Harvest Public Media

A new business in Iowa wants to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol plants. It would pave the way for biorefineries in Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas to deliver carbon-neutral fuel to the market.

With more than 20 million acres of corn and soybeans, Illinois is among the top U.S. producers of both those crops. To make it all happen, the state relies on thousands of farmworkers — some who travel to the state for seasonal work and others, like 35-year-old Saraí, who call Illinois home.

Carbon Is A New Cash Crop For Some Farmers

Feb 24, 2021

There’s been a lot of hype around how farmers can make money from selling the carbon their plants naturally remove from the air, but there are still questions about how much of a difference these markets can make in reducing greenhouse gases.  


It’s a cold February afternoon, and Alvin Lee’s cows are hungry. He says he has to put three or four bales of hay out every other day, and he only has about 10 left. 

New hay is expensive -- about $40 per bale. He managed to get some for $20 each, but they are three years old. If this keeps up, he’ll have to scrape together money for more hay, he says. 

Lee used to work in construction, but because of injuries from his time in the Marine Corps, he had to stop working. He moved to Wewoka, Oklahoma 25 years ago and bought 160 acres of land, which he hopes is his legacy. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of meatpacking plants across the country have struggled to contain outbreaks.

Several large meat processing companies recently settled price-fixing lawsuits, but it’s unlikely those payments will change much in the food business, experts say.

Tyson agreed to a $221.5 million settlement with three consumer and purchasing groups that filed suit against the poultry giant. Chicken producer Pilgrim’s Pride and pork company JBS also settled similar complaints. 

A series of studies at Purdue University show it’s less expensive for companies to continue price fixing and pay fines instead of reforming their practices.

For more than a decade, Saraí has been a farmworker, cultivating corn and soybeans in the fields of central Illinois. She moved to the U.S. from Mexico to find work that would allow her to better support her family.

Cheryl LeFevre doesn’t drink the water in Hobart, Oklahoma without a filter. Without a filter, sometimes the water smells like chlorine or rust. Sometimes, it even comes out brown. She has to clean out her filter every two weeks, with what looks like sediment inside. 

As she pours water into a glass from her kitchen on a late afternoon in December, the water comes out clear. She says it still tastes like dirty water and has an aftertaste. 

“Some days it's like this, you know, clear and just fine,” LeFevre says. “And some days it's got all of that gunk in it.” 

 

Hemp is a hard crop to grow -- just ask Jay Kata.

Balance sheets for farms may look better at the end of 2020 than they have in years. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest forecast

Some expenses have been lower this year, like diesel to power farm equipment, interest on bank loans and livestock. 

While president-elect Joe Biden has been under pressure to choose a very diverse and forward-thinking cabinet, he’s gone back in time for his nomination to be Secretary of Agriculture.

His pick, Tom Vilsack, served in that position for all eight years of the Obama administration. And while some see the choice as safe and a good compromise, others from both sides of the political spectrum are not happy.

“I was not impressed with Vilsack,” said Darvin Brantledge, a cattle and corn farmer who owns a 1,200-acre plot of land in western Missouri and who voted for Biden.

In late July 2019, a group of migrant farmworkers from south Texas was working in a cornfield in DeWitt County, Ill., when suddenly a crop duster flew overhead, spraying them with pesticides. Panicked, the crew, which included teenagers and a pregnant woman, ran off the field with clothes doused in pesticides. Their eyes and throats burned and some had trouble breathing.

It happened again two weeks later, this time twice within 30 minutes.

A joint effort by federal and state governments to help small meatpacking plants increase their capacity is encountering some bumps. 

Earlier this year, COVID-19 outbreaks as large slaughterhouses and meat processing plants led to temporary closures. That resulted in higher prices and meat shortages at grocery stores, which in turn led some consumers to look at local meat from small, mostly rural processing plants.

While that demand was good for the industry, it also overtaxed the small processors’ ability to keep up.

 

Dusty Spurgeon is proud to be a female farmer. 

