Grant Gerlock

Courtesy Mary Anne Andrei

Every year on the farm has its challenges. There are weeds, insects and random hailstorms. Unpredictable global markets can make or break a profitable crop. Recent years, though, have been especially troubling for the Hammond farm in York County in eastern Nebraska.

Local Boy Scouts carry flags down Illinois Street in a parage marking the 150th anniversary of the founding of Sidney, Nebraska.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Sidney, Nebraska, has prospered while many rural cities have struggled. For decades, the city has been home to Cabela’s, a major outdoor retail chain.

As Cabela’s completes a deal in which it will be bought by a rival, however, the future of Sidney’s economic engine is in doubt. As in other rural cities that have faced the loss or closure of major industry, the question is how the community will move on and grow in the 21st Century.

A new study found that staple crops like corn and wheat, which provide a large proportion of the world’s calories and U.S. farmers’ output, will likely see negative impacts from rising global temperatures.

Anti-pipeline signs greet visitors to Art Tanderup's farm near Neligh, Nebraska.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL oil pipeline, is scheduled to go before the Nebraska Public Service Commission next week, the final hurdle before the agency decides whether the pipeline’s path should be approved.

Nearly all of the ethanol blended into U.S. gasoline is made from corn, not from other plants.
File: Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

On a sweltering summer morning, Rob Mitchell surveys a plot of switchgrass at a research field near Lincoln, Nebraska. The grass is lush, green and nearly six feet tall.

“And it will get a couple feet taller than this,” says Mitchell, an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “So we’re putting on a lot of biomass right now.”

Charred trees scar a hillside on the Pine Ridge in northwest Nebraska after a massive wildfire in 2012.
File: Hilary Stohs-Krause / NET News

Wildfires burned through thousands of acres of Great Plains farm and ranch land in the 1980s. Today, wildfires are likely to char millions of acres.

The Great Plains are seeing more wildfires, according to a new study, leading researchers to ask why the fires are happening, and fire managers to examine what resources they will need to keep the blazes in check.

Farmer Tim Mueller raises corn and soybeans in Columbus, Nebraska. He is hoping to get into the chicken business by signing a contract with a subsidiary of Costco.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Tim Mueller has raised corn and soybeans on 530 acres near the city of Columbus, Nebraska, for decades, but today he is planning to take a big gamble.

The big box retailer Costco is building a new chicken processing plant in Fremont, about an hour from Mueller’s farm. The company plans for the plant to slaughter 2 million birds per week. To raise all those chickens, the company is recruiting about 120 farmers to sign on as contract poultry farmers.

A new hospital, financed by a USDA loan, is under construction in Syracuese, Nebraska, a town of under 2,000 people.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

President Donald Trump spent the campaign pledging to revive rural communities, where many voters have felt ignored by previous administrations. But after announcing staffing changes and budget plans that would make cuts to programs aimed at rural areas, critics are questioning whether the White House remains committed to that goal.

A stop sign at the edge of a Nebraska poultry farm serves as a biosecurity checkpoint.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Midwest farmers are warily watching as one strain of a highly contagious bird flu virus infects and kills humans in China and another less-worrying but still highly contagious strain infects a Tennessee poultry farm. Two years after a devastating bird flu outbreak in the Midwest, many farmers here say they now have a better idea of how to keep bird flu at bay.

Farmers are used to fixing their own machinery, but without the right software from tractor manufacturers they are effectively locked out of many models.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

A new tractor often costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, but not included in that price: the right to repair it. That has put farmers on the front lines of a battle pitting consumers against the makers of all kinds of consumer goods, from tractors to refrigerators to smart phones.  

Modern tractors, essentially, have two keys to make the engine work. One key starts the engine. Today’s tractors are high-tech machines that can steer themselves by satellite, so there is another key – a software key – to get into the programs that make a tractor run properly.

