In The Field

A western Illinois farmer harvests corn.
Credit Abby Wendle / File: Harvest Public Media

The people and places that make our food system go.

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This year was a very good year for growing wheat, but that means it could be a very bad year for wheat farmers.

There’s a glut on the global wheat market and prices for winter wheat – which is grown all up and down the Great Plains, from Texas to North Dakota– wheat prices this year hit their lowest levels since 2003. Coupled with lower prices for corn, sorghum, and soybeans, many are concerned about the rural economy in the Wheat Belt.

Frank Morris / Harvest Public Media

Like most farmers, Mark Nelson, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat near Louisburg, Kansas, is getting squeezed. He’s paying three times more for seed than he used to, while his corn sells for less than half what it brought four years ago.

“It’s a – that’s a challenge,” Nelson says. “You’re not going to be in the black, let’s put it that way.”

Low commodity prices are rippling up and down the farm economy food chain from the farm to the boardroom, and it has many of the huge companies that control farm inputs looking to a new future.

Standing on a platform above the eastern bank of the Missouri River at the Kansas City, Missouri, Water Services’ intake plant is like being on the deck of a large ship.

Electric turbines create a vibration along the blue railing, where David Greene, laboratory manager for Kansas City Water Services, looks out across the river. Water the color of chocolate milk is sucked up and forced through screens below, picking up all the debris the river carries downstream.  

Farming in the fertile Midwest is tied to an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But scientists are studying new ways to lessen the Midwest’s environmental impact and improve water quality.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts the so-called “dead zone,” an area of sea without enough oxygen to support most marine life, to grow larger than the size of Connecticut, or roughly 6,000 square miles.  

On a gray day, just as the rain begins to fall, Roger Zylstra stops his red GMC Sierra pick-up truck on the side of the road and hops down into a ditch in Jasper County, Iowa. It takes two such stops before he unearths amid the tall weeds and grasses what he’s looking for.

“Here is one of the tiles,” he says, pointing to a pipe about six or eight inches in diameter. Water trickles from it into a culvert that runs under the road after flowing through a network of underground drainage lines below his farm field. “That’s where it outlets.”

Living in the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska means understanding that the water in your well may contain high levels of nitrates and may not be safe to drink.

“When our first son was born in 1980, we actually put a distiller in for our drinking water here in the house,” says Ken Seim, who lives in the Platte Valley near the town of Chapman, Nebraska. “And at that time our water level was a 12 parts per million.”

Contaminated drinking water isn’t just a problem for Flint, Michigan. Many towns and cities across the Midwest and Great Plains face pollution seeping into their water supplies. A big part of the problem: farming and ranching.

St. Louis-based Monsanto, a world agribusiness leader, has agreed to be acquired by the German company Bayer.

Bayer will pay $57 billion dollars, or $128 per share, in a deal that has been in the works since last spring. Regulators still must approve the move. Two other mergers are underway in the industry, with Dow set to combine with DuPont (already the owner of Iowa-based DuPont Pioneer) and ChemChina planning to buy the Swiss company Syngenta.

Sandy Songer of Broken Bow, Oklahoma, has a bit of advice for anyone who wants to watch chainsaw artists in action.

“If you’re going to stay around us very long, you need to put some earplugs in,” she says with a laugh, as chainsaws revved and roared behind her like race cars, drowning out everything else in the background.

From carnival barkers, to Ferris wheels humming, to snorts and moos of livestock shows, late-summer state and county fairs are noisy, chaotic affairs. Add to the din this season: chainsaws buzzing.

This year will be another tight one for farmers, at least if the federal government’s predictions are correct.

Farm income will sink to its lowest point since 2009, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast. The USDA expects net farm income will drop 11.5 percent to $71.5 billion this year, which would mark the third-straight year of falling income.

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