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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Chipotle Mexican Grill launched The Scarecrow, an arcade-style adventure game for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
(Business Wire)
September 13, 2013

Taking Down Big Food Is The Name Of Chipotle's New Game

Chipotle Mexican Grill prides itself on the fact that it serves only "responsibly raised beef, pork and chicken."

That means the meat it buys comes from animals raised outside or in comfy pens, who are never given antibiotics and are fed an additive-free, vegetarian diet.

Sourcing that meat is getting harder as the chain has expanded to more than 1,500 stores. But the strategy of marketing itself as a fast food alternative to Big Food has clearly worked well for Chipotle.

Now Chipotle is betting that it can sell even more burritos by lambasting the Big Food companies that drug animals in the name of profit. That's the message of a new short film and game the company launched Thursday that takes a cue from advocacy films like The Meatrix.

As the short film, The Scarecrow, opens, we see a spindly scarecrow entering the monolithic factory of "Crow Foods Incorporated," where conveyor belts ferry boxes of "100% Beef-ish" and eggs and chicken dubiously labeled "all-natural." Through the cracks of a factory wall, the scarecrow spies chickens being injected with growth promoters. Inside a sky-scraping tower, he finds cows trapped in boxes staring blankly as they're pumped with something.

The soundtrack for this dystopian scene is Fiona Apple crooning the song "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 film classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

 

 

The dejected scarecrow rides home on the subway, and sees an ad and then a billboard for "farm fresh" Crow Foods "feeding the world" as pernicious robotic crows flutter around.

But this scarecrow is a proactive fellow. Rather than eating this shameful food, he goes out to the garden and picks a bright red pepper (subtle, Chipotle). We see him cooking in his small kitchen, and then presto! Our sad little scarecrow has become a happy little street food vendor, selling fresh tacos out of red plastic baskets that look quite a lot like what you'll get at the Mexican chain.

Chipotle's gleaming, super-efficient stores and revenue of over $800 million are more Big Food than taco stand. (McDonalds was even an investor for a spell.) But the chain seems to want to show solidarity with the emerging class of entrepreneurial artisans making food from scratch. We're the good guys, fighting the bad guys, it whispers.

The film, created in partnership with Academy Award-winning Moonbot Studios, is meant "to help people better understand the difference between processed food and the real thing," says Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing officer at Chipotle, in a statement.

It's also a teaser for the game, which is available for free on iPhone and iPad, and is all about taking down Crow Foods. According to Chipotle, the game encourages players to "tilt and tap your way through four unique worlds to protect vulnerable veggies, rescue caged animals, and bring fresh food to the citizens of Plenty, all while dodging the menacing Crowbots." Players who earn enough "stars" get a buy-one, get-one-free offer redeemable at Chipotle store.

The game is, of course, fictional, and doesn't name any of the livestock producers that cage animals and pump them with growth promoters and antibiotics in real life. But the aspiration is clear: Chipotle and its customers are coming for you, Big Food.


September 03, 2013

Old Barn At University Of Illinois Getting New Life

The University of Illinois plans to build a solar-energy farm where a century-old barn now stands. But the barn will live on in a new location.

The barn was built in the early 1900s on what used to be the Cruse family farm in Savoy. It will be moved to Congerville. Savoy is just south of Champaign while Congerville is 20 miles northwest of Bloomington.

Morgan Johnston works for university Facilities and Services. She told The News-Gazette in Champaign that a company called Trillium Dell Timberworks of Knoxville will be paid $55,000 to take the barn down.

The company says a buyer near Congerville plans to use the old barn for horses.

Cathy Cruse Revere grew up on the farm. She's thrilled it will be used again.


Piglets in a pen on a hog farm
(Jeff Roberson/AP)
August 30, 2013

Antibiotic Use On The Farm: Are We Flying Blind?

There's a heated debate over the use of antibiotics in farm animals. Critics say farmers overuse these drugs; farmers say they don't.

It's hard to resolve the argument, in part because no one knows exactly how farmers use antibiotics. There's no reliable data on how much antibiotic use is intended to make animals grow faster, for instance, compared to treating disease. Many public health experts say the government should collect and publish that information because antibiotic-resistant bacteria are an increasingly urgent problem. But many farm groups are opposed.

James Johnson, a professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of Minnesota, is among those pushing for better data. He faces the problem of drug-resistant bacteria firsthand. When he prescribes antibiotics to patients, he increasingly has to ask himself, "Will this drug even work?"

"Resistance is turning up everywhere, and increasingly involves our first-line, favorite drugs," he says. "Everyone knows that we're in a real crisis situation."