A grain elevator in Cozad, Nebraska, spells out the name of the town and represents the largest industry in the area, agriculture.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

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

Rural voters overwhelmingly chose President Donald Trump in the presidential election. But when it comes to the central campaign promise to get tough on trade, rural voters are not necessarily in sync with the administration.

The Green Plains Energy plant near Central City, Nebraska
File: Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

The Trump Administration is voicing its support for the ethanol industry, but without specifics it is hard to say what that means exactly for Midwest farmers.

In a letter (PDF) to industry leaders gathered at the National Ethanol Conference, President Donald Trump said renewable fuels “are essential to America’s energy strategy.”

The president wrote that he aims to reduce the regulatory burden on the renewable fuels industry, but did not detail specific plans.

Arctic Apples are genetically engineered to produce less of the enzyme that turns sliced apples brown.
Courtesy Okangan Specialty Fruits

Genetically engineered crops are nothing new. But new technology that allows scientists to alter plants more precisely and more cheaply is taking genetically engineered plants from the field to the kitchen.

The first version of the Arctic Apple, a genetically modified Golden Delicious, is headed for test markets in the Midwest in February, according to the company that produced it. It is the first genetically engineered apple, altered so that when it is cut, it doesn’t turn brown from oxidation.

A tractor owned by Nebraska farmer Elliot Chapman stands in a field of alfalfa. Chapman had to sell most of his equipment after experiencing financial trouble.
Courtesy Elliot Chapman

Farmers across the Midwest are trying to figure out how to get by at a time when expected prices for commodities from corn, to wheat, to cattle, to hogs mean they’ll be struggling just to break even.

“Prices are low, bins are full, and the dollar is strengthening as we speak and that’s just making the export thing a little more challenging,” says Paul Burgener of Platte Valley Bank in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

The E Energy ethanol plant near Adams, Neb., processes nearly 50 millions gallons of ethanol annually.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

A new U.S. government study claims ethanol is better for the environment than most scientists initially expected, boosting an industry that is a boon to Midwest farmers but challenged by many environmental groups and the oil industry.

The corporate headquarters of Cabela's has for decades been located in Sidney, Nebraska.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Cabela’s is known for big stores filled with museum-grade taxidermy and shelves piled with hunting and fishing gear. The Cabela’s store in Sidney, Nebraska, sits along Interstate 80 with a giant bull-elk sculpture facing the freeway. Next door is the sprawling company headquarters, complete with a forest-green Cabela’s water tower.

Signs for and against construction of a proposed Costco chicken processing plant, nicknamed Project Rawhide.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

A proposal that would jumpstart the chicken business in Nebraska has some residents concerned about the potential impact on the environment and are trying to block or delay its construction.

Costco, the warehouse retailer and grocery chain, plans to build a giant $300 million chicken slaughterhouse on the south side of the town of Fremont in eastern Nebraska.

Rober Moodie, 89, joined the family business when he returned to West Point, Neb., to practive law in 1952.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Fewer young attorneys are choosing to set up shop in small towns and take over for retiring professionals.

Taylor Keen is a member of the Omaha Tribe and the Cherokee Nation. He's trying to revitalize the corn growing traditions of his ancestors.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Long before European settlers plowed the Plains, corn was an important part of the diet of Native American tribes like the Omaha, Ponca and Cherokee. Today, members of some tribes are hoping to revive their food and farming traditions by planting the kinds of indigenous crops their ancestors once grew.

The vast majority of glyphosate is used on farm fields, on crops that are modified to withstand the herbicide. But it is also common on lawns and gardens.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

After dueling reviews of research studies, scientific panels from the U.S. government and the World Health Organization are having a hard time agreeing whether glyphosate, the most common weed killer in the United States, can cause cancer. Known by the brand name RoundUp, glyphosate is sprayed on farm fields and lawns all across the country.

