Abbie Fentress Swanson

Abbie Fentress Swanson joined Harvest Public Media in 2012 and is based at KBIA Radio in Columbia, Missouri. Before that, she covered arts and culture for WNYC Radio in New York. There she was part of a team that won an Online News Association award in 2012 and an Associated Press award in 2010 for outstanding digital news coverage. In 2011, she won the Garden State Journalists Association "Best Radio Feature" award for "Music Therapy Helps Vets Control Symptoms of PTSD." Reporting fellowships prior to WNYC took her to Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, India, Germany, the Czech Republic and Belgium. Abbie's travels led to multimedia stories on a wide range of subjects -- from the World Cup in South Africa, to the gay rights movement in India, to San Francisco's immigration court. She's filed stories for The New York Times, The Patriot Ledger, KALW Public Radio, The World, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Abbie holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in Italian studies from the College of William & Mary. Check her out on twitter @dearabbie.

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

Many of the food terrorism scenarios outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration involve liquid.

And there’s good reason for that.

Liquids like orange juice and milk go through many processing steps -- farm, bottling plant, delivery – before reaching the consumers who drink them. And these liquids are moved, manufactured and stored in huge batches that get distributed and consumed quickly. Should a toxin be injected somewhere along the supply chain, experts believe it could have devastating human health and economic consequences.

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

Donnie Davidson’s family has been producing bottled milk in Holden, Mo., since the 1930s. But the 63-year-old farmer decided to sell his herd of 50 milking cows in November after the roof on one of his barns collapsed from last winter’s snow.

Rebuilding the barn would have cost about $20,000. Then there were the costs of renovating a silo and paying for hired help since Davidson’s children won’t be taking over the business. It made financial sense to close the dairy, and grow crops and build a herd of beef cattle instead.

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

Proponents of a new labeling rule that gives consumers more information about where their meat comes from say they are pleased with the new farm bill President Obama signed into law on Friday. That’s because the bill does not include any significant changes to current country-of-origin labeling rules, known as COOL.

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

Consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for foods they believe were sustainably produced, like free-range chicken, fair-trade coffee and pesticide-free wine. But what does “sustainable” actually mean?

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

On Friday, President Obama is scheduled to sign a new farm bill into law. It contains a provision that allows all dairy farms to be part of a safety net. The point is to offset risk when milk prices are too low or feed costs too high. But Abbie Fentress Swanson reports that even in good times, smaller dairy farms in traditional milk producing states are now giving up.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS)

brdavid/flickr

Last year, we counted between 20 and 30 state legislatures considering bills that mandate labeling on genetically engineered foods or foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Still a hot-topic, many labeling laws are working their way through statehouses all over the nation – even in farm country.

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

A new labeling rule that went into full effect Saturday requires meatpackers and retailers to provide consumers with more information about where their meat comes from.

The country-of-origin labeling mandate (COOL) forces retailers and meatpackers to detail where the livestock from which meat came was born, raised and slaughtered. It applies to certain cuts of beef, veal, chicken, pork, lamb and goat sold in the supermarket. Processed, deli and ground meats are exempt from the new rules.

This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. You can see more photos and hear more audio from the series here. Wednesday, we'll have a story from a meatpacking plant in Garden City, Kan., which takes a proactive stance toward its newest immigrants.

Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media

Not yet 9 a.m. on a warm fall day, freshmen Binh Hua and My Nguyen are in protective goggles, long hair pulled back, ready for their chemistry class in a Garden City Community College lab.

The teacher calls the class to order, calling the students “Busters,” short for “Broncbusters,” the college’s mascot and a reminder of this old West town’s history of raising cattle.

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Noel, MO - It’s almost 9 a.m., and Noel Primary School teacher Erin McPherson is helping a group of Spanish-speaking students complete English language exercises. But it’s tough going.

One student in a bright blue T-shirt – 9-year-old Isac Martinez – has not yet picked up his pencil. He’s clearly sick. When McPherson asks him what’s wrong, Isac’s small voice is barely audible in between coughs. He says he threw up four times last night but did not go to a doctor.

Timothy Baker

Farmers across Illinois and other midwest states are worried about their berries, peaches and tomatoes thanks to a newly arrived pest.  

The spotted wing drosophila looks like an ordinary fruit fly but is way more deadly. It kills healthy fruit by making a tiny slit in a fruit’s skin and laying eggs inside. In two weeks, a female fly can lay more than 300 eggs. So a couple of adults can become thousands in a few months. Lincoln University’s Jaime Piñero says no soft fruit is safe.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts the nation’s farmers will deliver a record 3.42 billion bushels of soybeans this year. The USDA is also forecasting that this year for the first time Brazil will overtake the United States as the world’s leading producer of soybeans. That means the pressure is on American soybean farmers like Brian Flatt, 41, to eke out even more soybeans from his fields.

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

Farmers are getting older.

They’re working longer, staying on the land later and continuing to do what they’ve done for decades: heading out day after day after day to work their land.

In 1978, the average age of the American farmer was just over 50. In 2007, it’s creeping toward 60, at just over 57-years-old. What does that mean for the agriculture industry? We went to answer that question by focusing on this massive demographic shift that affects not just rural America but the power and potential of an entire industry.

America's hugely productive food system is one of its success stories. The nation will export a projected $139.5 billion in agricultural products this fiscal year alone. It's an industry that supports "more than 1 million jobs," according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

But all that productivity has taken a toll on the environment, especially rivers and lakes: Agriculture is the nation's leading cause of impaired water quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

Midwest waterways are getting lots of attention this summer. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency have immersed themselves in the ecology of 100 streams from Ohio to Nebraska. It’s a first-of-its kind effort to understand how ag runoff is not just changing the water but affecting the critters that live there. Harvest Public Media’s Abbie Fentress Swanson joined a crew on a rainy day while they gathered water samples and searched for fish eggs on three streams in central Missouri.

Last year's drought wreaked havoc on farmers' fields in much of the Midwest, cutting crop yields and forcing livestock producers to cull their herds. This spring, the rain that farmers needed so badly in 2012 has finally returned. But maybe too much, and at the wrong time.

It's almost the end of April, which is prime time to plant corn. But farmers need a break in the rain so they can get this year's crops in the ground and try to lock in good yields at harvest.