Bees on Phil Crandall Farms in Coal Valley, Illinois.
September 30, 2014

Problems For Honeybees And Beekeepers

Honeybees in the U.S. are in trouble. Their populations have been declining for years, but a long, cold winter put a huge dent in the number of hives in northwestern Illinois and eastern Iowa.

In the first of a two-part series, Michelle O'Neill talks with three beekeepers, including Phil Crandall at Crandall Farms in Coal Valley, Illinois.

If you love apples, cashews, or string beans, you should love honeybees, too. Those are just three of the many foods that require bees for pollination.

Wild honeybees have almost disappeared in the US, and the number of commercial honeybees has also been dropping. 

In the second of this 2-part series, Michelle has more behind the decline in the bee population in Illinois and Iowa.

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Congressman John Shimkus holds his ACTIVATOR Friend of Agriculture Award.
(Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media)
September 26, 2014

Shimkus Picks Up Endorsement Award From Ag Group

U-S Rep. John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) visited local Farm Bureau offices in four cities on Friday, to meet with officials and pick up an endorsement.

The endorsement was represented by a miniature red tractor. It's the Friend of Agriculture award, given to Shimkus by the Illinois Farm Bureau’s political affiliate, ACTIVATOR, the Illinois Agricultural Association Political Involvement Fund.

The farm group is praising Shimkus for his work in areas such as crop insurance provisions in the recent farm bill, and for his support of a bill passed in the House earlier this month to block the federal EPA from implementing proposed rules revising the definition of waterways covered by the Clean Air Act (H.R. 5078).

At the Champaign County Farm Bureau office in Champaign, Shimkus said the EPA’s proposal goes beyond the intentions of the Clean Air Act, and expands the agency’s reach into farmers’ personal property.

"The federal government has the right to be involved in our waterways where there is navigation", said Shimkus. "And it does not have the right to be in our ditches and our streams and our ponds."

Shimkus was also scheduled to visit Farm Bureau offices in Charleston, Effingham and Harrisburg on Friday.

Shimkus is running for re-election against Eric Thorsland (D-rural Mahomet). Thorsland says he also would have supported the bill blocking the EPA’s proposed waterways rules --- although he says Senate passage is unlikely. Thorsland says congressional blockage of the proposed rules "would then facilitate both sides of the issue to work to better refine the rules so we can protect water quality without detrimental effects that may come from misinterpretation of the act."

Thorsland says the EPA should be a partner, not an enemy of agriculture and commerce. He supports refining the waterway rules in a way that protects water quality without hurting farmers.


September 19, 2014

Fatal Farm Accidents Increase In Illinois Over Past Year

Farming claimed the lives of 21 people in Illinois from July 2013 through June, nearly double the number of deaths during the same period a year earlier, according to Bloomington-based Country Financial.

The (Peoria) Journal Star reports the statistics have some calling for more efforts to reduce the injury and fatality rates.
 
"We need to continue to promote and evaluate effective means to reduce the injury rate,'' said Bob Aherin, professor and program leader at the University of Illinois.
 
There were only 12 farming-related deaths from July 2012 through June 2013.
 
The highest farm death toll in recent years was in 2000, when 39 people died, Country Financial spokesman Chris Stroisch said.

More than 200 Illinois farmers are injured in accidents that result in physical disabilities each year. 

Nine of the state's 21 farm-related deaths over the past year were due to tractor accidents. Roadway collisions and grain bin accidents are also major causes of death.

Aherin said older farmers should be encouraged to use tractors with rollover protection when working on areas with significant slopes. Fifty-seven percent of farm death victims in Illinois were 65 or older.
 
For the past decade, agriculture has been the deadliest industry in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, beating out mining and construction in deaths per 100,000 workers.

It's the same on a global scale, according to the International Labour Organization, with more than half of the 335,000 workplace fatalities worldwide occurring in agriculture.


August 05, 2014

USDA: Illinois Corn, Soybean Crops Excelling

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Illinois' corn and soybean crops are faring well, and 81 and 77 percent respectively.

The USDA says in its weekly crop-status update that 81 percent of the state's corn is rated as either good or excellent. Ninety-four percent of the crop is silking, mirroring the average over the previous five years.
 
Roughly 77 percent of Illinois' soybean crop is considered good or excellent. Seventy-nine percent of the soybeans in the field are now blooming, 5 percent points below the five-year average.
 