Nebraska farmer Noah Seim evaluates a corn field where cover crops were grown between rows in an effort to improve the quality of both the soil on his farm and water runoff.
Brian Seifferlein / Harvest Public Media

Living in the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska means understanding that the water in your well may contain high levels of nitrates and may not be safe to drink.

“When our first son was born in 1980, we actually put a distiller in for our drinking water here in the house,” says Ken Seim, who lives in the Platte Valley near the town of Chapman, Nebraska. “And at that time our water level was a 12 parts per million.”

Meat and poultry labels can be crammed with claims about how animals are raised. Many are not backed by formal USDA definitions.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

When shoppers browse meat at the grocery store they are confronted with all kinds of brands and labels, making it hard to tell whether the meat they buy comes from animals that were raised humanely. Organic producers want to answer that question more clearly, but conventional farmers are charging that proposed changes to organic standards would amount to unfair government backing of the organic industry.

Most of the soybeans, like those pictured here, and corn grown in the United States are geneticall modified. Some new varities are not required to undergo federal regulation.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

In a brightly-lit lab at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, workers with tweezers hunch over petri dishes scattered with sprouted sorghum seeds. Sorghum produces grain and also a sugary stalk.

But this sorghum has a genetic tweak, explains plant scientist Tom Clemente. Instead of sugar, it’s engineered to make oil, which could be used to make fuel or chemicals.

“You know if we can get oil in a stock of sorghum anywhere greater than 5 percent, that’s a winner,” Clemente says. “That’s a grand slam.”

The meat found on American dinner tables is produced by slaughterhouses, which remain among the most dangerous places to work in the country.
Brian Seifferlein / Harvest Public Media

The meatpacking plants that enable American consumers to find cheap hamburger and chicken wings in the grocery store are among the most dangerous places to work in the country. Federal regulators and meat companies agree more must be done to make slaughterhouses safer, and while there are signs the industry is stepping up its efforts, danger remains.

The rate of meatpacking workers who lose time or change jobs because they’re injured is 70 percent higher than the average for manufacturing workers overall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A slaughterhouse is a safer place to work than it used to be, but data gathered by federal regulators doesn’t capture all the risks faced by meat and poultry workers, according to a new government report.

Today's school lunch includes healthier spins on old standards. This meal at a Nebraska high school includes a hamburger with no cheese on a whole wheat bun and a fresh salad, instead of french fries.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Schools across the U.S. served more than 5 billion meals in the national school lunch program to millions of students last year. Each one of the meals has to meet federal rules for nutrition. Now, those rules are up for debate and Congress could impose changes on the cafeteria.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

During the season of Lent, many Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays. Fish, though, is considered fair game, so the Friday night fish fry has become an annual tradition at churches across the country. 

Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter you’ll find hundreds of hungry parishioners lining up at church fish frys around the Midwest.  All of that frying uses up vegetable oil that can just go to waste, but there are some people putting it to good use.

Friday Night Tradition

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

There are mounting concerns about the direction of the farm economy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects farm income to fall for the third year in a row in 2016. At the same time, farmers are borrowing billions more from banks to get by.

The change in farm fortunes follows a drop in prices for corn and soybeans, the top Midwest crops. Supply and demand are both working against the commodity markets. Farmers have raised an oversupply of grain, while at the same time the slow global economy has brought down demand.

At the Lee Valley consignment sale near Tekamah, Neb., dozens of used tractors, planters and other equipment were on the auction block for farmers trying to save a few extra dollars. It was a muddy day, with trucks and four-wheelers leaving deep black ruts — fitting conditions for an industry wallowing in bad news.

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

The middle of winter is when the stream of locally grown fruits and vegetables in the Midwest begins to freeze up.

Nicole Saville knows first-hand. Saville is the produce manager at Open Harvest, a grocery coop in Lincoln, Neb. The store promotes food grown by local farmers, but this time of year there just isn’t much available.

“We can get kale and some culinary herbs this time of year,” Saville said. “Otherwise the only other local option is a soil mix in our garden center.”

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