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Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.

Most Harvest Public Media stories begin with radio- regular reports are aired on member stations in the Midwest. But Harvest also explores issues through online analyses, television documentaries and features, podcasts, photography, video, blogs and social networking.  They are committed to the highest journalistic standards. Click here to read their ethics standards.

Harvest Public Media was launched in 2010 with the support of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  Today, the collaboration is supported by CPB, the partner stations, and contributions from underwriters and individuals.

Tri States Public Radio is an associate partner of Harvest Public Media.  You can play an important role in helping Harvest Public Media and Tri States Public Radio improve our coverage of food, field and fuel issues by joining the Harvest Network.  Learn more here.

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.

After the day’s meals are done on a recent Tuesday, Gilbert Community Schools director of food service Deb Purcell shuffles through a stack of papers. Gilbert, a town north of Ames in central Iowa, serves about 1400-1600 meals a day. 

“This is what I do, planning for a week,” Purcell says pointing to columns on a page. “And there's actually seven pages minimum that go with each day.”

She’s counting cups of vegetables and documenting other details about every meal she’s served to comply with stringent federal rules. Her job could soon get easier.

For many farmers, 2019 was the first year of growing hemp, since it became legal under the 2018 Farm Bill. In addition to the normal challenges of farming, hemp growers have had to deal with a different kind of problem: theft.

 

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. 

Many farmers are wrapping up a frustrating first year of growing hemp, which was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.

“It’s kind of a good way to start, in that that’s about as bad as it can get,” said Jeff Cox, Bureau Chief of Medicinal Plants at the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “There’s a lack of expertise, just a general lack of knowledge as to how to grow hemp the best way."

ANDREA TUDHOPE / AMERICA AMPLIFIED: ELECTION 2020

On a Monday night, a week before the Iowa caucuses, about 20 residents gathered at the Norelius library in Denison, Iowa, for a mock caucus. Latina activist Alma Puga, the organizer, called the caucuses the "Disneyland of politics."

A recent federal court decision may reduce the number of small refinery waivers the Environmental Protection Agency issues in the future. The ethanol industry is celebrating the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, but the impact may not be the full course-correction renewable fuels need to recover from some difficult years.

Brett Adams, who farms near the town of Peru in southeast Nebraska, takes the good news where he can get it these days. After nearly a year, the floodwater is mostly gone from his riverside farmland.

Adams is on the local levee board, which manages the town’s nearly 8 miles of Missouri riverbed. And the (unpaid) work keeps him very busy: he was on a call when I first climbed into his pickup, apologetically holding a finger up every so often.

After hanging up, he said he can’t afford to miss a call. Somebody might be on the other end bearing good news.

Farmers and landowners enrolling acres in the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program have a new practice available to them.

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. 

The holiday season is officially upon us, and so are its classic dishes. For some home cooks who are vegan or vegetarian, Thanksgiving can be a time to flex their culinary creativity, and make the well-loved new.

The sky is dark and cloudy, but inside Rutabaga’s Comfort Food in downtown Lincoln, the light is warm, and it smells like Thanksgiving.

Sara Brown and her kitchen team are bracing for the lunch rush. Though the restaurant opened just two months ago, the dining room already tends to be busy by noon.

The comment period on an Environmental Protection Agency rule regarding the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) ends this month, but farm state lawmakers and biofuels advocates continue to argue the rule isn’t adequate.

And they are pushing for a deal they say the president promised them.

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.

The State Emergency Operations Center in Johnston, Iowa, has sloped auditorium-style seating and plenty of outlets to keep laptops and cell phones charged. This is where officials gather during and immediately after tornadoes and massive flooding.

It’s the center for crisis control. 

That’s why in September, this space at the Iowa National Guard headquarters became the incident command center for a four day simulation exercise to test how well prepared Iowa and the other top pork-producing states are for an African swine fever outbreak.

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.

On a hot September day, five Japanese men arrived at Rod Pierce’s central Iowa farm. They represented feed mills and livestock cooperatives, and were there to see the corn they may eventually buy. 

Pierce invited them to walk among his rows of corn, climb into the cab of an 8-head combine and poke their heads into one his empty grain storage bins. 

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.

DAN LOARIE / CREATIVE COMMONS

This year's catastrophic flooding has created hard times for many people in Midwest, but it's created a nirvana for mosquitoes.

Even though the Midwest is tops in field corn production and grows row after row of it, these states don’t stand out when it comes to national production of sweet corn. 

But for many in the region, nothing says summer quite like a fresh hot ear of sweet corn — plain, buttered or salted.


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. 

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. 

Federal agencies are scrambling to establish regulations for hemp and hemp products as farmers in the Midwest and around the country start growing the crop. 

In the meantime, the government is warning companies not to make health claims about CBD they can’t back up. 

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. 

Hemp And The Challenges Of Farming’s Frontier

Jul 29, 2019

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.

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.

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