USDA

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.

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Quentin Hope

Payments to farmers under the new farm bill could soar as high as $8-10 billion for this year’s crop, according to some economists quoted in an article by Reuters. That would be more than double the forecast by the Congressional Budget Office and more than 10 times the U.S. Department of Agriculture's working estimate.

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

When farmer Sondra Pierce had her first child, she decided to forgo daycare.

“Soon as I had my son, because I had my son very early, I would put his car seat in the tractor and he would ride with me,” Pierce says.

During harvest on her sugar beet farm in rural Boulder County, Colo., she’d buckle him up in the seat right next to her.

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Rules that require more information on meat labels may be on the outs.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seemed to signal for the first time Friday that the rules are not compliant with World Trade Organization standards and must be fixed.

“We’ve done a 360-degree look and I can tell you that we do not think there’s a regulatory fix that would allow us to be consistent with the law, which I’ve sworn to uphold, and to satisfy the WTO,” Vilsack said.

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

Lunch time at Harris Bilingual Elementary School in Fort Collins, Colo., displays all the usual trappings of a public school cafeteria: Star Wars lunch boxes, light up tennis shoes, hard plastic trays and chocolate milk cartons with little cartoon cows. It’s pizza day, the most popular of the week, and kids line up at a salad bar before receiving their slice.

United Soybean Board/Flickr

Farmers’ can anticipate a sharp drop in income this year, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In fact, the USDA predicts the $113 billion earned in 2014 will be the lowest amount of net farm income in five years. That’s equal to about a 14 percent fall from last year’s record amount, thanks mostly to a massive drop in crop prices.

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Corn and soybean farmers expect a record harvest this year. And that’s after bringing in a record corn crop last year along with one of the largest soybean crops in history.

For once, farmers can thank the weather. It’s been an ideal growing season in much of the Corn Belt with just enough sun and rain to push yields to the limit.

Quentin Hope / HPPR

The U.S. market for foods and beauty products that contain hemp is growing, but American manufacturers that use hemp have their hands tied. The crop is still illegal to cultivate, according to federal laws, which means the current American hemp industry, estimated at $500 million per year, runs on foreign hemp.

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Sharon Harvat drives a blue pick-up truck through a field of several hundred pregnant heifers on her property outside Scottsbluff in western Nebraska and notes, “On a warm day they’ll lay out flat like that...”.

Harvat and her husband John run their cattle here in the Nebraska panhandle during the winter and take them back to the mountains in northern Colorado when the calves are born. Harvat says, when she heard about a proposal to open up beef trade with Brazil, she felt a pit in her stomach.  “On an operation like ours, where we travel a lot with our cattle, that would probably come to an abrupt halt if there was an outbreak.”

Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media

The average age of American farmers has been climbing for decades, and many say rural towns are at-risk without new blood. There are enough people who want to farm, but there’s trouble connecting beginning farmers and the communities that need them.

Looking to help farmers adapt to climate change, the U.S Department of Agriculture is setting up seven new research hubs, including a handful that will cover the Great Plains and Midwest.

The new research centers, anchored in different regions, are tasked with charting how climate change poses risks to farming, ranching and forestry. Then they are to devise strategies to adapt.

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.

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New herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans are a step closer to reaching farm fields in the U.S. They would help farmers control weeds that are no longer killed by the popular herbicide, Roundup.

Roundup resistant crops dominate corn, soybean and cotton production in the U.S. But the list of weeds that have evolved to withstand Roundup is growing, and as a result, farmers are using more chemicals to keep up.

Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media

For the first time in nearly 10 years, the nation’s beef herd may be poised for growth, which could mean relief from rising meat prices. But with the fewest cattle in the beef supply since the 1960s, slow growth won’t cut prices anytime soon.

Vilsack to China: Get up to speed on GMOs

Dec 18, 2013
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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will travel to China this week to ask Chinese regulators to get on the same page as the U.S. when it comes to evaluating genetically modified crops.

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With rootworms building resistance to genetically modified corn that makes its own pesticide, seed companies are working on new crops that target the insects’ genes. But some worry about unintended consequences when the technology moves from the lab to the field.

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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.

