Harvest Public Media

The small town of Haxton on Colorado's eastern plains has seen a declining population.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Brandon Biesemeier climbs up a small ladder into a John Deere sprayer, takes a seat in the enclosed cab, closes the door, and blocks out most of the machine’s loud engine hum. It is a familiar perch to the fourth-generation farmer on Colorado’s eastern plains.

He turns onto a country road, heading south to spray an herbicide on his cornfields, an early growing season task his genetically engineered crops demand if he is to unlock their value. In the cab, a computer screen shows a little pixelated tractor moving across digital fields, logging his work.

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.

Sales of organic food reportedly climbed to record highs in 2016, an indication organics are edging toward the mainstream.

 

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.

Cattle rancher Mike John runs a cow-calf operation in Hunstville, Missouri, and says he hopes international trade will open up new markets for his beef.
Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

President Trump made campaign promises to pull the U.S. out of big international trade deals and focus instead on one-on-one agreements with other countries. But that has farmers worried they will lose some of the $135 billion in goods they sold overseas last year.

The Agriculture Department established climate research centers in 2014 to translate science into real-world ideas for farmers and ranchers adapting to a hotter climate.
File: Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Farmers and ranchers, with their livelihoods intimately tied to weather and the environment, may not be able to depend on research conducted by the government to help them adapt to climate change if the Trump Administration follows through on campaign promises to shift federal resources away from studying the climate.

Plan To Shakeup USDA Worries Rural Advocates

May 11, 2017

Advocates for rural issues are up in arms after U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a plan that changes the position of a lieutenant that had been focused on rural issues in order to create one focused on trade.

USDA is limited in its number of undersecretaries. Creating a position focused on trade, which the agriculture industry maintains is vital to its economic growth, may force Perdue to scrap a current mission area.

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.

Farmers in western Kansas are worried a spring blizzard that dumped as much as two feet of snow destroyed much of this year’s wheat crop.

Kansas is the No. 1 wheat state in the country. About 20 percent of the nation’s wheat crop last year was grown by Kansas farmers.

The heavy snow and cold temperatures delivered a one-two punch to a crop that had been in good shape. Rick Horton, who farms 3,000-4,000 acres of wheat in southwest Kansas near Leoti, says he’s expecting massive losses.

The Brazile Creek Groundwater Management Area encompasses 756 square miles of north-central Nebraska.
Ariana Brocious / For Harvest Public Media

At a nitrogen management class in the small town of Creighton, Nebraska, Tanner Jenkins shows a chart of groundwater data to a group of about 40 farmers. He points to a red line, which shows the level of chemical nitrates in groundwater over time.

“You can see we’re on a pretty steady upward click,” Jenkins, who works for a local groundwater district, tells the farmers.

Decades of intensive farming have contaminated the groundwater across many parts of Nebraska. A new plan may help farmers in the northeastern part of the state address the problem.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Friday said President Trump may be open to creating a way for some undocumented immigrant workers to stay in the U.S. and Perdue is already working on a “blueprint” of policy guidelines to offer the president.

Pushed by worker advocates and growing consumer awareness, Tyson Foods on Wednesday promised better conditions for workers at its meat processing plants.

Watch: Who Is New Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue?

Apr 24, 2017

Three months into his term, President Donald Trump now has in place his Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue.

Here’s what you need to know:

Perdue served two terms as governor of Georgia

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.

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.

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the long delays in seating his replacement leaves rural America without a voice in the Trump administration.

Vilsack, a Democrat who served as USDA chief during both terms of the Obama Administration, cites President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal as an example of what happens without a Cabinet position dedicated to rural issues.

Student Gabriela Cardenas, left, asks a question of citizenship class instructor Marissa Velazquez at the Brush, Colo., public library.
Luke Runyon / 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.

At the public library in the rural Morgan County town of Brush, Colorado, Marissa Velazquez welcomes her students to class. It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and today marks the halfway point in Velazquez’s class, a ten-week crash course on American history, civics and English.

Midwest farmers compete to sell their goods, like these soybeans in Nebraska, on an international market.
File: Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Imagine you’re a farmer and it’s time to decide what to plant. You need information on supply, demand, prices, outlook -- information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, university extension services, even economists at the Federal Reserve.

Great Plains Ranchers Look To Rebuild In Wake Of Massive Fires

Apr 6, 2017
Bryan Thompson / Harvest Public Media

Gena Kirk did not realize the largest wildfire in Kansas history was closing in on the Kirk Ranch on March 6 until she got a call from her brother-in-law. After realizing that her herd was in danger, she jumped into her pickup and sped up the hill where several of her cattle were grazing.

Watch: Many Midwest Farmers Wary Of Changes To NAFTA

Apr 3, 2017

The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, has been very good to many Midwest agriculture producers. That’s why many farmers and ranchers are nervous about President Donald Trump’s promise to either completely dismantle, or at least renegotiate, the free-trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

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.

Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor nominated by President Donald Trump, is one step closer to becoming U.S. Secretary of Agriculture after the Senate Agriculture Committee approved his nomination Thursday.

Yet Perdue remains one step shy of the post; the full Senate has not yet scheduled a vote on his nomination. Perdue, however, is widely expected to be approved.

Advocate Jamie Manzer, right, shows reporter Mike Tobias a bag of essential items that a nonprofit gives trafficking victims.
David Koehn / NET News

“For most of our trafficking victims this is kind of where we're going to start,” says Jamie Manzer, as she gives a tour of the SASA (Spouse Abuse Sexual Assault) Crisis Center, where she worked until recently.

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.

Maj. Geoff Legler / Oklahoma National Guard

Donald Trump took over the Oval Office two months ago, and his trade policies are having an effect. Today, we'll find out how his search for better deals is creating divisions in Dawson County, Nebraska. Then, learn how building techniques, borrowed from construction practices in hurricane zones, can help Tornado Alley homes stand up to spring's strong winds.

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 sign warns visitors to Sunset Farms in Harris, Iowa, which was infected with avian flu in 2015.
File: Peggy Lowe / Harvest Public Media

Though there have not been any U.S. cases of the strain of avian flu that has killed more than 140 people in China this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s head veterinarian says the agency is making preparations to combat the deadly virus in case it reaches North America. 

The USDA’s Dr. Jack Shere stresses that it's impossible to predict how far a particular bird flu strain may travel or mutate. In the meantime, however, scientists are on alert. 

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