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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.

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. 

As Wind Energy Thrives, So Does Its Waste Problem

Sep 20, 2019

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.

Every summer, thousands of Midwestern kids as young as 13 load onto school buses early in the morning to do one of the hottest, dirtiest temporary jobs out there. They are the corn detasselers.

But this year, there’s a snag: Detasseling season is being pushed back due to a wet spring.

The USDA’s 2017 Ag Census recently revealed which congressional districts represent the most farm producers. 

It’s little surprise that the Midwest and Plains states dominate the top 20 slots. But the vast majority of U.S. House members have few farmers to answer to, compared to the rest of the people they represent. 

The phrase "American soil" is commonly used to stir up patriotic feelings. They are also words that can't be taken for granted, because nearly 30 million acres of U.S. farmland are held by foreign investors. That number has doubled in the past two decades, which is raising alarm bells in farming communities.

The Mississippi River system is both an artery and a vein. It pumps ag products out of the heartland and into the world while bringing back fertilizer and steel to keep that economic engine purring.

But there’s too much water. Flooding is forcing boats and barges to wait for the river to drop.

It’s been almost three months since massive flooding from the Missouri River washed over parts of Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, but for many farmers, recovery has been slow. Continued wet weather and lingering high water has delayed planting for many growers who can’t afford to miss out on a good crop this season.

“If you walk across mud, just think about running a tractor and planter across it,” said Scott Olson, who farms corn and soybeans in northeast Nebraska. “You can’t touch it. There’s nothing you can do with it.”

Between the growing warehouse district and the south side of Peoria, Illinois, sits 1312 SW Adams Street. The city-owned building looks like a great space for a haunted house: cracked paint, holes, shattered glass and pieces of drywall littering the staircases.

But officials and economic development groups have another idea. They put up booths and led tours of the building in late May, showing how it could be used to bring health services and healthy food to an area that’s been losing businesses like grocery stores and for years.

Organizers also envision it as a place for local farmers to team up and sell their food to places they might not otherwise provide a big enough bounty for.

Cow guts are quite the factory. Grass goes in, microbes help break it down and make hydrogen, then other microbes start converting it to another gas. In the end, you get methane, manure and meat.

One of those things is not like the other. Methane emissions are considered the second-worst greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, according to Stanford University professor Rob Jackson.

Use Of Controversial Weed Killer Glyphosate Skyrockets On Midwest Fields

May 28, 2019

Farmers have been using the weed killer glyphosate – a key ingredient of the product Roundup – at soaring levels even as glyphosate has become increasingly less effective and as health concerns and lawsuits mount.

Nationwide, the use of glyphosate on crops increased from 13.9 million pounds in 1992 to 287 million pounds in 2016, according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey.

On July 28, 2017, a central Iowa emergency dispatcher received a 911 call from a man in a corn field.

“I had workers that were detasseling,” said the caller, referring to the job of manually pulling the tops off standing corn stalks. “Some may have gotten sprayed by a plane.”

More than 2 million people in the U.S. work in or near agriculture fields that are treated with pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency has strict policies about what those workers need to know about pesticide risks, when they can be in those fields and what they should do if they come into contact with chemicals.

For every crop in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency carries out a rigorous set of tests to determine which pesticides are safest. How and when a pesticide is used can depend on how that crop is consumed by the average person — is it ingested, inhaled or applied topically?

It’s a precise science that aims to keep consumers safe from potentially toxic residues. But, like most federal regulations, none of it applies to the marijuana industry.      

As grassland and prairies gave way to farmland in the Midwest, habitats for some native birds disappeared. There’s a relatively new program in central Illinois looking to restore wetlands for migrating birds and help farmers at the same time.

The program to help them is limited but is secure for now. However, the future for both the bird and the program could be on shakier ground in just a few years.

In a recent national survey, farmers said the biggest threat to their livelihoods wasn’t low commodity prices or global trade policies. It was the rising cost of health insurance.

It’s one of the reasons why state farm bureaus have jumped into the insurance game in Iowa, Tennessee and Nebraska, and are trying to in Kansas.

There are thousands of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, around the United States, but no one knows the exact number.

Two Stanford University professors published research this week in the journal Nature Sustainability, saying there’s an easy way to count CAFOs: Teach a computer to do it for them.

Fears of a highly contagious and deadly pig disease have prompted officials to cancel the World Pork Expo in Iowa this June.

A Silicon Valley startup is pitting itself against major seed companies, alleging that those companies are price gouging in the Heartland. Farmers Business Network’s stated motive is to help farmers by crunching numbers and providing transparency, but it is positioning itself to become a player in the seed business, too.

Farm income has taken a long, hard fall, dropping 50 percent since hitting a high point in 2013. Add to that near-record levels of farm debt, and you have a recipe for financial stress.

But while economists say they can see storm clouds building, it’s not a full-blown crisis. That’s because relatively few farms have been pushed past the breaking point into Chapter 12 bankruptcy — or, worse, into losing the farm entirely.

Family structures—and farms themselves—are much more complicated than they used to be. Today, farm transition and land transfer are now among the hardest conversations families face. (This story was  produced in collaboration with The New Food Economy.)

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