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Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

In the coming months, Congress will map out how it’ll spend upwards of $500 billion on food and farm programs over the next five years.

The massive piece of legislation known as the farm bill affects all taxpayers — whether they know it or not — and runs the gamut from farm safety net and conservation programs to food stamps and loan guarantees for rural hospitals. Since the bill hasn’t been introduced yet, now is the time when interest groups, farmers and others clamor to ensure their desires will be heard.

Alex Smith / Harvest Public Media

A few years ago, Kansas City restaurateur Anton Kotar surveyed the local and national restaurant scenes and concluded his town’s reputation as a steakhouse paradise had slipped.

The problem, he says, is the way conventional beef is raised – bulked up with grain on feedlots, making it cheap and plentiful and changing what Americans expect to taste.

New apartments are being built in Holdrege, Nebraska, where an elementary school used to be.
Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

In places where the unemployment rate is well below the national average — states like Nebraska, Colorado and Iowa — one would think it’d be easier for communities to recruit new residents to fill open jobs.

But the housing market works against rural towns and cities where jobs often stay open because there are too few affordable homes and apartments to buy or rent, or the ones that are affordable need lots of TLC. It’s a situation that threatens to turn low unemployment from an advantage into a liability.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Advanced biofuels have been touted as the next step beyond the corn-based ethanol that’s the bulk of the country’s renewable fuel for cars and trucks. These next-generation options were supposed to bring jobs to rural communities and provide farmers with fresh revenue sources, in addition to reducing the carbon footprint of vehicles.

Nearly a decade of federal incentives encouraged companies to invest in cellulosic technology, which produces ethanol from crop waste such as stalks, cobs and leaves left on fields after harvest, and at least three plants were built in the Midwest since 2014.

But cellulosic ethanol is harder to make than grain ethanol because it uses the inedible and irregular parts of the plants, meaning it was tough for machines to chew up the wet, heavy material. And companies faced other challenges, such as a steady supply, fluctuating markets and stalled policy decisions.

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

Peyton Manning, the NFL quarterback-turned-pitchman, apparently has another side hustle: Certifying shipments of grain as organic for a Nebraska-based agency called OneCert.

Problem is, OneCert president Sam Welsch doesn’t remember hiring Manning for his business, which is accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect everything from small vegetable farms to processing plants and international grain operations.

Frank Morris / Harvest Public Media

It’s a common story: Ambitious kids move from small towns to larger cities, never to look back. When their parents die, the family wealth that’s been built over generations through farming, ranching or agriculture-related businesses often follows the kids, draining the economic lifeblood from those rural communities.

The largest generational transfer of wealth in modern times is expected to happen in the next 10 years and rural foundations in states like Iowa and Nebraska are working hard to retain at least a bit of those hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Members of the Single Action Shooting Society load their rifles and pistols at the Iron Hero match, including Dannette Ray of Boulder, Colorado (left), aka Marie Laveau.
Grant Gerlock / File/Harvest Public Media

Danette Ray is standing inside a re-created train depot, wearing cowboy boots, leather chaps and two six-shooters in holsters at her waist. Before she draws her pistols to fire at a row of targets, Ray calls out: “You get back inside, I’ll cover for ya!” — a line spoken by Jimmy Stewart in the 1957 western Night Passage.

Ray, who goes by the nickname Marie Laveau, competes in cowboy action shooting, a brand of target shooting with historically accurate guns and costumes. There’s yet another dose of theater: In each round, the shooters play out a movie scene.

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. 

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.

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.

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