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Marshalltown, Iowa, has been home to a slaughterhouse since at least 1880 when the original plant that is now JBS Marshalltown Pork was built. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)
Marshalltown, Iowa, has been home to a slaughterhouse since at least 1880 when the original plant that is now JBS Marshalltown Pork was built. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)

When I walked onto the floor of the JBS Marshalltown Pork Plant in central Iowa, I expected the sensory assault to hit my nose first. But turns out it was my ears that first felt the most severe impact. The processing line is noisy. It’s also chilly, to protect the meat. That also prevents the sort of noxious smell I had anticipated. Instead of an animal stench, my nose mostly registered cleaning products and a raw meat smell as if I just opened a package of pork chops in my own kitchen.

Myriad conveyor belts continuously move dangling, blood-drained, headless carcasses; sides of ribs; and rough-edged bellies throughout the cavernous operation, contributing to the noise. Power tools, particularly circular saws in various sizes, whirred and buzzed as employees used them to convert animal parts into cuts of meat.

My media tour was arranged by the National Pork Producers Council and Iowa Pork Producers Association, each of whom sent a representative, in coordination with World Pork Expo. Besides me, there was one additional agriculture reporter and we were both on our first slaughterhouse tour. As part of our series on the precarious working conditions of many slaughterhouse workers, “Dangerous Jobs, Cheap Meat,” Harvest Public Media reporters requested entry to various other slaughter facilities, but were denied. Here, our JBS hosts told us we could not take photos or video, make audio recordings or quote the company without permission.

Some companies, like General Mills, have already begun labeling their products that contain genetically-modified ingredients (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)

Just a week before a Vermont law kicks-in requiring labels on food containing genetically modified ingredients, U.S. Senate agriculture leaders announced a deal Thursday that takes the power out of states’ hands and sets a mandatory national system for GM disclosures on food products.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, unveiled the plan that had been negotiated for weeks with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan.

Senate Democrats from farm country called it a win for consumers and families, while Roberts said it would end “denigrating biotechnology and causing confusion in the marketplace” brought on by the state law.

But it was clearly an uneasy compromise, with critics of the plan making for strange bedfellows on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  Both U.S. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Democrat who supports his state’s mandatory law, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, which wants a voluntary standard, announced they don’t want to support the Roberts-Stabenow deal.

Large stockpiles are driving prices lower for some of the nation’s most important crops. (File: Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)
Large stockpiles are driving prices lower for some of the nation’s most important crops. (File: Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)

Midwest farmers may be facing some of toughest financial times they have experienced in three decades, largely thanks to low prices for some of the region’s biggest crops.

The average net farm income for farmers in Kansas, for instance, plummeted in 2015 to just $4,568, according to a report released this week by the Kansas Farm Management Association (KFMA). The figure is less than 5 percent of the previous year’s average of $128,731.

The 2015 KFMA report measures the average net farm income of its members, which include about 10 percent of Kansas farmers that gross more than $100,000 annually, and found the lowest average level of nominal net farm income in Kansas since 1985.

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