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       Harvest reporters and their cameras in the field

University of Nebraska-Lincoln student research technicians and Brandon Stewart, left, and Rob Fenton, test samples as part of a study on E. coli. (Jack Williams for Harvest Public Media)
University of Nebraska-Lincoln student research technicians and Brandon Stewart, left, and Rob Fenton, test samples as part of a study on E. coli. (Jack Williams for Harvest Public Media)

When the dangerous organism known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli gets into the food system, it can be deadly. 

That’s why more than 50 researchers at 18 different institutions are hoping to find ways to identify and wipe-out the strain in beef, as part of a major USDA-sponsored study. The $25 million project began in 2012 and was recently extended for at least another year.

So far, researchers have found ways to differentiate harmless strains of the E. coli bacteria, which is naturally present in most humans and warm-blooded animals, from the nasty Shiga toxin-producing kind, known as STEC.

Contrary to popular belief, most food labels today don’t say anything about the safety of the food in the package. (File: Brian Seifferlein/Harvest Public Media)
Contrary to popular belief, most food labels today don’t say anything about the safety of the food in the package. (File: Brian Seifferlein/Harvest Public Media)

It’s a classic conundrum that comes up every time you’re cleaning out the fridge: the package label says the food is past its prime, but it’s not moldy or smelly.

Do you give it a chance or toss it in the trash?

For a great number of consumers it’s the latter, but now some of the largest food retail trade groups are hoping to settle the score and clear up the confusion in hopes of keeping more food in bellies, rather than sending heaps of food to landfills.

The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturer's Association, two of the food industry’s largest trade groups, issued new recommendations to retailers and food-makers to modernize their labeling systems and narrow their label language to just two phrases: “Best if used by” to tell consumers that the food is still ok to eat after the date, but freshness matters so eat it quickly; and “Use by” to tell shoppers that the food has a shelf-life and should be eaten before the date on the package.

The recommendations by the trade groups are voluntary, but many expect the measures to work their way deep into the food system.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln inspect a field planted with cover crops. (Jack Williams for Harvest Public Media)
Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln inspect a field planted with cover crops. (Jack Williams for Harvest Public Media)

What’s old is new again, at least on some Midwest farms.

Winter cover crops have been used by farmers for centuries, but over the last decade or so they have once again started to become more popular.

The idea is to create biomass in fields that would typically be dormant over the winter. Cover crops like vetch, rye, kale and winter peas can grow after a corn harvest, maintaining live roots in the ground on farm fields in an effort to control erosion, preserve moisture in the soil, and to keep damaging chemicals on fields and out of streams.

Aerial Imagery is the most common use for drones in agriculture. Taking inch-by-inch resolution imagery allows for precise use of chemicals and the detecting issues with equipment. (Jesse Howe for Harvest Public Media)
Aerial Imagery is the most common use for drones in agriculture. Taking inch-by-inch resolution imagery allows for precise use of chemicals and the detecting issues with equipment. (Jesse Howe for Harvest Public Media)

Drones are not just a hot gift item or a weapon for use by the military. They’re also helping farmers change the landscape of agriculture. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that 80 percent of drones in the commercial sector will be used for agriculture, according to ​USA Today​.

Alongside unmanned tractors and satellite technology, drones are seen by many as part of the next generation of “precision agriculture” tools, able to use Big Data to improve agricultural practices and efficiency. Though still in its infancy as a tool, here are five ways drones are already impacting the food system.

The federal government expected net farm income and farm profits to fall in 2016, the third-straight year of declines. That means farmers and ranchers are taking a closer look at their finances, and many aren’t very optimistic about their prospects for 2017.

The Nebraska Power Farming Show in Lincoln is kind of like the Super Bowl of farm equipment, with almost 900 vendors and thousands of producers from all over the Midwest in attendance. It you’re looking for a place to find out about some of the tough economic choices farmers are facing, it’s a pretty good place to start.     

