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Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Final Farm Bill Shows Hemp's In, Food-Aid Work Requirements Are Out

The long-awaited final version of the farm bill was unveiled Monday night, and it hews somewhat closely to the previous piece of massive legislation — aside from legalizing hemp on a national level.

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Two cowboys work the pens of cattle at a feedlot in southwest Kansas.
Peggy Lowe / File/Harvest Public Media

On a feedlot in far southwest Kansas, two cowboys on horseback move cattle on the high dusty plains, spread out like dozens of football fields stitched together with miles of fences. Their “Buenos dias! Buenos dias!” greetings mix with moos on a hot summer morning.

They’re two of the 400 employees who work on the feedlot, which is one of the largest in the U.S. in a state that ranks third in meat production. 

Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media file photo

Between the time a cut of steak or pound of hamburger goes from cattle farm to grocery shelf, it more than likely passes through one of three companies: Tyson Foods, Cargill or JBS.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the top four beef processors hold 85 percent of the market share, controlling the beef market to the point that some farmers believe the companies’ clout unfairly influences livestock prices.

Last month, the USDA withdrew a rule proposed in the final weeks of the Obama administration that would have made it easier for cattle producers to raise objections if they thought meatpackers weren’t giving them a fair price.

Fewer Regulations Heighten Cities’ Concerns Over Water Quality, Cost To Clean It Up

Nov 3, 2017
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio

There’s a city council election in Des Moines soon, and voters have questions about the rivers where the city draws its water supply.

“Is (the water) safe to drink? Is it safe to consume?” candidate Michael Kiernan says he’s been asked.

Clovis Withdraws From USDA Nomination In Wake of Ties To 2016 Election Investigation

Nov 2, 2017
Courtesy of Iowans for Sam Clovis

Updated 12:30 p.m. Nov. 2 — Sam Clovis, who ran President Donald Trump's campaign in Iowa, has withdrawn his nomination to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientist position. Clovis was linked this week to the federal investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Clovis sent Trump a letter, dated Nov. 1, that says the political climate "has made it impossible for me to receive balanced and fair consideration for this position" during his Nov. 9 Senate confirmation hearing.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue (center) waits to welcome a new appointee to the agency. The event was also supposed to include the appointment of Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey (left), but his nomination is blocked in the Senate.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

An event Monday planned to mark two Midwestern political appointees joining the U.S. Department of Agriculture was partly spoiled by a political dispute over biofuels.  

Illinois Pesticide Retailers Detail The Effects Of Likely Dicamba Drift

Oct 30, 2017
Dicamba-resistant soybeans sit in a field in rural McLean County, Illinois, in August.
Darrell Hoemann / Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting file photo

More than 100 Illinois pesticide retailers reported the weed killer dicamba drifted and damaged soybeans even when it was sprayed in good conditions, according to a recent industry survey.

New Ag Guestworker Program Legislation Headed To US House

Oct 25, 2017
File: Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

A bill to overhaul the federal agricultural guestworker program cleared its first hurdle Wednesday and is headed to the full U.S. House.

The Republican-majority House Judiciary Committee passed the bill 17-16 after two days of debate and over the objections of many Democrats. It’s likely to clear the House, though its future in the Senate is unclear.

Protect Pollinators, Plant Trees? Nebraska Researchers Look To Land For Answers

Oct 25, 2017
Courtesy of Judy Wu-Smart

You don't need bees and butterflies to grow corn and soybeans, but a majority of farmers do rely on pesticides, which don't discriminate between helpful and harmful insects.

The widespread use of pesticides is considered a major factor in the large-scale decline in bee populations in recent years. But it's unlikely farmers will give up or limit pesticide use, so instead, a team of researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is looking at designing agricultural landscapes with pollinator health in mind.

In other Plains and Midwestern states, researchers are having farmers plant prairie strips between fields to help combat water contamination from pesticides and fertilizer. UNL's five-year project wants to find out whether windbreaks, planted pollinator habitat, cover crops or a combination of those techniques can help limit pesticide drift.

Eric Thalken works down a row of organic corn, pulling back the husks. "There's a mindset that organic is ugly and low yielding and it just doesn't have to be," Thalken says.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Burkey Farms in southeast Nebraska looked into the future a couple of years ago and didn’t like what it saw — a continuation of depressed prices for conventional corn and soybeans. So, the families who run the farm together started discussing how the operation would make money if they couldn’t earn more from their crops.  

Their conversation took a turn toward organics, a $40 billion industry and growing, especially in Iowa and Colorado.

These sunflowers grow on research fields in Ames, Iowa, which is a state with almost no commodity sunflower production. But places like Kansas, North Dakota, Colorado, Minnesota, Wyoming and Texas, sunflowers are a commonly rotated row crop.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Plant breeder Jessica Barb is on a mission to improve how sunflowers self-pollinate, a trait that'll be increasingly important to farmers are wild bee populations diminish. Her research tool of choice: a paper towel. 

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Special Series: Dangerous Jobs, Cheap Meat

The human toll of our meat habit