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

Colorado could be the next battleground state in the debate over labeling rules for genetically-modified foods. Activists are trying to get the issue in front of voters in 2014.

Clay Masters for Harvest Public Media

Organic food is a hot market in the U.S. The Organic Trade Association says that sales over the last five years have grown 35 percent. But there’s a problem in the supply chain – not enough organic grain.

Many producers in the farm belt aren’t willing to take on organic production despite a hefty price premium. That has left organic food companies scrambling to find enough raw ingredients for the products that hit grocery store shelves. Just as corn and soybeans dominate conventional processed food and meat, these same grains are often key ingredients for organic foods.

Russell Lee/ Farm Security Administration /LOC

Congress is bitterly divided on food stamps and other issues contained in the farm bill, but both political parties agree on something: the $5 billion-a-year farm subsidy called Direct and Countercyclical Payments has got to go.

Quentin Hope

  At $200 per acre, Trego County, KS topped the list of High Plains counties in per acre crop insurance payments in 2012.  Other top counties were Wallace County, KS at $157 per acre and Rawlins County, KS at $127 per acre.  All three are in Northwest Kansas.  At the bottom is the list was Hemphill County, TX in the northeast corner of the Panhandle with just $1 per acre on only 13,400 planted acres.

What $154 million in payouts means to a county

Sep 4, 2013
Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Farmer Doug Wilson has been buying crop insurance since 1980. 

“You carry home insurance, hoping your house doesn’t burn down. We carry crop insurance, hoping our crops don’t burn down,” Wilson said on a sweltering day in mid-August as he walked among the healthy 8-foot corn stalks in one his fields in central Illinois. “But last year, they burned down — kind of literally.”

COOL too cumbersome for meat labeling?

Sep 3, 2013
www.foodsafetynews.com

For several years now, there’s been a battle brewing over how much U.S. consumers need to know about where their meat comes from.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the midst of implementing a new country-of-origin labeling rule, also known as COOL, that requires companies to label where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. The new rule also prohibits meat from two different animals from being comingled and sold in the same package.

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The “digital divide” between urban and rural areas used to be all about access to broadband internet service.  Today it is much more about adoption where access is now available. 

Grace Hood/KUNC

When unapproved genetically modified wheat was found growing in Oregon earlier this year, it didn’t take long for accusations about how it ended up there to start flying. A flurry of initial finger-pointing cast potential blame on a federal seed vault in Fort Collins, Colo., which housed the same strain of wheat, developed by Monsanto Corp., for about seven years up until late 2011.

How are decisions made about projects that benefit rural America?

Jun 16, 2013

The U.S. Department of Agriculture first began designating funds for rural development in 1933 as part of the New Deal. More federal funds were allocated in the Agricultural Act of 1970. During this fiscal year, the rural development program is administering approximately $38 billion in loans, loan guarantees and grants. It’s being used to construct or improve 48 rural libraries, assist 243 projects in the delivery of healthcare and help more than 270,000 low income families get affordable housing, according to the USDA.

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

    As lawmakers debate the Farm Bill in Washington, millions of dollars are at stake for small businesses across the country. Rural development grants go out to everything from home loans to water projects to small co-ops.

With budget cuts likely, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is adjusting how these funds are used, and proposing changes to the word “rural.” But there’s concern that a tighter belt at the federal level means farmers and ranchers in small towns will be left behind.

Lifeblood for rural communities: federal funds

Jun 12, 2013
Bill Wheelhouse/Harvest Public Media.

As Congress fiddles with major farm legislation, there’s a portion of it that gets very little attention. Some say it is a difference-maker for job creation in small rural communities and provides a boost those towns need. Harvest Public Media’s Bill Wheelhouse reports.

In the small town of Staunton, Ill., the new $9 million water plant is a welcome addition. After all, when the 80-year-old facility it replaces seized up last year, the community’s 5,000 residents were without water for five days. 

Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Kay Ledbetter

The U.S. Senate approved a new comprehensive farm bill Monday, its plan for everything from food and nutrition assistance to disaster aid for livestock producers to crop insurance for farmers. But before you go popping champagne corks and celebrating the creation of five-years of agricultural policy, know this: The U.S. House has yet to weigh in.