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Harvest Public Media

Holly Bickmeyer is worried about what a large livestock operation would do if it moves in next door. 

She points to the small lake in front of her house on the 20-head cattle farm she operates in Maries County.

“Sinkholes open up all the time,” Bickmeyer said. “You see the lake that’s in my front yard here? If somebody builds a hog operation at the end of my driveway, I would be concerned about that waste getting into the groundwater and I walk out one day and all my bass are dead.”

Bickmeyer said that’s why she wants her local county commissioners to decide if concentrated animal feeding operations, also known as CAFOs, can locate nearby. 

Over the last two years, Rob Van Vleet has been slowly scrapping the last vestiges of Kimball, Nebraska’s first wind farm. The wind turbines are made to be sturdy, he said, but they don’t last forever — about 20 years.

Presidential candidates have been fanning out across Iowa for months ahead of the 2020 election, creating an opportunity for voters to get agricultural issues on the national agenda. 

Sci-fi writers have long warned about the dangers of modifying organisms. They come in forms ranging from accidentally creating a plague of killer locusts (1957) to recreating dinosaurs with added frog genes (2015).

Now, with researchers looking to even more advanced gene-editing technology to protect crops, they’ll have to think about how to present that tech to a long-skeptical public. 

Walking through rows of growing crops helps farmers monitor for harmful insects, leaves that are damaged by disease or other problems that could reduce their overall harvest at the end of the season. 

And this year in Iowa, there’s a menace that, left to its own devices, could munch farmers out of profit. 

There’s millions of dollars to be made from growing hemp, which for years was lumped in and vilified with its sister plant, marijuana. With the government loosening laws around growing hemp for the first time in more than 80 years, some states are charging ahead and letting farmers plant it — even before federal regulations are in place. 

Those states aren’t just getting a head start, though. They’re seeing significant challenges that hemp farmers will face for years to come, things like seed fraud, weather and a lack of machinery.

Every summer, thousands of Midwestern kids as young as 13 load onto school buses early in the morning to do one of the hottest, dirtiest temporary jobs out there. They are the corn detasselers.

But this year, there’s a snag: Detasseling season is being pushed back due to a wet spring.

Midwestern fish farmers grow a variety of species, such as tilapia, salmon, barramundi and shrimp, all of which require a high-protein diet. The region grows copious amounts of soybeans, which have a lot of protein, but these two facts have yet to converge.

The Mississippi River system is both an artery and a vein. It pumps ag products out of the heartland and into the world while bringing back fertilizer and steel to keep that economic engine purring.

But there’s too much water. Flooding is forcing boats and barges to wait for the river to drop.

file photo / Harvest Public Media

The Food and Drug Administration this week extended the public comment period on CBD oil by two weeks. The public now has until July 16 to share input as the FDA considers how to to regulate the fast-growing industry.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is an oil extracted from hemp flowers. Unlike marijuana, it contains very little THC — no more than 0.3 percent according to federal regulations — which means ingesting hemp CBD won't get you high.

Jonathan Ahl / Harvest Public Media

Summer festivals are ubiquitous (especially across the Midwest), and often highlight the local food specialty, be it corn, apples or beef. But when the food has a less-than-glamorous reputation, a town has a decision to make.

Decades ago, the small town of Nixa in Missouri’s Ozarks embraced what is often called a garbage fish. Catostomidae, better known as a sucker fish, is a bottom-feeder that’s plentiful in the cold waters of the Ozark Plateau. It’s also filleted, fried and at the center of Nixa Sucker Days.

Animal waste and nitrogen-based agricultural fertilizers contribute to nitrate runoff, which ends up in creeks, streams, rain and, eventually, water systems. Nitrate, that mix of nitrogen and oxygen, can cause serious health problems if it’s too concentrated.

The best defense is filtering, which forests are great at doing. But a new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service suggests forests are falling behind, and heavy rains brought on by climate change are making it worse.

U.S. farmers have long depended on foreign buyers for some of their corn, soybeans, pork and other products. And federal officials have used some agricultural commodities as tools of diplomacy for decades.

But as the Trump administration has pursued hard-line moves with major trading partners, especially China, farmers have found themselves with huge surpluses — and on the receiving end of government aid.

Use Of Controversial Weed Killer Glyphosate Skyrockets On Midwest Fields

May 28, 2019

Farmers have been using the weed killer glyphosate – a key ingredient of the product Roundup – at soaring levels even as glyphosate has become increasingly less effective and as health concerns and lawsuits mount.

Nationwide, the use of glyphosate on crops increased from 13.9 million pounds in 1992 to 287 million pounds in 2016, according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey.