The surge in online shopping is helping the U.S. Postal Service stay afloat financially, but the influx of packages is straining rural letter carriers across the country. 

An increase in online orders is projected to help the postal service run until September 2021. Ronnie Stutts, the president of the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association, says while the increase in mail is good, they are facing a worker shortage because a large percentage rural carriers are still on leave. 

Farmers are wrapping up the harvest in much of the Corn Belt and finally seeing how much they can get out of derecho-damaged fields. The August windstorm slammed 3.6 million acres of corn in Iowa alone, leaving some stalks almost flat on the ground and many others standing with a pronounced tilt.

At the time, agronomists said the angle of damage would influence whether the grain could be harvested and they couldn’t predict how much the injured plants would yield. 

Much of the Great Plains is experiencing drought: So far, at least half of Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa, and Oklahoma are abnormally dry, with large areas experiencing severe drought.

For Nathan Bradford Jr., work doesn’t end after his full-time job. When he’s not working at a natural gas processing plant, he’s ranching in Bristow, Oklahoma.  

“If I’m off and I’m not on the ranch, I’m probably sick,” Bradford says. 

His day usually starts around 4:30 a.m., working the cattle and maintaining the plots of land he inherited from his ancestors. He calls his business G Line Meats in honor of his ancestors who moved from Georgia to farm. 

 

On the outskirts of Rantoul, in east-central Illinois, about 100 migrant farmworkers are living at an old hotel in a sleepy part of town.

In the midst of what has otherwise been a heavy, unrelenting year, many Midwesterners have found solace in the dirt.

 

The U-S Department of Agriculture is projecting farm income will increase significantly this year, but that’s only because of an unprecedented amount of government payments that could top $40 billion.

The latest Farm Income Report from the USDA shows net farm will total $102 billion, a 23% increase over last year. But 36% of that money is coming from federal subsidies intended to make up for coronavirus losses.

Without that aid, net farm income would be down more than $10 billion this year.

Farmers are looking closely at what they might be able to expect from four more years of Donald Trump versus a Joe Biden administration, but they aren't finding a lot of solid answers. And any difference may not matter, anyway.

To evaluate Donald Trump’s agriculture position, the best evidence is his actions and policies over the past 3 1/2 years. 

The highlight of that time has been creating a series of tariffs that has led to retaliation and a trade war with China and other countries, largely hurting foreign markets for farmers.

So far, 2020 has not been kind to beef producers. Farmers and economists say the food system fielded a one-two punch that triggered huge market disruptions and losses. 

Farmers in the South were paid more on average than those in the Midwest and Great Plains from a government program set up to offset the losses due to the trade war with China, according to a new study from the Government Accountability Office.

After China placed retaliatory tariffs on crops, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Market Facilitation Program to help farmers make up the lost income. 

As workplaces and schools go online to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many people are relying on a strong internet connection. But in some states, less than 50% of rural households have access to broadband, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission. 

First restaurants and school cafeterias closed, then COVID-19 outbreaks at meat-packing plants slowed processing. In the spring, shoppers started seeing signs declaring limits on the amount of fresh meat they could buy in one trip. Prices for some products crept up. 

Lexington, Nebraska, is just one of the many rural communities that has long dealt with food insecurity, but the global pandemic both intensified need in the town of 11,000 residents and presented new challenges in getting people food. 

 

At a campaign rally in Wisconsin last week, President Trump announced U.S. farmers will receive an additional $14 billion in coronavirus relief aid.

 

Dairy Farmers want U.S. trade policy to focus on opening markets and fending off competition from the European Union and New Zealand.

U.S. dairy exports were up about 10% in the first half of 2020 compared to last year. But that’s not enough to return the sector to profitability, according to dairy farmers and producers that are participating in a series of virtual town hall meetings on trade issues.

Farmers were expected to produce a record corn and soybean harvest this year, but after weeks of poor weather across the region, the USDA has officially walked back those predictions.

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