Research

Courtesy of Les North/MayerSeedline

Puerto Rico’s hot winter days and warm nights have played a key role in the global seed business for more than 30 years. So, the devastation wrought on the U.S. territory by Hurricane Maria in September stretches to the croplands of the Midwest and Great Plains.

Fields in Puerto Rico are used for research, development and/or testing of up to 85 percent of the commercial corn, soybean and other hybrid seeds grown in the U.S., according to the Puerto Rico Agricultural Biotechnology Industry Association.

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media

During the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, spectators will turn their eyes upward to see the moon pass in front of the sun.

But many Midwest scientists will turn their eyes and cameras to the plants and animals here on the ground. And they're not sure what will happen.

In the global debate over neonicotinoid pesticides, the company that makes most of them has relied on one primary argument to defend its product: The evidence that these chemicals, commonly called "neonics," are harmful to bees has been gathered in artificial conditions, force-feeding bees in the laboratory, rather than in the real world of farm fields.

Bumblebee queens visit flowers of the alpine skypilot. These large bees have a distinctive flight buzz, the bee version of a cargo plane flying from flower to flower.
Courtesy Zoe Moffett / Colorado College

See a bee; hear a buzz.

That is what researchers studying the declining bee population are banking on. A new technique based on recording buzzing bees hopes to show farmers just how much pollinating the native bee population is doing in their fields.  

Vegetable and fruit growers depend on pollinators to do a lot of work in their greenhouses and fields. Pollinators, like bees, flutter about the blossoms on plants and orchard trees, transferring pollen from plant to plant and ensuring that those organisms have a chance at reproducing.

The theft of agricultural trade secrets is a growing problem, according to the FBI.
University of Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability / Flickr

As a group of visiting scientists prepared to board a plane in Hawaii that would take them back home to China, U.S. customs agents found rice seeds in their luggage. Those seeds are likely to land at least one scientist in federal prison.

A study that received funding from the Leopold Center demonstrated that including small grains, such as the oats pictured here in 2016, in field rotations can reduce the need for chemical inputs.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

A leading research center focused on local farmers and environmental conservation is hanging on by a thread, even as the movement to diversify agriculture, which it helped launch, continues to thrive.

The Agriculture Department established research centers in 2014 to translate climate science into real-world ideas for farmers and ranchers adapting to a hotter climate.
File: Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Farmers and ranchers, with their livelihoods intimately tied to weather and the environment, may not be able to depend on research conducted by the government to help them adapt to climate change if the Trump Administration follows through on campaign promises to shift federal resources away from studying the climate.

An Iowa State University lab uses thousands of digital cameras to study how seeds perform.
Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

This summer, in cornfields in Iowa and Nebraska, about a thousand small point-and-shoot digital cameras will be enclosed in waterproof cases, mounted on poles and attached to solar-powered battery chargers. They will take pictures every ten minutes as plants grow; all part of a plan to create better seeds.

“We watch plants go through their normal growth and development and also we watch them respond to environmental stressors, like drought and so forth,” says Pat Schnable, director of the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University.

U.S. farmers compete to sell their goods, like these soybeans in Nebraska, on a world market.
File: Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Imagine you’re a farmer and it’s time to decide what to plant. You need information on supply, demand, prices, outlook -- information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, university extension services, even economists at the Federal Reserve.