WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Agriculture

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, animal disease labs across the country stepped up to expand testing capacity, and they could play a role in preventing the next pandemic. 

Spillover events, animal diseases that jump to humans, happen often, according to Jonna Mazet, a professor of epidemiology and disease ecology at the University of California - Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. 

Most novel diseases and emerging infections that jump from one species to another don’t cause big problems, she says. In other cases, it can be bad. 

High Farm Incomes Lead To Rising Land Values

May 7, 2021

Farmers and investors seeking to expand are paying more for agricultural land in the Midwest. 

The value of good cropland in Corn Belt states like Iowa and Indiana has increased about 10% since last fall, according to Randy Dickhut, the senior vice president of real estate operations for Farmers National Co. 

When it rains on Joe Rothermel’s central Illinois farm, most of the water drains into the nearby East Branch Embarras River. There, it begins a journey south through the Wabash, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Farmers might make less money this year due to less assistance from the government and increased production costs. 

Farm income is estimated to be $112 billion in 2021 — $9 billion less than last year. 

In 2020, farmers and ranchers made a total of $121 billion, the highest amount since 2013. Government subsidies account for $46 billion, according to a report from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri. 

Plenty of younger people are eager to build careers in farming, but more land up for grabs won’t necessarily make it easier to get started. Access to land and capital are two of the biggest hurdles facing first-generation farmers today, and some say they face an extra barrier to both — student loan debt.

It’s a cold February afternoon, and Alvin Lee’s cows are hungry. He says he has to put three or four bales of hay out every other day, and he only has about 10 left. 

New hay is expensive -- about $40 per bale. He managed to get some for $20 each, but they are three years old. If this keeps up, he’ll have to scrape together money for more hay, he says. 

Lee used to work in construction, but because of injuries from his time in the Marine Corps, he had to stop working. He moved to Wewoka, Oklahoma 25 years ago and bought 160 acres of land, which he hopes is his legacy. 

For more than a decade, Saraí has been a farmworker, cultivating corn and soybeans in the fields of central Illinois. She moved to the U.S. from Mexico to find work that would allow her to better support her family.

Having been an active participant in the local food movement in one capacity or another for most of my life, I have to say that 2020 brought unfathomable challenges that have tested our determination to provide healthy, safe, farm raised food.  I'm here today to share an anecdote of the every day struggles of a small farmer who raises and sells meat during the COVID pandemic.

In October, Purdue University’s Ag Economy Barometer recorded its highest-ever index, meaning farmers were at an all-time high level of optimism.

However, that number dropped off significantly in November, due in large part to the presidential election.

Zack Smith pats the snout of a pig that stretches up to greet him from inside the back pen of a mobile barn. On this field, Smith planted alternating sections of corn and pasture, to test an experiment he calls “stock cropping.” 

“This is our answer for putting diversification and multiple species back on the land,” he says. “And we’re going to have a four-ring circus, was my idea, of animals parading through, grazing and laying their manure down.”

A propane tank painted to look like a watermelon sits in front of a produce stand on Highway 150 in Fayette County, Iowa. Its long-time owner, Atrus (Attie) Stepp, who was Black, launched Fayette’s annual Watermelon Days festival in 1976.

“Everybody’s got good things to say about Attie,” said Charles Downs, who runs the stand now. 

Downs, who is white, bought the stand from Stepp’s daughter, ending the family’s long legacy. 

“Conservatively, I’d say it’s been here 80 years, at least, and it’s probably... maybe a hundred,” Downs said.

 

On the outskirts of Rantoul, in east-central Illinois, about 100 migrant farmworkers are living at an old hotel in a sleepy part of town.

While COVID-19 has hampered farmers this year by forcing many farmers markets and restaurants to close, usually it’s the weather that threatens crops. A practice called “gleaning” helps save crops from going to waste while feeding those in need. 

Heavy rain was causing flooding all along the Arkansas River. Before Joe Tierney knew it, water from the nearby creek was creeping forward onto his farm in Bixby, Oklahoma. He had to evacuate, leaving behind fields full of vegetables. All Tierney could do was watch the water get closer and closer, he says.

Growing up in southern Indiana, Karen Pepmeier and her friends would comb the farm fields during harvest season, gathering leftover ears of corn to raise money for their youth group.

“You hate to see it lay in the field and rot,” Pepmeier said. “If you grow up in one of these areas, you're very familiar with the waste that occurs there.”

COURTESY OF JAMES UNZICKER, CHP OF IL

Maricel Mendoza is familiar with the work migrant and seasonal farmworkers do. Growing up, her family traveled from Texas to central Illinois every year for her parents' jobs as contractors with a large seed company. 

JASON PARROTT / TSPR

The Iowa Fertilizer Company (IFC) this spring marked its third year of operations in Lee County. IFC officials said the massive chemical plant has remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to new quarterly crop data from the USDA, farmers planted about 92 million acres of corn this spring, a 5 million acre decrease over the agency's March acreage report. The decrease could slash this season’s corn harvest by around a billion bushels, providing some much-needed price increases for commodity farmers. 

At the edge of a corn field on a clear but windy June day, microbiologist Tom Moorman lifts a metal lid and reveals a collection of bottles, tubes, meters and cables in a shallow pit. The system is designed to capture runoff from 24 plots. 

 

Even as more people bake during the pandemic, some wheat farmers may need help to break even this year.

SPENCER PUGH / UNSPLASH

Studies have found the rates of mental illness and suicide are higher for farmers. The profession requires long hours, limited social contact, and is often at the mercy of external factors such as weather and market rates.

At the start of 2020, the agricultural economy was poised for a good year. 

Then came COVID-19 and like almost every other sector, it tanked. But Chad Hart, an economist at Iowa State University, says that solid footing is still the foundation for an outlook that is not all doom and gloom.

 

It’s planting season across much of the United States, and for some farmers who rely on foreign guest workers for help in the fields, the pandemic is getting in the way.  

AMY MAYER / IPR FILE

Farmers who grow many different types of crops and raise livestock will receive direct payments from the United States Department of Agriculture through $16 billion of CARES Act relief money.

The new coronavirus pandemic has affected how and even when Illinoisans buy food from grocery stores. But the virus has also impacted the farmers working to keep that supply chain running.

A giant of Illinois agriculture has died. Former state representative, state agriculture director and longtime 4-H booster Gordon Ropp was 87 years old.

Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa conducted a 10-year study on the conservation benefits of planting cereal rye as a cover crop on corn and soybean fields. Their results show the practice improves soil health. The cover crop may cause a slight dip in yields the first year or two, but that can be overcome and eventually small increases in soybean yields may occur.

Midwest grain will reach foreign markets faster thanks to a channel-deepening project in the Lower Mississippi River that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced will begin this year. 

While that’s one bit of good news for infrastructure, it doesn’t make it any more likely other projects will follow. 

A Senate committee passed an infrastructure bill last July with bipartisan support, but Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the finance committee, says funding it will be a heavy lift. 

Rich Egger

The Western Illinois Museum is starting a project called "Home Grown: Celebrating the Family Farm." The museum's goal is to create in-depth family profiles of family farmers. 

Buzzy phrases like “regenerative agriculture” and “precision farming” are gaining traction among younger farmers looking to produce more sustainably. But implementing newer practices can require education and training.

Some schools in Nebraska are embracing the interest in specialized agriculture degrees, and want to make them more accessible to students across the region.

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