The USDA says that's all despite the fact that rainfall statewide last week was a half inch below normal.
 
The department says 65 percent of Illinois pastures were considered good or excellent


July 05, 2014

Storms Hit Some Illinois Corn Fields Hard

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this week that most of Illinois' corn crop is in great shape.  But some farmers in western and central Illinois suffered extensive damage from storms on Monday.

Ryan Mueller farms near Joy in western Illinois. He believes his crop suffered $60,000 to $70,000 worth of damage from winds well in excess of 60 mph.
 
Monday's high winds and heavy rain hit western and central Illinois hard.
 
But agronomist Joe Franks said some corn plants knocked over by the winds could stand back up and be fine.
 
Agronomy consultant Larry Herrman said that by midweek that was starting to happen in some central Illinois fields.


Agricultural shop at Western High School
(Lee Strubinger/WUIS)
May 30, 2014

One Western Ill. School Cuts Ag Program, Another Hopes To Bring It Back

Pike County calls itself the "pork capital of the world." However, in an area so tied to farming, it might be a bit surprising that a local school district has cut its agriculture education program.

Barry is a small western Illinois town about ten miles from the Mississippi River along Interstate 72.  I grew up there. 

At first, I thought it was a joke when the Western High School board, my alma mater, cut ag education and band.  The board says cutting both programs will save around $100,000.

About 170 students attend the high-school. And a third of them take ag classes—which teach a variety of subjects from animal biology to hands on welding.
 
Andy Woods was a class mate of mine and is a former president of the FFA chapter.  He took me on a walk around his family farm.  He says it's a shame the program was cut.

"FFA did it all, FFA and Ag.  Ag in the classroom was a big part of my life, for the four years of my high-school career, you know.  I dunno where I'd be without it, really," Woods said.

Woods says a lot of students latch on to the program.  He has four younger siblings, all of whom are or were heavily involved in FFA and Ag.  In order to join FFA, a student is required to be enrolled in an Ag class.  FFA cannot have a chapter at a school without an Ag program.

It's a bright Friday morning and the garage door of the Ag Shop at Western High School is open. The shop sits behind the school, and is a large, brown, immaculate, machine shed filled with various equipment, anything from metal works to chicken coops,  It's second period, welding class. Clayton Miller, a junior, is working on his final project.  He's an officer for the FFA chapter.  Since the ag program has been cut, he says he wants to move.
  
"I'm going away from this school.  They don't have ag and they're switching to online school so, there's no reason to be here anymore if you can't learn from a text book and stuff," Miller said.

The school board made the cuts in anticipation of decreased state funding. It was a unanimous decision that's expected to save the district on salary and transportation costs. Western School Board president, Lorc Weir says cutting ag was a tough decision to make in a farming community.

"It wasn't necessarily what we wanted to do as a board.  There's a lot of us that work in the ag industry that are on the board.  You know it wasn't an easy decision at all," Weir said.

Eliminating the ag program also means the school loosing a veteran teacher.

Mary Barnes taught in Barry for 29 years and was there when the ag program first started.  She says grants funded most of the operations.  And since all of the equipment in the ag building was paid for by grants, she says eventually the equipment inside must be dispersed to other nearby school districts with ag programs.
 
"It's gonna look pretty bare when those two items are dispensed and I would assume that that would be done at the end of June, well the law says it has to be done by the end of June... So," Barnes said. 

"Essentially you built this entire program?" I asked.

Yes," Barnes said.

The school board president says the district is working to try and keep the equipment in the ag shop.

In another school district, a community effort is trying to restore an ag program that was cut in the late 1980's.  The Macomb Agriscience Association is working with local producers who can donate commodities at grain elevators to raise funds.

For the last two decades Macomb Ag students have had to take ag classes at a different school that's about 12 miles away.

Bruce Eidson, a researcher for the seed company Pioneer, is helping lead the local effort.

The Macomb group has a goal of 300,000 dollars.  That’s seen as enough to fund the program for three years.  Eidson says this may be a look into the future for extracurricular activities.

"Public education might be headed in that direction, I don't know. In order to, you know, keep some of these programs going the local community is going to have to say 'This is important to us.  We want to keep it. What do we need to do to keep it?'" Eidson said.

Despite concerns about state funding for schools,  state Ag education observers say they hope the future doesn't have to rely on the method Macomb is taking.  But  say they recognize the difficulties around the state.

