WIUM Tristates Public Radio

farming

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.

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.

 

Dusty Spurgeon is proud to be a female farmer. 

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.

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. 

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.

Amy Mayer/Iowa Public Radio file

Pork processing fell nearly 40 percent following temporary closures at meatpacking plants across the Midwest last month. That's created a backlog of market-ready hogs, though the scope of the problem isn't as dramatic as some had feared.

 

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.

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.

On a side street near the Des Moines Water Works, a tall fence surrounds three garden plots. Geese fly overhead while trucks drive past a sign between the road and the fence. It says: “Industrial Development Land For Sale, Contact City of Des Moines.”

Until recently, the city rented the land for growing vegetables but now it’s been rezoned and put up for sale.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has paid out a record $4.24 billion in claims for acres farmers couldn’t plant this year.

The “prevented planting” provision allows farmers to file a crop insurance claim when weather conditions leave fields unfit for a crop. Heavy spring rains and flooding left some Midwest farm ground too wet for seeds and equipment during the planting window, meaning farmers couldn’t put in the corn or soybeans they’d intended for those acres. 

During 2019, the curveballs thrown at farmers began with the partial government shutdown in January, when some U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies were closed. Spring brought a storm system—called a bomb cyclone—that dumped rain on top of frozen fields unable to make use of it, kicking off weeks of flooding exacerbated by additional precipitation. Planting ran later than usual and some farmers never got a cash crop into certain saturated fields.

In the fall, livestock veterinarian Dr. Bailey Lammers is often busy with vaccinating calves and helping wean them from their mothers.

A herd of auburn cattle greeted her at the barn gate during one of her house calls in northeastern Nebraska, peering from behind the dirt-caked bars. Lammers and her technician Sadie Kalin pulled equipment from tackleboxes in the back of Lammers’ truck.  

Standing in the pasture he planted with native grasses, Charlie Besher scanned gray autumnal skies as cows with swollen bellies lowed in the valley below. He hoped for rain. He hoped for safety for his herd. For now, the cellphone tower on the near horizon was empty, but by evening, black vultures would roost there again, often by the dozens. 

If a cow had its calf overnight, there would be time for it to clean its baby up, to get rid of the afterbirth, before the black vultures took flight in the early morning. Maybe that would make it less attractive to the birds. 

The Latest Generation Gap In Farming Is About Robots

Oct 7, 2019

On a recent bright, clear day in eastern Nebraska, a small red machine crept through a lush field of soybeans. From the highway, it looked like a small tractor. Up close, its mess of wires came into focus. So did the laptop strapped to the back.

This is the Flex-Ro (Flexible Robotic Unit), one of several robots across the world being designed and tested to help farmers maximize crop yield, use fewer pesticides, and manage the industry’s dwindling labor market.

Pages