October 03, 2012

Mentors Foster New Generation of Farmers

Through the years, American farms have grown a variety of crops, from corn to soybeans to cotton and more. Perhaps the most important crop of all is a new generation of farmers. 

Careers in agriculture have been traditionally passed down from parent to child, but that is falling by the wayside as more young people opt to leave the farm, choosing other careers. However, there is hope farmer mentorships may fill the gap.

On a sunny Saturday morning at the Bloomington Farmers' Market, Annie Metzger of Samara Farm near Shelbyville is busy helping a customer who is interested in some freshly harvested fennel.

Annie's husband, Zack Metzger, stands by and watches her close the sale.

“I love the small business aspect of it,” Zach said. “I love running a business, and trying to do things in the best way possible.”

It is an important lesson in farm finance, which Zack Metzger hopes will make Samara Farm successful. 

Several years ago, the Metzgers weren't even farming. A high school physics teacher working in the Chicago area, Zack Metzger could not resist the lure of the land. He said the desire to farm just snuck up on him and he was eager to be a part of a new local food economy.

Colleen Callahan, Illinois State Director for Rural Development at the USDA, said the growing local food movement is an accessible way to get into farming.

"I do view the local food initiative as an opportunity to invite the next generation back to the farm," Callahan said.

For many years, young people have been leaving the traditional family farm. 

"About a generation or two ago, people who grew up on farms started to become doctors and lawyers and accountants and now we're reaching where those elderly farmers are dying,” said Terra Brockman, the executive director of the agricultural educational non-profit The Land Connection. “There is no one in the family to take over the family farm."

Brockman said that is where Central Illinois Farm Beginnings comes in to prove assistance, which us program under The Land Connection. It was originally devised by the Land Stewardship program in Minnesota to help people of all ages and all walks of life learn entrepreneurial farming. 

Designed specifically to teach small scale farming, Farm Beginnings provides workshops and mentorships for budding farmers. 

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said farmer mentorships are a growing trend in agriculture, and a good way to foster the next generation of farmers. She said it is uniquely hands on, though students learn that there's more to farming than just getting their hands in the soil.

"It also means that you have business plans, and accounting skills,” Merrigan said. You know it takes a lot of business savvy skills to survive and be success in this global economy."

Merrigan said the new fervor around local agriculture allows consumers to know the farmers who grow their food and feel confident of the quality.  This trend is helping draw more people like the Metzgers into farming, and farmers looking to pass on their knowledge to the next generation are also happy with the trend.

Leslie Cooperband of Prairie Fruits Farm east of Urbana is one such mentor.

"Farmers are desperately hungry for these young people to come to the farms and ranches," Cooperband said. 

She and her husband Wes raise goats for dairy products.

"We have offered mentorships to people that are interested in either goat husbandry or goat dairying in particular or organic fruit production,” Cooperband said.

Cooperband said the folks she's mentored range from twenty-somethings to middle-aged people looking to start over. Mentorships through the Farm Beginnings program provide a focused, year-long alternative to a college degree in agriculture. 

Terra Brockman from Farm Beginnings said they have about 25 farmers acting as mentors.  They receive a small stipend, but it is largely volunteer work. 

The students are paired with farmers who specialize in their area of interest, be it livestock or fruit trees.  She said some of the students can actually move on to the farm and work side-by-side with the farmer every day.

"Some just have a phone mentorship where it's like I'll call you up every weekend or every other week and ask you questions and maybe come to your farm once a month,” Brockman said. “It can be a very flexible situation."

Farmer Leslie Cooperband said in her role as mentor, she can reveal the occasionally harsh reality of farming.

"Get behind the glamour aspect of farming because I think people tend to romanticize it,” Cooperland said. “Once they see what it's really like it helps ground people."

Terra Brockman said many farmers are keen to pass on their knowledge and give back.  Mentorships can also be very practical for the farmer.

"When it's an especially intensive mentorship, then the farmer is getting young, strong labor in exchange," Brockman said.

The USDA's Colleen Callahan said farmers who make the commitment to become mentors leave a lasting imprint.

"Whatever it is that you've done in the agricultural realm, to be able to share that with someone, to have that live on, is really quite a legacy," Callahan said. 
The legacy of the farmer who mentored Zack and Annie Metzger lives on, right on their farm. 