Ag education funding from the state has remained flat for the last three years.  However, during that time the amount of new ag programs has increased.  

Back at Western High School in Pike County, the school board president says he expects the elimination of the ag program to be temporary.  He says it will depend on how much the state makes available for schools.

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Agribusiness giant ADM recently opened a 275-acre container shipping rail yard near Decatur, Ill., in part to export more grain.
(Bill Wheelhouse/Harvest Public Media)
October 14, 2013

Shipping Containers Can Open Export Market To Farmers

A huge new rail yard has been buzzing on the outskirts of Decatur, Ill. Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) recently opened the 275-acre facility that would be at home at any major port city on the coast. But it’s in the heart of Illinois farm country because farmers have been taking advantage of a new method of shipping out their products.

Every day, U.S. consumers buy products shipped in from overseas. That means shipping containers from all over the world unload here in the U.S – those 40-foot-long containers you might see on the back of a semi-trailer or stacked on a rail car. Now, farmers, grain cooperatives and exporters are taking advantage of those empty containers, filling them with grain and shipping them overseas.

Modular transportation or container shipping, as it’s called, started about three decades ago, says Peter Friedmann with the Agriculture Transportation Coalition.

 “The first cargos to migrate into that were clothing, shoes, electronics – all the things that are imported from Asia these days and you find in stores,” Friedmann said. “But then agriculture started migrating into those containers as well.”

The export market is becoming more and more important to U.S. farmers. While the final numbers haven’t been tallied, it looks like American farmers may have shipped a record $140 billion worth of product overseas in the last year.

Usually, corn, soybeans and wheat headed overseas are poured into a giant vessel and three weeks later arrive at an Asian or European port. The goal is efficiency – get as much delivered as you can at an affordable price.

But now, that’s changing a bit. Container shipping allows buyers to receive smaller shipments – helpful with a sluggish global economy and in countries without the infrastructure to receive large deliveries. Plus, it opens up new markets for U.S. farmers.

Today, Freidmann says, there’s an expanding niche of specialized grain products, grown in the Midwest and wanted overseas.

“If you want to deliver to a foreign customer a product that has been well taken care of, not crushed in the bottom of the hold of a ship, you need to have it in smaller quantities,” he said. “Some people want it genetically modified, some people do not want it genetically modified. Some want this kind of soybean, another one (wants) another strain of soybean. So you can segregate the types of cargo that you are shipping out by moving it into container.”

The items going overseas range from the corn remnants at ethanol plants for animal feed, to a small shipment of soybeans that will arrive directly at a bakery in Korea, to soybeans that will be used to make tofu.

Still just a small slice of the export market, these smaller shipments are adding up. Container shipping has seen annual growth at nearly double-digit levels in recent years. Farmers in Illinois, Missouri and Kansas are among those leading the nation in the container shipping movement. They benefit because Chicago and Kansas City serve as major rail hubs, making more empty containers available.

“For us, container freight is becoming a huge part of a niche business that gets inventory to a customer who wants smaller shipments,” said Mark Schweitzer, the managing director of intermodal and container freight for ADM.

Still, more than 90 percent of the grain going overseas is poured into giant ships for the three week trips to the Asian and European ports.

But on this side of the ocean, it allows small businesses export their product – even when they don’t produce enough to fill a ship. In the words of Mike Steenhoek of the Soy Transportation Association, it will allow “micro-businesses to   benefit,” including individual farmers, grain elevators and co-ops.

“There’s an opportunity for farmers to not just be involved in growing the crops, but marketing those crops – even internationally,” Steenhoek said.

And farmers are taking notice.

“We always want a little bit more for it whenever we have a specialty crop like that,” said Bill Rayben, a farmer who chairs the Illinois Soybean Association. “You always get a bit of a premium if you have a specific trait or a protein or oil they’re looking for.”

ADM’s new Decatur facility can currently handle 50,000 containers annually and the company hopes to triple its capacity in coming years. That’s good news for farmers who want to tap into the overseas demand for products grown in the U.S. 


September 24, 2013

Farm Fatalities Drop In Illinois

Officials say Illinois farmers had the safest season in decades last year, with a dozen farm-related fatalities.

The (Springfield) State Journal-Register reports the deaths occurred between July 2012 and June 2013.  The 12 deaths were the lowest number since the insurance company Country Financial began tracking the figures in 1978.


