Digging Deeper


Drought tops list of 2012 news

2012 was a year of extremes.

Even while farmers were enjoying record good times, a record drought hit and sent revenues reeling.

Even as consumers demanded to know more about their food, Californians turned down a proposition that called for labeling genetically-modified products.

And as more farmers, ranchers and agribusiness folks turned to social media, social media seemed to turn on the beef industry, thanks to the so-called "pink slime" controversy.

As 2012 comes to a close, we asked you about the story of the year and your replies seemed to reflect, again, those extremes. Because even as high tech gadgets, GPS precision and genetic engineering affect farming, the thing that made the biggest news in 2012 was old Mother Nature.

“The weather this year encompasses so many stories,” Frank Morris, Harvest’s managing supervisor, said. “Drought itself and climate change, crop insurance as the new dominant farm program, the inherent strength of the modern farm economy, the global nature of it and the weather-mitigating effects of modern seeds and farming practices.”

Our readers agreed with Frank. Becky Cunningham of Lansing, Mich., said her top choice was the weird weather.

“The weather issue was particularly salient in Michigan as we lost most of our fruit crop,” she said.

Ariel Morrison of Washington also thought the early spring planting followed by the devastating drought was a top story.

“Environmental connects to agriculture were highlighted by stories on weird weather and the fracking boom,” she said.

Ah yes, the new F-bomb: fracking. That, too, made our list of the top ag stories of 2012:

  • Weird weather – The drought dominated our coverage this year, hitting some Midwestern farmers along the Missouri River who were just cleaning up from last year’s flooding; boosting hopes for drought-resistant corn; and making crop insurance even more important than ever. Still, farmers expected record returns, thanks to shortages and high demand.
  • Farm Bill delayed – Farmers learned once again this year that Congress can be just as unpredictable as Mother Nature. We began our countdown in July, as hopes were still high when the once-every-five-years Farm Bill made it through the ag committees and was passed by the Senate. But just as harvest was coming in this fall, the bill got held up by House conservatives who wanted more cuts in food assistance.  Hardest hit were livestock producers, who lost their safety net just as the drought depleted their feed supplies. As of this writing, the Farm Bill still hangs in the balance and worries now are centered on a Jan. 1 deadline for passage of dairy provisions that could drastically affect milk prices.
  • Record good times in farm country – Despite politics and poor weather, farmers were flush this year. Cropland prices hit records, corn prices were high and beef prices were just slightly less than last year’s records.
  • Expansion of ethanol hurt by corn prices – The drought was also to blame for a sputtering ethanol industry, thanks to high corn prices. Some governors and livestock producers asked the government to waive the mandate on ethanol production requirements, but the EPA turned down the proposal.
  • Proposition 37 fails, food labeling takes a hit – Those opposed to genetically-modified food had high hopes that Californians would be the first in the country to pass a measure that would require GMO products to be labeled. But Prop 37 went down after industry giants like Monsanto, Kraft and Dow AgroSciences spent $46 million to defeat it.
  • Stanford organic study controversy – We learned this year that there are many more reasons to eat organic than just potential health benefits after a Stanford University study found that organic food isn’t more nutritious.
  • ‘Big Beef’ series focuses on food safety – A year-long investigation by the Kansas City Star, in collaboration with Harvest Public Media, found problems with “mechanically tenderized meat,” an industry dominated by four big meat packers and a well-organized lobbying effort to market beef as healthy.
  • ‘Pink slime’ controversy – Several of our readers named this issue one of the most important of the year, pointing to consumers growing need to know what is in their food. After ABC News reported that “lean beef trimmings” were sprayed with ammonia – and used in school lunches – social media sent the story viral, getting a reaction from beef state politicians, putting some plants out of business, and earning ABC News a big legal battle
  • Farm country takes to social media – Even as social media was, well, sliming a farm product, farmers, ranchers and agribusiness were taking to Facebook and Twitter. The Peterson Brother of Kansas had more than 15 minutes of fame with their viral parody “I’m Farming and I Grow It;” a study showed that 76 percent of young farmers and ranchers were using social media; and the AgChat Foundation continued to farm the new media frontier.
  • Fracking booms, farmers wary -- While the fracking stories have been numerous for some time, the energy extraction method's affects on farming were covered more extensively this year. Celebrities got involved, as did celebrity chefs, and the issue also became political. Stories on fracking also took a turn towards the environmental, as an EPA report linked it to water pollution. Expect the issue to gain even more of a mainstream foothold next year, as an anti-fracking movie, "Promised Land," starring Matt Damon, will be released.

How did we do? Did we miss any big stories? Tell us what you think by clicking here and sharing your thoughts with the Harvest Network.