Farmer Garrick Veenstra showed them the best way to grow crops in the occasionally brutal Illinois climate. 

Zack Metzger said he also gave them garlic starts a few years ago to take with them as they started farming on their own. 

"We've been growing it since then and refining it a little bit on our own,” Metzger said. “We call it The New City Hardneck."

The Metzgers plan on growing and refining even more so that one day they, too, can mentor the next generation of farmers.  In the meantime, they take inspiration from the tattoo that Annie Metzger has on her back.

"It says 'hope' in Gaelic,” she said. “You have to have hope springing eternal as a farmer, that's for sure."

Terra Brockman adds that although the Farm Beginnings program helped the Metzgers get a start in agriculture; life on the farm is not for everyone. 

Farm Beginnings weeds out those not ready for the full commitment of farming. In fact, fewer than half of the participants end up going into farming full time after their mentorships. 

Still, Brockman said it is a start toward bolstering the ranks of the traditional American farmer.

<em>(Photo by Laura Kennedy/IPR)</em>

Listen

October 02, 2012

Technological Advances Changing Agriculture Industry

Over centuries, agricultural technology has created huge changes in the way people live, and the stakes for technological progress have never been higher.

Bestselling author Charles C. Mann wrote about how Christopher Columbus' arrival in America. Mann said the crops Columbus brought back from his voyages started the first wave of globalization.

"It was huge,” Mann said. “Before the potato and corn came in, Europe was on the edge of starvation and had been for centuries. In a place like France, there is one major nationwide famine, uh more than one a decade. And there are hundreds and hundreds of local famines."

Mann said the agricultural technology transfer of corn and potatoes allowed huge increases in population. That gave rise to a middle class, and, a few centuries down the road, the industrial revolution.

At the Illinois State University experimental farms, Agriculture Department Chair Rob Rhykerd stands in the livestock barn looking at cattle and sheep.

A serious drought this year has hurt farm productivity, but Rhykerd said this year’s reduced crop would be the envy of farmers a generation ago.

"Yields of corn here in central Illinois right after World War II probably looking in the fifty to eighty bushel per acre range and now an average year in McLean County is around 180 bushels per acre, so more than doubled production in the last fifty years," Rhykerd said.

According to Rhykerd, no one thing accounts for the huge productivity increase.

"We've gone from traditional hybrids into genetically modified crops,” he said. “We've improved our efficiency using fertilizers. That has been a major advancement. We've gotten much better in the last fifty years conserving our resources, soil in particular, but also water."

Combines have changed a lot over the year. They have ballooned from harvesting two or four rows to sixteen and planters now put in forty eight rows of seeds at a pass.

Use of GPS and yield monitors to measure productivity is standard. A decade ago the buzz term was "precision farming."

ISU Agriculture Professor Dick Steffen said that has been slower to develop than originally envisioned. Like all information technology pursuits, it is tough to get each piece of equipment to interface with the others.

Steffen said true interactive precision is closer to reality now. Cameras on booms can allow a computer to distinguish weeds from crops.

"So that as it goes along through the field if it spots a weed, it activates the spray nozzle just where the weed is rather than spraying the whole field," Steffen said.

Steffen said what amounts to robotic farming is coming.

"There are a number of pieces of equipment around the country in research labs and in trials where they have taken operators out of the loop and the equipment operates basically autonomously," Steffen said.

“One of the major equipment companies is looking at using drones flying over fields,” farmer John Reifsteck said

Riefsteck farms south of Champaign. He is on the Growmark Board of Directors and has served on the Technical Advisory Committee of the American Farm Bureau.

Reifsteck said there may eventually be sensors on those drones to detect weeds, insects, or disease pressure.

"Hey look! There's a problem in this corner of the field,” Reifsteck said. “You know the corn may be seven foot tall, but we see something that you need to get out there and take a look at."

Reifsteck said the pace of technology change is not slowing, especially the area of plant genetics.

"When I first started farming for example the seeds I would buy, the hybrids, we might have those for four five six seven years on my farm before something would replace it,” he said. “Today we're seeing those get replaced every two or three years."

