agriculture

Restoring Prairie on the Great Plains

Feb 4, 2016
Courtesy Prairie Plains Resource Institute

From the air, the Midwest looks like a patchwork of cropland and pastures. But before the land was turned over to plows and center pivots, most of it was a sea of grass. 

Native grasslands were first plowed by pioneers homesteading on the plains. More land was converted to crops as tractors and machinery arrived on the farm and conversion of land intensified. 

Photo by Amy Mayer

Delays by the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped make the outbreak of a fast-spreading pig virus worse, according to a federal watchdog agency.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a critical report last month on the USDA’s handling of 2013’s outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus. (pdf)

Photo by Amy Mayer

For almost a year, presidential candidates have been crisscrossing Iowa, wooing voters in a state that relies on agriculture for about one-third of its economy. But even here, most voters live in cities or suburbs and don't have a first-hand connection to the farm.

That makes it difficult to get candidates talking about food system issues from school lunches, to crop supports, to water quality. Yet these all fall under the federal agriculture department. If candidates aren't talking about them in Iowa, it's possible they'll be left out of the campaigns entirely.

Iowa Public Radio / Amy Mayer

Iowa’s Agriculture Secretary says his department needs more money to prevent future outbreaks of avian influenza and other livestock diseases. A request for an additional $500,000 in funding was not in the governor’s budget that was released last week, so Sec. Bill Northey reiterated his request to the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday. 

The funding would go towards training and equipment. Also, the department says it wants to hire a veterinarian and program coordinator to monitor animal diseases in the state. 

Photo by Amy Mayer

The time is ripe for the sharing economy in farm country.

Much like other Web-based companies such as Airbnb or Uber, a site dedicated to leasing and using farm equipment is making available expensive machinery during the times producers need it most. And the idea is taking root as crop and livestock prices trend lower and costs climb higher.

"You get innovative when things get tighter," said Chad Hart, an agriculture economist at Iowa State University. "We're looking for ways to enhance income right now especially in a low margin environment."

Iowa Public Radio / Clay Masters

Iowa's governor wants to kill two birds with one stone.

Gov. Terry Branstad says by extending a sales tax increase enacted in 2008* to 2049, schools will get an additional $10 million annually for things like technology and infrastructure projects. He projects that the state will also raise nearly $4.7 billion in this period to address soil and water conservation issues related to agriculture.

Harvest Public Media / Peggy Lowe

Iowa isn’t requiring new bio security standards at its poultry facilities in the wake of last spring’s catastrophic outbreak of avian flu, but many farms are creating heightened bio-security barriers. Though there is no concrete proof of how bird flu spread so far and so rapidly, it’s widely believed humans played a large role in spreading the disease across the Midwest. 

IPR file photo by Amy Mayer

Corn Belt farmers faced a down year in 2015, according to Agriculture Department numbers. Demand for grain was high, but farmers hauled in an enormous supply of corn and soybeans, keeping prices low. USDA says overall farm income in 2015 is likely to be down 55 percent compared to a peak in 2013.

Courtesy: National Christmas Tree Association

It's the time of the year when Katie Abrams sees her Fort Collins, Colo., neighbors pulling up with real trees tied to car roofs. She feels small pangs of jealousy when friends post woodsy pictures in flannel shirts, cutting down the perfect spruce.

"It all sounds really nice," Abrams says. "And then once you go out and do it I can just imagine all the steps involved."

That's about when she pulls out the fake tree from the garage. An act that terrifies U.S. Christmas tree growers.

Photo by Abby Wendle/Harvest Public Media

 

The U.S. may be on the verge of a boom in new fertilizer plants, which could be good news for farmers, but not the environment.

Today's farmers can produce more from their land than ever before thanks, in part, to nitrogen fertilizer, a key ingredient that has never been more widely available.

Photo by Amy Mayer

Each year, Iowa State University surveys hundreds of bankers, appraisers, and realtors to capture a snapshot of farmland values. The decline of about four percent this year marks the first time since the farm crisis of the 1980s that values have dropped two years in a row. ISU economist Wendong Zhang says that doesn’t mean values will plunge.

"It's still much less than what you see in the 1980s," Zhang says, "and there are a lot of income and cash accumulation over the past few years so I don't think you'll see a large crisis as you've seen in the 1980s."

IPR file photo by Amy Mayer

Veterinarian and researcher Scott Dee doesn't much look the part of a detective, in his jeans and company polo shirt.

But when a virus never before seen in North America swept through the network of hog farms where he works, Pipestone Veterinary Services, in January 2014, he had his first clue.

"These farms had the same pattern of infection," Dee said.

Photo by Amy Mayer

A fast-spreading virus never before seen in the United States hit the pork industry more than two years ago, racking up roughly $1 billion in losses and spiking prices for consumers.

While researchers are still trying to track the culprit, it appears to be an intrepid world traveler that may have been delivered directly to farmers' barn doors, creating an intriguing international back story traced to China.

Harvest Public Media file photo by Grant Gerlock

Canada and Mexico could impose tariffs on more than $1 billion-worth of U.S. goods as a way to compensate for losses brought on by a U.S. labeling law.

The World Trade Organization set the level of retaliation Monday, the final step in a long-running dispute over the Country-Of-Origin-Labels, or COOL, policy.

As of 2009, retailers must include on meat a label that states where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Meat companies have to track and label products, and Canada and Mexico say that drops demand for their goods.

Tim Sackton/Flickr

Despite the bird flu epidemic that devastated Midwest turkey farmers this spring, the price of a turkey this Thanksgiving is a little cheaper than last year.

