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       Harvest reporters and their cameras in the field

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.

Meatpacking workers often suffer from repetitive motion injuries (Joe McMullen for Harvest Public Media)
(Joe McMullen for Harvest Public Media)

Meatpacking workers call it “the chain.” Sometimes “the line,” or “la linea.” It sets the pace for all work done at meat processing plants, production rates that force workers to make in the tens of thousands of cuts, slices and other movements for hours at a time.

Those repetitions affect workers’ muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves, causing what is called musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, and resulting in sprains, strains, pains, or inflammation. 

(Kristi Koser for Harvest Public Media)
(Kristi Koser for Harvest Public Media)

At the grocery store, processed foods like cereal, crackers and candy usually maintain the same price for a long time, and inch up only gradually. Economists call these prices “sticky” because they don’t move much even as some of the commodities that go into them do.

Take corn, for example, which can be a major food player as a grain, a starch or a sweetener.  

Corn prices can fluctuate widely, so why don’t products containing corn also see price changes? Why does your cereal pretty much cost $3 per box every week?

It’s partly thanks to the futures market.

Demand is growing for GMO-free labels on food products, according to the Non-GMO Project, one of the principle suppliers of the label. (File: Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)
Demand is growing for GMO-free labels on food products, according to the Non-GMO Project, one of the principle suppliers of the label. (File: Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)

There’s a heated debate happening right now about GMOs and labels.

Big food companies like General Mills, Mars and Kellogg’s say they plan to put labels on their products that tell consumers whether or not the food contains ingredients derived from genetically engineered plants.

So what’s the big deal? What are GMO labels, and what do they tell you? Here are three things you should know.

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