The base genetics of crops are changing to allow higher yields. At the same time, scientists are adding traits for insect protection, weed control, the ability to grow in hot, dry, wet, and cool places.

Reifsteck plants up to three kinds of seed in his fields. He said better information might eventually kick that up to six.

"For example where you had water logging, you might have something that has better root systems that can deal with water logged roots,” Reifsteck said. “But on higher ground you might have more prolific roots.”

All the information each farmer accumulates about his own land may eventually be shared. Reifsteck said it remains to be seen who controls the so called era of "big data."

In whatever form, Reifsteck said, data will be an important product farmers buy.

"The idea that you could take a particular seed variety and see how it performs throughout the U.S. corn belt and what are the best ways to plant it and what the best population, the best fertility, the best weed control programs and be able to measure those things and use that data is really exciting,” he said.

In a way, the present era is bringing farming full circle from the 19th century.

ISU Ag Professor Dick Steffen said when small farmers had a lot of time on horse drawn implements, they knew their land intimately, by the inch. As farm sizes grew, farmers made choices for their entire operation.

"And now with this equipment that allows us to map and allows us to record data about a lot of different points, we are at the point that we can go back to that level of management we saw a century ago," Steffen said.

However, all the productivity gains in the last half century are not enough.

Many projections indicate the world wide stream of agricultural products must double in yield in less than forty years. The World Bank estimates two billion more people will inhabit the earth by mid-century. It's also not just the extra people.

Farmer John Reifsteck said as nations develop, citizens upgrade their diets. Some of the people already here will want to eat more and better, and it takes more grain to turn it into meat than it does just to feed people.

Food tech has to advance so we won't have to go back to the bad old days author Charles Mann chronicles before the first global agricultural revolution in 1492.

"Each city would have a granary that would be surrounded by armed guard," Mann said.

High tech agriculture is a necessity, and that approach to farming requires highly educated farmers at a time the Ag workforce is aging and shrinking.

That issue is the subject of our next report tomorrow.

Listen

October 01, 2012

Immediate Future Uncertain for Farmers

The agriculture industry has had a rocky year, highlighted by a vicious drought and oppressive Midwestern heat. Farmers in Illinois and elsewhere are trying to make the best of the harvest, while bracing for what lies ahead. However, their immediate future is clouded by gridlock in Washington.

Things are changing in agriculture. The fields may look the same. Silos and grain elevators still dot the landscape, but the culture of farming is not what it once was.

Kathleen Merrigan has had two stints at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"When I was younger and I would say to people, I'd go to a party and everyone has their gin and tonic or whatever and people would say, ‘What do you do for work?’ Merrigan said. “I'd say I work in agriculture and I'd be left in the corner alone with my drink."

Merrigan helped craft organic labeling rules a decade ago, then left to head up the Ag program at Tufts University before returning to serve as the number two person at USDA.

"Now, I go to a party and I say I work in agriculture and I'm the belle of the ball,” she said. “What's really exciting now is that people want to talk about where food comes from, how it was produced, who produced it in ways that I haven't seen in my adult lifetime."

Merrigan said there is an openness and curiosity about agriculture that she calls healthy. That is not a word USDA officials are using to describe this year's corn crop. 

Corn and Soybean Farmer Doug Wilson is based in rural Livingston County. He has been farming for 32 years, and he farms about 540 acres in the area.

Wilson said his corn crop shows some side effects of the drought effects, but thanks to rain this summer that was missed in many other places, his yield should be strong.

Wilson said what is on his mind right now is the federal Farm Bill, which Congress hasn’t passed. The measure is the government's spending and planning blueprint for agriculture.  Politicians negotiate it in multi-year increments to help farmers plan ahead.

The challenges of passing the Farm Bill are no different than others hung up by partisan gridlock in Washington.

The Farm Bill has not reached the President's desk. One version of the measure cleared the Senate, but critics say it did not go far enough to help farmers. Others say it helps too much, and should be trimmed down.

One thing farmers, like Wilson, seem willing to accept in the bill is an end to direct payments--the often criticized farm subsidies. However, Wilson draws the line at cuts to crop insurance.

"We're clients to the insurance companies with some federal backing and it's something that has worked for us, “Wilson said. “You can elect what percentage of your crop you're going to cover. That's probably one of the underlying issues, but the uncertainty overall of 'what is our policy going to be?' is something that makes people hesitate as they start planning for next year already."

