Harvest Public Media

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.

Douglas rattles around a collection of glass jars in the storage closet of his Denver apartment. They’re filled with a small grain, like barley, and covered in a soft white fungus — a mushroom spawn. Soon, he’ll transplant it in large plastic bins filled nutrients like dried manure and coconut fiber.

Over the course of two weeks, mushrooms that naturally contain psilocybin, a psychoactive ingredient, will sprout.

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.

By The Numbers: Glyphosate Use In The Midwest For Corn, Soybeans

Jun 12, 2019

Glyphosate is the most-used pesticide on U.S. crops, an estimated 287 million pounds in 2016, according to an analysis by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Midwest saw 65 percent of the nation’s total agriculture glyphosate use on crops, a 12-state territory that includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and North Dakota.

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.

Andrew Joyce won’t be growing any tomatoes this summer. His three-acre produce farm in Malden, Missouri, will lie fallow. The cause: damage from the weed killer dicamba.

It’s been five years since the last ag census. Since 2012, the U.S. has lost about 70,000 farms, saw the average age of farmers go up and prices for certain commodities go down.

A company that makes dicamba-resistant soybeans and cotton wants to expand use of the controversial weed killer to corn. But critics and experts questioning the logic of the petition.

At Hummel’s Nissan in Des Moines, Kevin Caldwell sells the all-electric Leaf. Driving one is basically the same as driving a typical gasoline or gas-electric hybrid car, he said, except for a few new features like the semi-autonomous hands-free option. And the fact that you plug it in rather than pumping gas into it.

About a quarter to a third of Caldwell’s Leaf customers are farmers, some of whom grow corn for ethanol.

In theory, closing off China’s soybean market due to the trade dispute with the U.S. on top of generally low prices for the commodity should affect all industry players, big to small. Agriculture economist Pat Westhoff begged to differ.

The U.S. trade war with China has created a financial burden for farmers and companies that import Chinese goods. Consumers, on the other hand, have mostly been spared from the conflict.

That could all change if this month’s negotiations between the U.S. and China don’t go well.

The U.S. trade war with China, now approaching a year, is often framed as hurting manufacturing and agriculture the most. But that’s mainly collateral damage in an international struggle over power and technology that has its roots in the Cold War, when China was still considered a largely undeveloped country.

A stand of trees in the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri looks a little more sparse than what is often depicted in a forest.

The trees are eight to ten feet apart, and that’s on purpose, fire management officer Greg Painter said.

Dicamba, the controversial herbicide used on soybeans and cotton, is responsible for thousands of acres of damaged crops in recent years.

Experts say that despite new federal rules that go into effect in 2019, the drift will continue but the victims will be different.

Back in 2010, there were high hopes in Colorado that locally grown hops, the plant that gives beer a bitter or citrusy flavor, would help feed the then booming craft beer market. In just six years, the industry sprouted from almost nothing to 200 acres, according to the trade association Hop Growers of America.

Images
Abby Wendle / Harvest Public Media

Gov. Bruce Rauner has declared a “harvest emergency” across Illinois.

That means farmers can exceed vehicle weight limits when trucking their crops to market.

The details of the federal government’s $12 billion aid package for farmers affected by trade disputes are out — and soybean farmers are the major beneficiaries.

Back in 2012, one of the major employers in Montrose, Colorado, a sawmill, was in receivership and on the brink of collapse. At the time, local media reported that the cost of logging timber had become prohibitively expensive, and the log yard was nearly empty.  

These days, logs are stacked high next to a humming mill. Production is up 20 percent from even just 2016.

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