Harvest Desk

The Matthew family farm, M&M&m Farms, outside of La Harpe, Ill., looks different from the farms surrounding it. It’s not filled with neat rows of soybeans or lines of corn that’s over-my-head high in late July. The Matthew’s place is a bit more disorganized and far more diverse.

“A lot of people grow corn or beans,” Mitchell Matthew tells me as we take an afternoon stroll around his parent’s hilltop property. “Here, we grow everything. Everything you can think of.”

Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, is attempting to swallow up the chemical operations of Syngenta, the world’s largest producer of pesticides and other farm inputs. The proposed deal signals a change in focus for the agricultural giant, and could have ripple effects across farm country.

By its own admission, Monsanto lags behind in chemistry research. To boost its research in chemistry, and possibly find new ways to combine chemicals and biotech crops, Monsanto wants to buy the Swiss chemical company.

Farm dog? Check.

Barn cats? Check.

Muddy work books lined up at the back door? Five checks.

We kick off our fourth season of “My Farm Roots” with the Renyer Family, five farm kids I had the pleasure of meeting last week.

Driving onto the Renyer farm, out in Nemaha County, Kan., I was struck by the many classic examples of a farm family. After being met by the family dog, a very sweet boy named Salty, I watched as the barn cats scattered and I met Leah coming out the back door, where the knee-high work boots were standing guard.

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.

Bee Hotels Give Native Species A Place To Call Home

Jul 14, 2015

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.

Driving down a two-lane highway in rural Missouri, Matt Plenge squinted at a patch of gray clouds hanging low over his farm fields in the distance.

“Does it look hazy up there?” he asked. “We only had a 20 percent chance today. We shouldn't get any rain.”

Plenge, like most farmers, always keeps one eye on the weather. But this spring, it’s been his primary and constant concern.

Thursday was not the day to switch places with Chris Grundler.

Grundler, the director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was in charge of the EPA’s one in-person hearing about proposed changes to U.S. ethanol policy.

California Drought Not A Windfall For Midwest Farmers

Jun 24, 2015
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

California grows almost half the fruits and vegetables in the U.S. It’s also deep in drought and some farms are short on water. That may sound like a chance for Midwestern farmers to churn out more peppers and broccoli, but it’s not that simple.

The federal government’s complex set of rules meant to spur a renewable fuels industry has fallen behind one of its main goals: cut greenhouse emissions from gasoline.

Nearly a decade after the rules were drafted, low-carbon fuels have yet to arrive. The Environmental Protection Agency says it will propose tweaks to the nation’s ethanol policy by June 1, and the changes will mark a crucial point for the next generation of biofuels, which have so far failed to flourish.

Ethanol is one of the most important industries in the Midwest, and it’s an industry about to change. The U.S. EPA says that by June 1 it will propose new targets for the Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, which dictates the amount of ethanol the oil industry has to blend into our gasoline.

Eleanor Klibanoff / Harvest Public Media

It's no longer enough for restaurants to offer roasted chicken or braised beef shank on their menus. They need to be able to tell customers exactly where that chicken came from and how the cow was raised. If they can remember the pedigree of the produce? All the better.

Harvest Public Media

The U.S. EPA is proposing tweaks to ethanol policy.

The agency proposed a cut to the amount of corn ethanol oil companies are required to blend in to our gasoline, as well as ambitious targets for low-carbon cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from grasses and other inedible parts of plants.

Abby Wendle / Harvest Public Media

Panda, standing six feet tall and weighing almost a ton, is everything a show cow should be: broad-backed and round-rumped, with sturdy legs holding up her heft. Her hide - thick and black, with splotches of creamy white - fits her name.

Why Do Farmers Burn Their Fields?

May 18, 2015

Farmers burn their fields to remove plants that are already growing and to help the plants that are about to come up. These burns are often called “prescribed burns” because they are used to improve the health of the field.

What tools do farmers need for a burn?

To keep the fire contained, farmers need to clear away burnable matter around the edges of the field, which usually requires a lawn mower or larger machinery. The burn itself can be managed with some simple, specific tools.

Just over a year ago, Tracy Dethlefs learned she has stage 1 breast cancer. Since then, she estimates she’s charted some 10,000 miles travelling from her farm near Loup City in central Nebraska to area hospitals for treatment. Every surgery, round of chemotherapy and radiation treatment was a road trip.

“Radiation treatments usually (take) only about 5 minutes (on) a day that they have to see you,” Dethlefs said. “But for a week, for seven weeks in a row, you’re driving every single day to the cancer treatment center. We’re about an hour away from cancer centers.”

As the number of farms hit with avian flu grows over 100 nationwide, regulators are implementing containment plans meant to stop the virus’ spread, spare millions of at-risk birds and thousands of poultry farms.

Farms in many states, including Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, are struggling to contain an active outbreak.