Doug Wilson points out even if Congress and the president enact a Farm Bill, many other variables not limited to agriculture affect farmers--international relations, estate planning, and transportation to name a few.

Uncertainty in these areas only adds to farmer frustration.

What ultimately happens may lie within the latest complex answer to an age-old simple question: What is government's role in a free-market economy?

Frank Lucas (R-Okla), the chair of the House Ag Committee, said that question only leads to others.

"I serve with some members who say Uncle Sam shouldn't be involved in anything,” Lucas said. “So, do we do away with Pell Grants to help beginning college students get into college? Do we do away with federal flood insurance that helps people in flood-prone areas? Do we step away from incentives that provide air and ground transportation? You know, you gotta look at the whole package."

Critics say farm subsidies and other elements of government policy have often led to over-production. Lucas said having a plentiful food supply is really a beauty of the industry. He compares it to military funding.

"We pay companies to keep factory assembly lines warm in the hopes that we will never use them.,” he said. “But in case of war, we need the resources, we need the production. I don't ever want to get to the point where, because of bad federal policy, we don't have enough food to meet the needs of the American consumer and the consumers around the world. We're always going to have a little extra. But I'd rather have a little extra, than not enough."

Taking care of global food supplies is at the heart of the "Feed the Future" initiative announced by President Barack Obama at last spring's G8 Summit. He said there are economic, security and moral imperatives.

"Because of smart investments in nutrition and agriculture and safety nets, millions of people in Kenya and Ethiopia did not need emergency aid in the recent drought,” Obama said. “But when tens of thousands of children die from the agony of starvation, as in Somalia, that sends us a message we still got a lot of work to do."

President Obama's plan requires government support the world over, and private dollars. Forty five major international corporations and African companies are kicking in $3 billion for the initiative.

Obama said one goal is to make Africa, which he said boasts the largest amount of unused arable land on earth, a major food producer and exporter.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said the U.S. can help achieve those.

"All of our skills, exporting those to other countries makes sense,” Merrigan said. “As we have a growing middle class around the country, American producers are going to do well. So, we don't want to get in the way of progress for these countries because what's good for them will be good for us."

Merrigan said many factors control the world's future food availability, including international politics, decreasing water supplies, production challenges and distribution problems. She said a major player in tackling some of those issues is technology.

Listen

September 19, 2012

Congress Fails to Act on Farm Bill as Deadline Nears

Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana) wants fellow lawmakers to vote on a new farm bill very soon before it expires on Sept. 30. Johnson is a member of the House Agriculture Committee, where the farm bill has sat since July.

The committee passed a version that would cut approximately $16 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps, that currently serves 46 million people.

Some House Republicans say those cuts do not go far enough, while some Democrats say they go too far. Johnson said he could not comment on why House leaders have yet to call the bill for a vote, but he said the repercussions would be costly if the House does not act soon.

“We’d go back to the farm bill of the 1930s which would be horribly irresponsible, tremendously costly to the government and really contain none of the protections that are built into the current bill,” Johnson said. “It would be, to put it mildly, a major setback for agricultural policy.”

Johnson said the farm bill would set agricultural policy for the next five years. In addition to outlining food stamps, the bill provides crop insurance and other safety nets for farmers as well as research grants for biotechnology.

The U.S. Senate already passed its version of the farm bill in June.

Congressman Bobby Schilling (R-Colona) also sits on the House Agriculture Committee. He said about 78 percent of funding for programs covered in the farm bill goes towards food stamps. Lawmakers have said the cuts to the SNAP program will come from eliminating “waste” like ensuring lottery winners and certain college students do not receive SNAP benefits.


September 11, 2012

Foreign Grain Buyers Touring Illinois Farms

Grain buyers from around the world are touring Illinois farms this week.

Buyers in the international delegation are from China, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. They are accompanied by members of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Department official Jim Mackey says the buyers are particularly concerned about drought damage.

Mackey tells The State Journal-Register in Springfield that the buyers could be wondering if that means prices are higher.

The University of Illinois released a report Monday that found export demand and pricing will depend on final yields from U.S. corn producers. Illinois agriculture officials say the drought forced the department to move up this year's trade delegation visit because the early start of harvest.