There's no easy way out of the crisis because antibiotics are so valuable. Everybody wants to use them. Yet the more they're used, the more likely it is that bacteria will become resistant to them.

Johnson preaches restraint, using the drugs only when they're clearly necessary. He also says that we need to know much more about how antibiotics are currently being used. "Otherwise, we're sort of flying blind," he says.

"Are we flying blind right now? Or do we have the information we need?" I ask.

"Not at all. I think we're mostly flying blind, at least in the U.S.," Johnson says.

There's no comprehensive source of data on how doctors prescribe antibiotics to people, and there's even less information about drugs that are given to chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle.

That's a big blind spot because antibiotics are commonly used on the farm to treat disease, to prevent disease and to help animals grow faster.

This stream of antibiotics does create drug-resistant bacteria. And people can be exposed to those bacteria through a variety of pathways.

It's set off a fierce debate over how much this contributes to the overall problem of drug-resistant infections. Morgan Scott, a researcher in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, is trying to arrive at an answer. "As a researcher, it's a very intriguing area," he says. "But it's also frustrating because the data are really not there."

The only solid numbers on antibiotic use on the farm come from the Food and Drug Administration. Every year, the FDA lists the total quantity of antibiotics sold for use in farm animals, divided up by major drug class.

But Scott says those overall totals don't tell him what he'd like to know. "At the moment, we really can't identify whether certain uses of antibiotics are more or less risky than others," he says.

He'd love to know the patterns of antibiotic use — which drugs are used on each kind of animal, for what purpose, nationwide. If scientists tracked this over many years, they might be able to see which patterns of use create more drug-resistant bacteria.

There is a country that does collect this information. Denmark has led the world in efforts to control antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance. Every year it publishes a big volume of numbers — and Scott can't get enough of them. "Diving into these data, and visiting Denmark, is kind of like Disneyland for those of us who like big data," he says.

There are lots of people who want something similar for farms in the United States. They include public health experts, but also activist groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists. Congress is considering a bill that would force the FDA to collect this data and publish it.

But pharmaceutical companies and agricultural groups don't like that idea. They don't believe antibiotic use in animals is causing much of a problem for human health. They also don't think that detailed national statistics would even be useful.

"The amount of antibiotic used does not correlate to the potential public health threat," says Ron Phillips, a spokesman for the Animal Health Institute, which represents companies that sell veterinary drugs.

According to Phillips, if you really want to figure out which agricultural practices produce drug-resistant bacteria, you should study them up-close. Look at a few individual farms, examining what drugs are used and how bacteria adapt.

But don't create a national data collection system, he says. It would be a waste of money, and the numbers would just be misused by advocacy groups that are campaigning to restrict the use of antibiotics by farmers. "The widespread quotes that you see about how much is used in animal medicine, as opposed to human medicine — those are meant to scare people, not to inform people," he says.

One the other hand, Scott thinks better numbers could actually mean less suspicion and fear. Many people want to know exactly what meat producers are doing, he says. When they can't find the information they want, they're inclined to assume the worst.

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soil drought
(Robert Ray/AP)
August 27, 2013

Report: Farmers Could Do More To Protect Soil From Drought

Farmers across the country received more than $17 billion in federal crop insurance payouts after last year’s drought. A report released Tuesday by an environmental group blames farmers for not doing enough to shield the soil against the heat.

According to The Natural Resources Defense Council, farmers could have greatly reduced losses if they had been working to improve soil health. The NRDC suggests that planting certain grasses and legumes and implementing a set of soil conservation practices could nearly drought-proof fields. That would save farmers a lot of headache and taxpayers a lot of money.

Many farmers, though, are not exactly sold on the report’s findings.

Doug Wilson is a farmer in Livingston County Illinois, which had the highest crop insurance payout in the nation. Wilson said it would have been hard for those practices to fend off last year’s extreme heat and dryness. He paraphrased former President Dwight Eisenhower when reacting to the report.

“It’s a lot easier to farm with a pencil from a thousand miles away than it is to actually have your hand on the plow,” Wilson said.

Meanwhile, Illinois officials are kicking off a three-year project aimed at encouraging farmers to plant environmentally friendly cover crops as part of an effort to boost sustainable farming around the state.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture says the demonstration involves planting certain crops such as grasses and legumes in fields after the regular growing season. Sometimes the seeds are even planted before a crop is harvested. The cover crops reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff from farm fields, which in turn improve water and soil quality.

Officials say the project will begin this fall when 14 highly visible corn and soybean fields are seeded with cover crops. The fields were selected because they're along interstates or state highways.

Each plot will be accompanied by a sign with the project's website: covercrops.illinois.gov.


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