“A rapid response is extremely important in an infectious disease outbreak like this,” said Jim Roth, head of the Center for Food Safety and Public Health at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Wild birds are believed to be behind the first major widespread outbreak of bird flu in the United States, with the virus confirmed in the animals in 10 states. Here are some questions and answers about how wild birds remain healthy even when carrying the virus and spread it to backyard and commercial flocks of chickens and turkeys. 

HOW DID THE VIRUS ARRIVE STATESIDE? 

When President Obama announced in late 2014 that he would work toward ending the embargo on trade with Cuba, it wasn’t just tourists perking up their ears. Midwest farmers and ranchers see communist Cuba as an untapped market for goods from the American Heartland.

One of those farmers is Paul Combs, a rice farmer from southeast Missouri. Cuba can be an important market for farmers like Combs, who already depend on exporting their products.

A highly contagious strain of bird flu has officially made its way to the Midwest.

The disease was confirmed Tuesday in two separate commercial turkey flocks in Missouri, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture and the USDA.

New Report Blames Monsanto For Monarch Butterfly Decline

Feb 6, 2015
Credit Adele Hodde / Illinois Department of Natural Resources

The environmental organization Center for Food Safety is blaming agriculture giant Monsanto for declining numbers of monarch butterflies.

A new report  finds that spraying glyphosate herbicide on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops has killed off sixty percent of the common milkweed since 1999.

John Pleasants at Iowa State University says milkweed is the only food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

Humans have been growing hemp for centuries. Hemp-based foods have taken off recently. So have lotions and soaps that use hemp oil. There’s evidence that different compounds in cannabis could be used as medicine and hope that its chemical compounds could hold keys to treatments for Parkinson’s disease and childhood epilepsy.

An osprey in flight
Illinois Department of Natural Resources

Ospreys, brought to Illinois as part of a project to restore the endangered hawk species, have flown the coop for warmer climates. But those working with the birds hope to see them return to the state in the near future. 

A team of economists is calling for changes to the way the federal government figures the cost associated with carbon emissions. 

The Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) is what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal entities use to estimate the monetary damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions. The current SCC is estimated to be $37 per metric ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The number is used to consider the value of plans to address climate change by cutting emissions.

Scientists have noticed a change in the atmosphere. Plants are taking in more carbon dioxide during the growing season and giving off more carbon in the fall and winter. Recent research shows the massive corn crop in the Corn Belt may be contributing to that deeper breath.

It comes down to the Carbon Cycle. Over the winter when corn fields lay dormant, corn stalks and roots break down, sending CO2 into the air. Then in the summer when a new crop is growing, it takes up carbon from the atmosphere.

Update: Avian influenza was found in a Foster Farms turkey flock in Stanislaus County, Calif., the company announced Monday. The outbreak is thought to be the first infection of this type of bird flu in a commercial flock in the U.S. In a previous version of this post, the location of the outbreak was incorrectly identified.

For the Midwest’s biggest crops, this harvest season was a big one. With winter setting in, the race is on for farmers to ship out their harvest so it’s not left out to spoil. But the giant harvest and a lack of available rail cars have created a traffic jam on the rails and the highways.

Usually, farmers store their harvest in silos and grain bins, but this year, farmers brought in so much, there’s just no room.  Farmers in Missouri, Indiana, Illinois and South Dakota are all being hit particularly hard by the storage shortage.

Tougher Times Put Young Farmers Dreams On Hold

Dec 5, 2014

Grant Curtis remembers the day he went shopping for his first tractor.

“It was an eye opening experience,” he said. “Walking into a dealership, getting the prices, walking back to the bank and pleading my case. Saying, ‘I want to get back to the farm, but I need a way to do that.’”

Curtis, in his early twenties at the time and without farmland of his own, joked that the only thing he offered as collateral was sweat. But grain farming is a seriously expensive business.

High Turkey Prices Unlikely To Impact Consumers

Nov 25, 2014
flickr/Calgary Reviews

Wholesale turkey prices are at an all-time high this Thanksgiving, but you may not see that at the grocery store.

Farmers raised fewer turkeys this year than they have in the past three decades - about 235 million gobblers, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Ann Knowles raised seventy on her small farm in western Illinois. She coops up the plump birds at night to guard against predators, but lets them roam freely during the day.

KNOWLES  "They get to strut. And they chase in bugs. So I think they’re little dinky brains are probably pretty happy."

flickr/United Soybean Board

Agricultural runoff is a problem in Illinois and many other farm states.  Nitrogen, phosphorous and chemicals help with yields, but too much winds up in the water supply.   That creates problems like algae growth that robs the water of oxygen, killing off aquatic life. 

Jean Payne represents fertilizer and chemical dealers in the state.  She says a training program will launch this winter in an effort to get farmers better educated on how to apply nutrients to their crops, including the best time for application and proper amounts. 

flickr/dankdepot

The more than 370 applications to operate medical marijuana cultivation centers and dispensaries in Illinois are being whittled down.  Licenses could be awarded before the end of the year.

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