Harvest Public Media

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.

When countries like China buy soybeans and grain, that journey might start in a port in the land-locked state of Oklahoma. 

Farmers in states like Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas and Colorado rely on a 445-mile water highway called the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System to ship their crops like soybeans and grain across the world. 

The Biden administration is fighting climate change in part by pushing for cars and trucks to be more fuel efficient and reduce emissions, but so far, that talk hasn’t landed in another mode of transportation: barges.

In light of more pressure to advance the cause of green energy, the future of the barge industry is unclear, and it could have a major impact on Midwestern rivers.

Levees protect people, towns, and agriculture from flooding. But two years ago, parts of the Missouri River and its tributaries reached record crests, and many levees failed. Now there’s a rare effort to build a levee higher to better defend one southwest Iowa town. 


Farmers along the Missouri River won a mass action federal lawsuit last December against the Army Corps of Engineers for land damages they say are traceable to the agency’s management of the river. 

The plant-based meat industry has grown rapidly over the past few years, but public perception is one of the biggest obstacles to more expansion.

Billion dollars companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are giving consumers other choices besides meat. Even Burger King is offering a vegan Whopper. Experts say the growth isn’t coming from vegetarians or vegans but from meat eaters occasionally choosing meat alternatives when shopping or eating out.

Cheryl LeFevre doesn’t drink the water in Hobart, Oklahoma without a filter. Without a filter, sometimes the water smells like chlorine or rust. Sometimes, it even comes out brown. She has to clean out her filter every two weeks, with what looks like sediment inside. 

As she pours water into a glass from her kitchen on a late afternoon in December, the water comes out clear. She says it still tastes like dirty water and has an aftertaste. 

“Some days it's like this, you know, clear and just fine,” LeFevre says. “And some days it's got all of that gunk in it.” 

When it comes to identifying cows, Jake Calvert, a rancher from Norman, OK, goes by the KISS Principle: keep it simple, stupid. 

“Green is for grade cattle. Pink is for our purebred cows, and that's because all of them exhibit just a little bit more femininity than our grade cattle. Yellow is the bull,” Calvert says.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, ethanol producers feared the worst: a world indefinitely stuck at home. As Americans hunkered down for lockdowns, gasoline demand across the country plummeted.

Ethanol industry leaders issued warnings that the financial repercussions of widespread lockdowns could be significant to plants across the country. They later reported half of the nation’s facilities were forced to shut down.

 

Dusty Spurgeon is proud to be a female farmer. 

As the new school year gets underway, some students are in classrooms and others are at home but one thing is now clear: all kids can get free school meals. That’s because the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program and the Summer Food Service Program, has extended the pandemic provisions it introduced last spring, which include eliminating the requirement that families apply for reduced-fees or free meals. 

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.

Lexington, Nebraska, is just one of the many rural communities that has long dealt with food insecurity, but the global pandemic both intensified need in the town of 11,000 residents and presented new challenges in getting people food. 

 

Ja Nelle Pleasure never used to think twice about putting food on the table for her family.

Chris Bohr’s farm in Martinsburg, Missouri, has hundreds of acres of soybeans and corn. It also has a 5,000 head hog barn that requires a lot of electricity to power its ventilation system, cooling fans and lights.

About fifty yards away from the barn are three rows of solar panels. Bohr is among a growing number of farmers that are generating solar power to meet their needs. 

Bohr received a Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to help pay for his solar panels. And the number of farmers applying for the grants is going up.

A federal court in California recently vacated the three popular dicamba herbicides

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. 

“All of my parents’ siblings were migrants, my grandparents were migrants,” Mendoza says. “So it’s just something that was the norm for me.” 

Studies have found the rates of mental illness and suicide are higher for farmers. They work long hours, have limited social contact and are at the mercy of factors such as weather. Now the COVID-19 pandemic is creating even greater challenges to their livelihood—and mental health. 

Lisa Marlow is worried about her students. Marlow is a school nurse and educator with the Murphysboro Community Unit School District 186. 

The district serves primarily low-income students in a rural part of southern Illinois. 

When school is in session, Marlow says having eyes on students, especially those with chronic conditions like Type 1 diabetes or asthma, is crucial.

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.

 

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.

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."

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 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. 

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.  

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. 

Farmers have been struggling for years to hire enough workers, and increasingly turn to the H-2A temporary visa program.

Previously, farmers took out print newspaper ads for positions they were hiring for. But starting in late October, the U.S. Department of Labor will manage those postings on a government website and use state workforce agencies to advertise jobs locally.

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.


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. 

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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