Agriculture

Stories about agriculture

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.

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.

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.

Ben and Leticia Ward have built their Colorado farm using decommissioned military gear and found materials.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Ben and Leticia Ward’s farm in Fountain, Colorado, just outside Colorado Springs, doesn’t look like an army base. But it’s not hard to uncover whiffs of military influence at Little Roman Farm.

A stack of sturdy fiberglass bins next to a greenhouse seem benign, ready to be put to use as brooding bins for chickens or an aquaponics system to grow veggies and fish at the same time. The bins once housed Joint Direct Attack Munition, or part of a system that controls “smart bombs.”

Tributaries that feed into the Missouri River often bring nitrates and pesticide runoff from farms into water that eventually dumps into the Gulf of Mexico.
Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

With the legal battle raging over the implementation of controversial Obama Administration clean water rules, the next president is likely to face the daunting task of formulating a comprehensive plan to cut-down on water pollution from Midwest farms.

Massive harvests of corn and soybeans have depressed prices.
file: Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

The current run of down times for farmers are only going to get worse, according to many farmers.

Nearly 80 percent of the 400 farmers and agricultural producers surveyed in October by Purdue University researchers said they expect bad financial times in the next year, a jump of 11 percentage points since a September survey.

A handler and a hog compete for the blue ribbon at the 2013 Colorado State Fair.
file: Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Showing livestock at the county fair can be a great source of pride for a youngster in farm country. It can also be a source of a novel flu virus capable of starting a pandemic.

According to new findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 people – 16 of them children – tested positive for strains of influenza never before seen in humans after attending agricultural fairs in Ohio and Michigan in August of this 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.

All students at Battle Elementary School in Columbia, Missouri, have access to a free breakfast every school day.
Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

Chantelle DosRemedios was pregnant with her second child when she and her husband both lost their jobs in Rhode Island. Like millions of others, she depended on a federal program designed to aid in early childhood development to keep her children fed.

Moms and kids who qualify can participate in a federal program called Women, Infants and Children, or WIC. The program provides nutritious food packages and other benefits to some 8 million moms and young kids nationwide.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton speak separately in Iowa in September.
John Pemble; Clay Masters / IPR

While the third and final presidential debate set for Wednesday evening will surely be marked by the candidates’ disagreements, a forum debating their positions on food and farm issues Wednesday morning was notable for showcasing where the nominees agree.

Skinned, sliced, battered, deep-fried animal testicles served as Rocky Mountain Oysters at Bruce's Bar in Severance, Colorado.
Ann Marie Awad / for Harvest Public Media

A guy who covers agriculture in the West who’s never put a skinned, sliced, battered, deep-fried bull testicle into a cup of cocktail sauce and then into his mouth? I couldn’t let it stand.

They’re known by many names: lamb fries, bull fries, Montana tenders, huevos de toro, cowboy caviar. In my corner of Colorado, they’re Rocky Mountain oysters and I somehow coaxed myself into thinking I needed to try them to be more a part of the place I live, to be a true blue Coloradan.

The Delta Montrose Electric Association outside Montrose, Colorado, developed micro-hydro power plants in partnership with local water users.
Cally Carswell / for Inside Energy

In the 1930s, rural electric cooperatives brought electricity to the country’s most far-flung communities, transforming rural economies. In Western Colorado, one of these co-ops is again trying to spur economic development, partly by generating more of their electricity locally from renewable resources, like water in irrigation ditches and the sun.

Hampton Creek

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has ruled that the American Egg Board acted inappropriately when it carried out a two-year media campaign against Hampton Creek, the maker of an egg-free mayonnaise.

In a controversy lightly labeled “mayo-gate,” the USDA also concluded in a memo posted Thursday that AEB officials and former CEO Joanne Ivy tried to cover up their conduct by deleting emails.

Frank Morris / KCUR 89.3

Salina, Kansas, may seem an unlikely Mecca for environmental activists, but it is — thanks to the Land Institute.

The Land Institute started with the bold idea that for farming to work long-term, farmers have to reverse a fundamental mistake they made 10,000 years ago when they started growing crops that have to be planted annually.

Now, after four decades developing alternative ways of raising grain, the leader and funder of the Land Institute, Wes Jackson, is stepping down – just as the scientific research going on there is ramping up.

Carrico Implement in Hays, Kansas, plans to focus on parts and repairs rather than selling new equipment.
Bryan Thompson / for Harvest Public Media

This year was a very good year for growing wheat, but that means it could be a very bad year for wheat farmers.