About two-thirds of the fatalities involved roadway collisions.

Illinois agriculture officials attribute the low figures to the drought, which meant farmers were spending less time harvesting, driving equipment on roadways and putting grain in bins.

University of Illinois professor Bob Aherin coordinates the school's Agriculture Safety and Health Program. He said he is worried "antsy'' farmers will push themselves during this year's harvest, and that could be dangerous.


A cornfield is shrouded in mist at sunrise in rural Springfield, Neb.
(Nati Harnik/AP)
September 17, 2013

American Farmers Say They Feed The World, But Do They?

When critics of industrial agriculture complain that today's food production is too big and too dependent on pesticides, that it damages the environment and delivers mediocre food, there's a line that farmers offer in response: We're feeding the world.

It's high-tech agriculture's claim to the moral high ground. Farmers say they farm the way they do to produce food as efficiently as possible to feed the world.

Charlie Arnot, a former public relations executive for food and farming companies, now CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, says it's more than just a debating point. "U.S. farmers have a tremendous sense of pride in the fact that they've been able to help feed the world," he says.

That phrase showed up, for instance, a few weeks ago at a big farm convention in Decatur, Ill. The seed and chemical company DuPont set up a wall with a question printed at the top in big capital letters: "How are you making a difference to feed the world?"

The company invited people to answer that question, and thousands of them did. They wrote things like "raising cattle," "growing corn and beans," "plant as much as possible."

Kip Tom, who grows corn and soybeans on thousands of acres of Indiana farmland, says he's very aware of the fact that the world has more and more people, demanding more food. Yet there are fewer and fewer farmers, "and it's the duty of those of us who are left in the business, us family farmers, to help feed that world."

That means growing more food per acre, he says, which requires new and better technology: genetically engineered seed, for instance, or pesticides.

And this is why the words "feed the world" grate on the nerves of people who believe that large-scale, technology-driven agriculture is bad for the environment and often bad for people.

Margaret Mellon, a scientist with the environmental advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists, recently wrote an essay in which she confessed to developing an allergy to that phrase. "If there's a controversy, the show-stopper is supposed to be, 'We have to use pesticides, or we won't be able to feed the world!' " she says.

Mellon says it's time to set that idea aside. It doesn't answer the concerns that people have about modern agriculture — and it's not even true.

American-style farming doesn't really grow food for hungry people, she says. Forty percent of the biggest crop — corn — goes into fuel for cars. Most of the second-biggest crop — soybeans — is fed to animals.

Growing more grain isn't the solution to hunger anyway, she says. If you're really trying to solve that problem, there's a long list of other steps that are much more important. "We need to empower women; we need to raise incomes; we need infrastructure in the developing world; we need the ability to get food to market without spoiling."

It seemed that this dispute needed a referee. So I called Christopher Barrett, an economist at Cornell University who studies international agriculture and poverty.

"They're both right," he said, chuckling. "Sometimes the opposite of a truth isn't a falsehood, but another truth, right?"

It's true, he says, that bigger harvests in the U.S. tend to make food more affordable around the world, and "lower food prices are a good thing for poor people."

For instance, Chinese pigs are growing fat on cheap soybean meal grown by farmers in the U.S. and Brazil, and that's one reason why hundreds of millions of people in China are eating much better than a generation ago. They can afford to buy pork. So American farmers who grow soybeans are justified in saying that they help feed the world.

But Mellon is right, too, Barrett says. The big crops that American farmers send abroad don't provide the vitamins and minerals that billions of people need most. So if the U.S. exports lots of corn, driving down the cost of cornmeal, "it induces poor families to buy lots of cornmeal, and to buy less in the way of leafy green vegetables, or milk," that have the key nutrients. In this case, you're feeding the world, but not solving the nutrition problems.

Arnot, from the Center for Food Integrity, recently did a survey, asking consumers whether they think the U.S. even has a responsibility to provide food to the rest of the world. Only 13 percent of these consumers strongly agreed.

In focus groups, many people said that if feeding the world means more industrial-scale farming, they're not comfortable with it.

This is not a message farmers like to hear. "It is a real sense of frustration for farmers that 'feeding the world' is no longer a message that resonates with the American public," Arnot says.

He tells farm groups that they'll have to find another message. They'll need to show that the way they grow food is consistent with the values of American consumers.

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