This year's turkeys are ringing up one cent less per pound than in 2014, according to the USDA's most recent numbers.

Courtesy of Rapid Creek Ranch

There are more than 600 certified organic farms in Iowa, and many others using organic and sustainable practices. Doug Darrow produces beef and chicken near Oxford at Rapid Creek Ranch. He started to make the transition from conventional farming to more sustainable practices after a woman approached him at a farmer’s market.

I had a lady come up to me at a market and asked if we sold grass-fed beef, and I said no. She said that if we did, she’d buy all her beef from us. That really struck a chord,” he explains.

Asya Acka/Radio Iowa

Democratic candidate for President Hillary Clinton rolled out her plans for rural America during a stop in Ankeny Wednesday.  

Clinton addressed a crowd of about 250 in the FFA building at Des Moines Area Community College,  with a John Deere tractor as a backdrop. 

“I know it’s a little unusual for a candidate for President to be making a speech about this at a community college instead of a barn or bale of hay,” Clinton says.  “But at least we got a tractor,” she joked.

Photo by Amy Mayer/IPR

Farmers and agriculture officials are gearing up for another round of bird flu this fall, an outbreak they fear could be worse than the devastating spring crisis that hit turkeys and egg-laying hens in the Midwest, wiped out entire farms and sent egg prices sky-high.

The potential target of the highly pathogenic avian flu this fall could be broilers, or meat chickens, as the outbreaks have been triggered and carried by wild birds, which will be flying south in great numbers this fall through several U.S. flyways.

IPR's Pat Blank

Lime Springs Beef, a new 15- thousand square foot meat processing plant near the Minnesota border will open soon. Spokesperson Kyle Wooters says what they need now are employees.  He says they’ll hold two job fairs this week.

“We’re looking for all people in the plant, production workers," Wooters says.  "We’re looking to hire about 40 or 50 of those and shipping and grading and office support staff."

Photo by Amy Mayer

Farmers have reached a milestone in the recovery from the massive avian flu outbreak last spring. Birds are back in the barns at the Moline family turkey farm in Manson.

Brad Moline says his farm had a few advantages when it came to disposing of turkey carcasses and ridding his barns of the flu virus. For one, he says, they became infected late in the outbreak, on May 19, 2015. By then, Moline says, some of the kinks in the reporting process had been worked out.

Photo by Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

Idaho's so-called "ag-gag" law, which outlawed undercover investigations of farming operations, is no more. A judge in the federal District Court for Idaho decided Monday that it was unconstitutional, citing First Amendment protections for free speech.

But what about the handful of other states with similar laws on the books?

Photo by Matt Brooks for NET News

Farmers count on chemical herbicides to keep their fields weed-free. But an international panel of scientists who studied two of the most heavily used farm chemicals to determine whether they could cause cancer, said exposure to weed-killing chemicals could come at a cost. In the last few months, scientists brought together by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, considered glyphosate and 2,4-D.

IPR file photo by Amy Mayer

The potential for further consolidation in the nation’s pork industry could have financial implications for both farmers and consumers. That’s why Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley says the Justice Department needs to scrutinize the proposed JBS purchase of Cargill’s pork unit. Currently the two companies rank third and fourth among the nation’s largest pork producers.

Photo by Poncie Rutsch/KUNC

 

Many of the more than 3 million migrant farmworkers that plant and pick the fruits and vegetables we eat in the U.S. live on the farms they work for. But the rules that govern farmworker housing may be changing, worrying both farmers and migrant worker advocates.

Bee Hotels Give Native Species a Place to Call Home

Jul 23, 2015
Photo by Abigail Wilson for Harvest Public Media

A patchwork of bamboo and paper tubes, with diameters no bigger than a nickel, are stacked artfully inside a 4-by-4 wooden frame near the edge of a public hiking trail in Lawrence, Kan.

Organized by size, each hollow tube is about 8 inches long, designed as nests for Kansas’ wild bees. This structure is called a bee hotel.

IPR file photo by Amy Mayer

(Editor's note, 5:27pm)  Cathy Cochran, USDA spokeswoman, clarified that Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack misspoke when he used the term "outbreak".  In fact, Cochran said, the agency was preparing for 500 "detections" of bird flu in the fall.  That means the USDA is preparing for an outbreak that is essentially double in size of the one experienced by Midwestern states this spring.  The headline and lead of this story have been changed to reflect this.)

 

 

Large Drop in Farm Income Predicted This Year

Jul 17, 2015
IPR file photo by Amy Mayer

Corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest are likely to earn far less money this year than they did last year, with some economists predicting that incomes could be less than one tenth of what they were in 2014.

Photo by Amy Mayer

Technology has transformed farming, one of the Midwest’s biggest industries, and while fewer people are now needed to actually work the farm field, new types of jobs keep many office workers tied to agriculture.

Beyond operating a tractor and a combine, today’s farmers need to manage all kinds of information. From information technology to web development, the skills that have changed our economy have transformed the agriculture industry as well.

Flickr / Christopher Paquette

The founder and former owner of a Cedar Rapids-based meat supplier has been found guilty of 15 counts of fraud in federal district court on Monday. Midamar founder Bill Aossey faces more than a century in prison for fraudulently labeling beef so it appeared to meet certain Islamic standards when it did not. He also was convicted of conspiracy and wire fraud.

USDA/Bob Nichols

The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing Tuesday on avian influenza’s impact on the U.S. poultry industry. The USDA has come under scrutiny for its handling of the outbreak. 

One topic of discussion are the indemnities provided to affected producers who must euthanize their entire flock when the virus is detected. The USDA is considering a new indemnity formula in light of criticism that the current calculation short changes producers. 

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