Amy Mayer

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also  previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amyââââ

USDA

The U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t just for farmers. It also supports school lunches, broadband internet access in rural areas, and inner-city farmers markets. As Harvest Public Media’s Amy Mayer reports, that diverse mandate fits with the man running it all, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who’s now been on that job longer than anyone since the Nixon administration.

Transcript of audio story:

Ohio State University / http://agcrops.osu.edu/corn

Climate change could double losses to crops and property by the year 2100 according to a recent report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office. When farmers lose more crops, it costs taxpayers more to subsidize their crop insurance.

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

In a dimly-lit lab on the Des Moines, Iowa, public schools’ agricultural science campus, students in aprons, safety goggles and plastic gloves poke and probe chicken wings. About 15 girls and just one boy in this vet careers class are looking for ligaments, tendons, cartilage and other features of this animal part that teenagers more often experience cooked and covered in barbecue sauce.

A 17-year old senior, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail for the dissection, high-fives her lab partner when they identify the ligament and show it to their teacher. This young woman is a chapter officer in the Des Moines FFA group and recently got elected to a district-wide leadership position. She’s already earned a full scholarship to Iowa State University and aspires to be a large animal veterinarian with her own small cattle herd.

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

Bear Creek Dairy in Brooklyn, Iowa, is home to more than 1,100 cows, who provide about 100,000 pounds of milk each day. The 15-year-old farmer who works closely with the farm’s calves comes from a long line of dairymen – in Europe.

Five years ago, Teun Boelen’s parents sold their farm in the Netherlands and bought a dairy in southeast Iowa because, as his mother explains it, there was no room for their old farm to grow.  

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On a wet, grey day in Grinnell, Iowa, the rain beats a rhythm on the metal roof of a packing shed at Grinnell Heritage Farm. Crew member Whitney Brewer picks big bunches of kale out of a washing tank, lets them drip on a drying table and then packs them into cardboard boxes.

Courtesy Marji Guyler-Alaniz/FarmHer

In a living room converted to a theater for the evening, Ethan Peterson and Madeleine Russell portray the characters from Mary Swander’s play, “VANG.” In it, the actors share the emotional stories of four immigrant couples who farm in Iowa. Swander used transcriptions of conversations with Hmong, Mexican, Sudanese and Dutch farmers to create the play.

Peter Gray/Harvest Public Media

Bacon-loving shoppers prepare yourselves: A virus that has devastated piglets for nearly a year is causing lower pork supplies and higher prices.

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On a frigid winter day, Chad Hart tries to warm his economics students at Iowa State University to the idea of managing some of the risk of farming using the commodity markets. Because, as he told them on the first day of class, farmers don’t make money planting or harvesting crops; they make money selling them. And Hart knows that marketing—managing those sales for the best profit—can be intimidating.

National Archives

Both farmers and food stamps advocates sighed in relief Friday when President Obama signed the  long-overdue Agriculture Act of 2014 – the $956-billion farm bill – into law on Friday during a visit to Michigan State University.  The farm bill process was fraught with ups and downs and the loose coalition tying nutrition and farm programs seemed barely able to survive.

Not everyone likes the farm bill signed into law on Friday, but at least farmers will be able to start making informed decisions.

The biggest change in the 2014 farm bill is that the subsidies known as direct payments are gone. Instead of the government paying a known amount to farmers each year—at a fixed budget of $5 billion—the new system of subsidies will fluctuate, partly with market forces. That makes it really hard to predict how much the program will cost each year, says Iowa State University ag economist Chad Hart.

Pork producers across the country are grappling with a virus that's going after piglets. Livestock economists estimate the porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, virus has already killed about 1 million baby pigs in the U.S. since it was first found in Iowa last spring.

Canada reported its first case Thursday, and the disease shows no sign of abating. That has veterinarians worried.

Iowa Public Television

If it seems like Congress just can’t get the farm bill done, well… that’s because it can’t.

All year long, Washington lawmakers have been saying they want to pass a full five-year farm bill. But even though leaders of the House-Senate conference committee say they are close, they have acknowledged it just won’t get done this year. They’re pushing it off until January.

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If it seems like Congress just can’t get the farm bill done, well… that’s because it can’t. The massive food and agriculture package used to be relatively easy thanks to bipartisan and urban-rural alliances. But this year, progress was a slow slog. A nine-month extension passed in January bought some time. This summer, the Senate passed its bill, but the House didn’t. Then it sent two bills to the conference committee, one for agriculture and the other for food stamps. Just before Thanksgiving, Iowa Republican Steve King, a conference committee member, remained optimistic.

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

Farmers and scientists have long understood that what lives beneath the soil affects how crops grow. Often, they work to fight plant diseases—warding off infectious viruses and damaging fungi, for example. But now some microbiologists are focused on how to harness the good things microbes can do, with the goal of increasing farmers’ yields and diminishing their dependence on chemical inputs.

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

Hot-button food issues of the day, such as the use of genetically modified organisms or the treatment of livestock, tend to pit large industries against smaller activist groups. Often, both sides will claim the science supports what they are saying. That can leave consumers, most of whom aren’t scientists, in a bit of a bind.

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On a clear fall day in central Iowa, Aaron Lehman climbed into the cab of his green combine with a screwdriver to do some maintenance. He was hoping his corn had a couple more weeks to grow before harvesting because the price per bushel this fall is much lower than it has been for the past three years.

Corn farmers have been riding high prices for the last few years. But an expected bumper crop has prices falling this harvest season, and many economists expect the price of corn to drop to its lowest level in recent years.

Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

    Across the rural Midwest, landscapes are dotted with tall, cylindrical storage containers for grain. Some belong to commercial grain elevators, but increasingly farmers want to market their grain throughout the year so they install their own storage bins right on the farm. Maintaining the quality of that grain requires vigilance—and can present safety concerns. In particular, the risk of entrapment when a person enters a bin to check on the grain.

Raising pork can be a tough business for producers, who've lately been watching feed prices rise along with the cost of corn. That's one reason why a small but growing number of former commodity pork producers are trying their luck with specialty breeds instead. These premium pigs, raised on small farms with methods that appeal to consumers, can also fetch a premium price.

This tax season is an unusual one for farmers.

“Farmers didn’t necessarily have a great crop to harvest, but they harvested a huge amount of income last year. It was one of the biggest years, inflation-adjusted, since going back to the 1970s,” said Roger McEowen, who runs the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at Iowa State University.

The vast majority of the corn and soybeans in United States grow from seeds that have been genetically modified. The technology is barely 30 years old and the controversy surrounding it somewhat younger. But how did it even become possible?

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here in the United States, the corn harvest is nearly complete. It was earlier and much smaller than in recent years, which means stockpiles are lower and prices will likely be higher. Now, while this summer's drought is largely to blame, the dry weather did offer perfect conditions to test drought-resistant corn. As Iowa Public Radio's Amy Mayer reports, seed companies and farmers are now crunching the yield numbers to see what these new varieties could mean in coming years.