There’s a glut on the global wheat market and prices for winter wheat – which is grown all up and down the Great Plains, from Texas to North Dakota– wheat prices this year hit their lowest levels since 2003. Coupled with lower prices for corn, sorghum, and soybeans, many are concerned about the rural economy in the Wheat Belt.

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.

Frank Morris / Harvest Public Media

Like most farmers, Mark Nelson, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat near Louisburg, Kansas, is getting squeezed. He’s paying three times more for seed than he used to, while his corn sells for less than half what it brought four years ago.

“It’s a – that’s a challenge,” Nelson says. “You’re not going to be in the black, let’s put it that way.”

Low commodity prices are rippling up and down the farm economy food chain from the farm to the boardroom, and it has many of the huge companies that control farm inputs looking to a new future.

Geologist Carrie Elliott takes the U.S. Geological Survey speedboat out on the Missouri River to monitor the water quality and habitat.
Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

Farming in the fertile Midwest is tied to an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But scientists are studying new ways to lessen the Midwest’s environmental impact and improve water quality.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts the so-called “dead zone,” an area of sea without enough oxygen to support most marine life, to grow larger than the size of Connecticut, or roughly 6,000 square miles.  

David Greene, Kansas City (Mo.) Water Services lab manager, stands on a platform of the water intake facility above the Missouri River.
Peggy Lowe / Harvest Public Media

Standing on a platform above the eastern bank of the Missouri River at the Kansas City, Missouri, Water Services’ intake plant is like being on the deck of a large ship.

Electric turbines create a vibration along the blue railing, where David Greene, laboratory manager for Kansas City Water Services, looks out across the river. Water the color of chocolate milk is sucked up and forced through screens below, picking up all the debris the river carries downstream.  

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.”

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.”

The headwaters of the South Platte River emerge near Bailey, Colorado.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Contaminated drinking water isn’t just a problem for Flint, Michigan. Many towns and cities across the Midwest and Great Plains face pollution seeping into their water supplies. A big part of the problem: farming and ranching.

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.

Matthew Loper of Grandview, Indiana, at left, and Sam Dunning of Benton, Kentucky, work on sculptures at the Adams County, Illinois, fair.
Rich Egger / for Harvest Public Media

Sandy Songer of Broken Bow, Oklahoma, has a bit of advice for anyone who wants to watch chainsaw artists in action.

“If you’re going to stay around us very long, you need to put some earplugs in,” she says with a laugh, as chainsaws revved and roared behind her like race cars, drowning out everything else in the background.

From carnival barkers, to Ferris wheels humming, to snorts and moos of livestock shows, late-summer state and county fairs are noisy, chaotic affairs. Add to the din this season: chainsaws buzzing.

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.

A bucket of freshly harvested hops sits at Midwest Hop Producers, ready for processing in Plattsmouth, Nebraska.
Ariana Brocious / for Harvest Public Media

With craft beer booming and local breweries springing up all over the country, Midwest farmers are testing out ways to play a role in the growing market and, in the process, make local beer truly local.

Nearly all U.S. hops, which along with water, malt and yeast, comprise the base ingredients in beer, is grown in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Farmers and researchers in the Midwest, though, say the region could be ripe for a local hops explosion.

Farmers can expect a paycut, thanks mostly to an abundance of corn and soybeans.
File: Kathleen Masterson / Harvest Public Media

This year will be another tight one for farmers, at least if the federal government’s predictions are correct.

Farm income will sink to its lowest point since 2009, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast. The USDA expects net farm income will drop 11.5 percent to $71.5 billion this year, which would mark the third-straight year of falling income.

Central Missouri farmer Gary Wenig plans to plant trap crops around his high tunnel in an effort to stop pests from eating his produce.
Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

In an effort to turn away from chemical pesticides, which have the potential to damage the environment, some farmers are looking in a new direction in the age-old, quiet struggle on farm fields of farmers versus pests. They’re warding off intruding insects and noxious weeds with bugs and chickens.

Kathey Lee, owner of jam company Modern Gingham, fills jars at her shared kitchen in Denver.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

The hardest part of starting a new food business should be in perfecting the secret recipe. For many entrepreneurial cooks though, the tough times come when searching for a space to legally make and sell their food.

Commercial kitchen space, with stainless steel counters, industrial appliances meeting food safety regulations and appropriately-sized sinks, can be hard to come by and expensive to build. One tech startup is trying to fix that, using the same sharing economy concepts as travel titans Uber and Airbnb.

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