For every crop in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency carries out a rigorous set of tests to determine which pesticides are safest. How and when a pesticide is used can depend on how that crop is consumed by the average person — is it ingested, inhaled or applied topically?

It’s a precise science that aims to keep consumers safe from potentially toxic residues. But, like most federal regulations, none of it applies to the marijuana industry.      

Cow guts are quite the factory. Grass goes in, microbes help break it down and make hydrogen, then other microbes start converting it to another gas. In the end, you get methane, manure and meat.

One of those things is not like the other. Methane emissions are considered the second-worst greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, according to Stanford University professor Rob Jackson.

More than 2 million people in the U.S. work in or near agriculture fields that are treated with pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency has strict policies about what those workers need to know about pesticide risks, when they can be in those fields and what they should do if they come into contact with chemicals.

On July 28, 2017, a central Iowa emergency dispatcher received a 911 call from a man in a corn field.

“I had workers that were detasseling,” said the caller, referring to the job of manually pulling the tops off standing corn stalks. “Some may have gotten sprayed by a plane.”

The Missouri River swamped Scott Olson’s land in March — the second time in the last eight years. Flooding tore holes in his fields and left mounds of debris. He’s not entirely sure he’ll plant corn and soybeans this season on the flooded acres.

Esther Honig / Harvest Public Media

Douglas rattles around a collection of glass jars in the storage closet of his Denver apartment. They’re filled with a small grain, like barley, and covered in a soft white fungus — a mushroom spawn. Soon, he’ll transplant it in large plastic bins filled nutrients like dried manure and coconut fiber.

Over the course of two weeks, mushrooms that naturally contain psilocybin, a psychoactive ingredient, will sprout.

A Silicon Valley startup is pitting itself against major seed companies, alleging that those companies are price gouging in the Heartland. Farmers Business Network’s stated motive is to help farmers by crunching numbers and providing transparency, but it is positioning itself to become a player in the seed business, too.

Like many of the refugees who have resettled in Greeley, Colorado, 35-year-old Abul Basar is employed by JBS.

It’s a massive meatpacking plant that processes thousands of cattle per day and employs over 3,000 people. After a year of working on the plant’s processing line, where he disembowel cow carcasses with a large electric knife, Basar injured his right hand.

Segment 1: As cold storage fills up, food banks are seeing a bump in donations of meat and dairy. 

A scarcity of space in cold storage sites for beef, pork, chicken, milk, and cheese has prompt market players to find ways to balance production and demand. Hear what led to the dilemma, who could benefit from it, and whether or not food producers will be able to respond quick enough.   

Meat and dairy are piling up across the U.S. It has cold storage places packed to the rafters, and the federal government, which subsidizes the agriculture industry, looking for ways to alleviate the problem, at least in the short-term.

Farmers along the Missouri River and its tributaries are still assessing damage from recent flooding.

But beyond the farms in parts of Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas, there’s visible evidence that the impacts are far-reaching and long-lasting — closed interstates and rerouted trains — key cogs in a global agriculture economy.

Family structures—and farms themselves—are much more complicated than they used to be. Today, farm transition and land transfer are now among the hardest conversations families face. (This story was  produced in collaboration with The New Food Economy.)

Farm income has taken a long, hard fall, dropping 50 percent since hitting a high point in 2013. Add to that near-record levels of farm debt, and you have a recipe for financial stress.

But while economists say they can see storm clouds building, it’s not a full-blown crisis. That’s because relatively few farms have been pushed past the breaking point into Chapter 12 bankruptcy — or, worse, into losing the farm entirely.

Segment 1: President Trump's budget proposal cuts $3.6 billion from the Department of Agriculture.

If passed as proposed, the president's budget would decrease the department's funds by 15 percent through limits on who could get crop insurance and how much,  a plan to "streamline conservation programs" and changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Reporter Madelyn Beck explained how these cuts would affect food producers and which have a chance of making it into the final version fo the 2020 budget.

Jonathan Ahl / Harvest Public Media

Andrew Joyce won’t be growing any tomatoes this summer. His three-acre produce farm in Malden, Missouri, will lie fallow. The cause: damage from the weed killer dicamba.

At Hummel’s Nissan in Des Moines, Kevin Caldwell sells the all-electric Leaf. Driving one is basically the same as driving a typical gasoline or gas-electric hybrid car, he said, except for a few new features like the semi-autonomous hands-free option. And the fact that you plug it in rather than pumping gas into it.

About a quarter to a third of Caldwell’s Leaf customers are farmers, some of whom grow corn for ethanol.

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