Glacial Till Vineyards near Palmyra, Nebraska, started producing hard cider after a down grape season and it has since outpaced its wine production. (Jack Williams for Harvest Public Media)
Glacial Till Vineyards near Palmyra, Nebraska, started producing hard cider after a down grape season and it has since outpaced its wine production. (Jack Williams for Harvest Public Media)

The Midwest is known for a lot of things, but hard apple cider isn’t one of them. At least not yet.

Popular hard cider brands like Angry Orchard and Woodchuck are made on the East Coast. Other well-known brands like Strongbow are made in Europe. Nebraska, however, is now home to a small cider-making scene.

Because hard cider production is similar to winemaking, some vineyards in Nebraska have started adding the venerable beverage to their product list, using capacity that would otherwise be unused to make thousands of gallons of the alcoholic drink.

Glacial Till Vineyards, near the small town of Palmyra in southeast Nebraska, started producing hard apple cider a few years ago after a shaky grape season. Today, it outpaces their wine production. Several other Nebraska wineries have also jumped onboard.

Marty Stange, the environmental supervisor in Nebraska, speaks with Harvest Public Media’s Grant Gerlock about city of Hastings’ plan to ensure clean drinking water. (Brian Seifferlein/Harvest Public Media)
Marty Stange, the environmental supervisor in Nebraska, speaks with Harvest Public Media’s Grant Gerlock about city of Hastings’ plan to ensure clean drinking water. (Brian Seifferlein/Harvest Public Media)

When farmers put nitrogen fertilizer on their fields it soaks down into the soil and turns into nitrates that feed crops. But when there are too many nitrates, water from rain or irrigation carries those extra nutrients past the point where roots can reach and eventually to the aquifer below.

For the cities and towns that depend on the underground aquifer or surface water for their drinking water, that can be a big problem.

Scientists at the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Insectary raise insects adapted to attacking bugs and plants harmful to agriculture. (Dan Garrison for Harvest Public Media)
Scientists at the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Insectary raise insects adapted to attacking bugs and plants harmful to agriculture. (Dan Garrison for Harvest Public Media)

Halfway down a dead-end road in the small farming town of Palisade, Colorado, is the research facility known as “The Insectary.”  Scientists at the lab develop “biocontrol insects,” insects adapted to attacking bugs and plants harmful to agriculture. Colorado’s Insectary is the oldest and largest facility of its kind in the United States.

The pioneering program began in response to a peach pest called oriental fruit moth that devastated the local crop in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Scientists saved the famed Palisade peach industry by successfully introducing the parasitic wasp, Macrocentrus ancylivorus, which was the perfect predator to control the moth.   

Today the facility’s angular, modern design stands out in its rural setting, but it reflects the groundbreaking science going on inside. Room after room of labs and two greenhouses are full of pesky insects and noxious weeds that have been introduced into the United States accidentally or on purpose over the years and are proven plagues to food and field. 

Many food companies actively market their products as non-GMO, catering to increasing consumer awareness on the issue. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)
Many food companies actively market their products as non-GMO, catering to increasing consumer awareness on the issue. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)

The U.S. Senate late Thursday approved a bill that outlaws states’ efforts to put labels on food products made with genetically-modified organisms and instead gives companies more leeway in disclosing GMOs.

The measure must still be passed by the U.S. House, but there are lots of questions. Harvest Public Media has been watching this ongoing battle for more than a year and we have answers for the five big questions about this latest volley in this food fight.

Beef carcasses cool off in a storage cooler at the JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, in this file photo. (File: Stephanie Paige Ogburn/KUNC)
Beef carcasses cool off in a storage cooler at the JBS plant in Greeley, Colorado, in this file photo. (File: Stephanie Paige Ogburn/KUNC)

Hundreds of thousands of people go to work each day preparing the beef, pork and poultry that ends up on our dinner tables. Their workplace is among the most dangerous in the United States.

Fatalities are high and life-long injuries are common. Between 2004-2013, 151 meat and poultry workers were killed on the job, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. The furious pace of production may also contribute to elevated levels of repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, and workers face a lifetime of pain.

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