes. But some worry about unintended consequences when the technology moves from the lab to the field.

No need to hoard milk and ice cream over New Year’s Day. Turns out, the “dairy cliff” isn’t as steep as we may have once thought.

For over a year, farm bill watchers have warned that the milk prices would balloon to $7-8 per gallon if the farm bill expires without a replacement – sending us over what has been termed the “dairy cliff.”

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

As farmers across the Midwest have simplified the landscape and plowed up grassland to grow more corn and soybeans, habitat for pheasants, quail and other grassland birds has become increasingly scarce and their numbers are falling.

In Nebraska, wild pheasant concentrations have fallen 86 percent since their peak in the 1960s. The pheasant harvest during hunting season in Iowa is off 63 percent from the highs reached in the 1970s. In areas that used to be overrun, you’ll struggle to find a pheasant now.

The federal government proposed Friday to cut the amount of corn-based ethanol oil companies have to put in the gasoline supply, by more than a billion gallons. Much of the corn used to make that ethanol is grown right here in the Midwest. 

Cutting the amount of corn ethanol required in the Renewable Fuel Standard essentially puts a cap on demand for corn from the Midwest.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Nancy Friesen sat nervously at the controls of a giant John Deere combine that made the corn stalks look like match sticks. It was her second day in the driver’s seat of the giant machine and she normally works in the garden, not the field. But during harvest time, everyone in the family pitches in.

One year after the worst drought in decades, farm families all over the Midwest are preparing to bring in a record-breaking corn crop. While there’s some uncertainty in the air thanks to falling corn prices, this is a time of year when farm families focus on the task at hand.

Corn prices are down and the farm bill is stalled in Congress. So there's a lot of uncertainly in the air as harvest season gets into full swing across the Midwest. But this is a time of year when farm families like the Friesens in Henderson, Neb., come together to focus on the big task at hand: the corn harvest.

Everyone in the family has a job to do.

"Like my dad — he drives auger wagon," Curt Friesen says. "He drives auger wagon only. That's all he's done since 1976, I think. ... My wife, Nancy, she drives the combine; that's her job."

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, here's a reality about farming. From the earliest days of this country, it's been an uncertain business, and for many decades, national policies have been designed to smooth out that risk. But, of course, the risk never entirely goes away. You can never control the rain, for example, and lately the uncertainty has been growing. Corn prices are down. The farm bill is stalled in Congress and there's a sense that good times may be fading.

From Nebraska, Grant Gerlock of NET News brings us his report.

Courtesy / Ben Wheeler/Pheasants Forever and Nebraska Game & Parks Commission

In recent years, farmers in the Midwest have transformed millions of acres of prairie grass to rows of corn. High crop prices are a big motivation, but some also believe crop insurance is encouraging farmers to roll the dice on less productive land.

Rod Christen and his sister Kay farm corn, soybeans and wheat on their land near the small town of Steinauer, Neb. But their main crop is grass.

“Big bluestem is our big producer,” said Rod Christen. “It’s kind of our Cadillac grass.”

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