September 11, 2012

Foreign Grain Buyers Touring Illinois Farms

Grain buyers from around the world are touring Illinois farms this week.

Buyers in the international delegation are from China, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. They are accompanied by members of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Department official Jim Mackey says the buyers are particularly concerned about drought damage.

Mackey tells The State Journal-Register in Springfield that the buyers could be wondering if that means prices are higher.

The University of Illinois released a report Monday that found export demand and pricing will depend on final yields from U.S. corn producers. Illinois agriculture officials say the drought forced the department to move up this year's trade delegation visit because the early start of harvest.


September 06, 2012

'Average' Crop Revealed for Illinois Pumpkin Day

Pumpkin growers from around the Midwest spent Thursday picking up tips from one of the leading institutions on the crop’s overall success.

Experts from the University of Illinois discussed the latest on plant disease, insects, and proper equipment at Pumpkin Day at the University of Illinois.  The group toured the U of I’s Vegetable Crops research farm.

Crop Sciences Professor Mohammad Babadoost says overall, it was an average year for both the large ones used at Halloween, and those processed for food. 

He says drought was a key factor, along with insect and disease.

"And everybody hoped to have an almost bumper crop (in 2012)," he said.  "But it happened to be very dry.  Dry conditions helped to keep the disease pressure down, until about two weeks ago, then disease started showing up."

Bababoost says the hardest part of dealing with the summer was some of the pumpkin crop aborted the fruits because of the extreme heat, and insect pressure was higher.

About 90-percent of processing pumpkins produced in the US are grown and processed in Illinois.


August 31, 2012

Farmers Can Transport Hay on Illinois Interstates

A new policy put into effect due to drought conditions in Illinois means farmers will be able to transport hay loads on interstates.

Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider on Friday announced that workers will be able to transport hay loads up to 12-feet wide on all state routes and interstates. State transportation officials say this will make processing and transporting hay more efficient. The drought hurt hay production in the state.

Schneider says farmers and truck drivers will be able to cut transportation costs and travel times throughout the rest of harvest season. Those moving hay loads will need a copy of an official authorization.

The new policy takes effect immediately. It expires Dec. 31.


August 30, 2012

East Central Illinois Braces for Heavy Rainfall

Champaign’s Public Works Department is bracing for heavy rainfall and winds as the remnants of Isaac hit the region this weekend.

To prepare, the city has swept streets and cleaned viaducts on areas bordered by major streets to remove debris that may cause flooding.

Administrative Services Supervisor Kris Koester says the hardest part is not knowing how fast a possible 6 to 10 inches of rain will hit the area.

"If it starts coming pretty quickly, then it creates more of a problem on the detention basins, and the streets that typically have flooding problems," he said.  "We've just been keeping track of the forecast, and paying attention to what's happening in other places.  That's how we make our decisions."

The city is also asking residents to assist with preparation by clearing inlets of debris in their neighborhood, and to be mindful of driving near viaducts during heavy rain. 

With updated forecasts, Koester says his staff will meet again Friday morning to determine whether additional crews are needed. 

Any flooding of streets should be reported to the Public Works Department at 403-4700. 

Urbana's fire and police departments are issuing similar warnings, asking residents to look out for standing water, avoid flooded viaducts, and to notify emergency responders of downed power lines, trees, and other obstructions in the road. 

Danville's Public Works Department says city crews will be on call and dispatched for response to water in low-lying areas.  The city says resident assistance is appreciated in clearing debris from drains, but staff requests wearing appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment.

Meanwhile, Director of the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency says it’s still taking a wait-and-see approach as it prepares to address flooded roadways and creeks.

John Carlson says the hours leading up to Friday night will tell a lot as to whether the remnants of Isaac will have much of an impact on East Central Illinois. 

He says the latest forecast from the National Weather Service has rain starting tomorrow night, with the heaviest rainfall mid-afternoon on Saturday, after people leaving the University of Illinois football game.

"If the storm slows down, any of the heavier activity would occur later in the evening on Saturday, which of course would be an advantage with the game being over, and a lot of the Saturday traffic would be over at that time."

More than anything, Carlson says motorists and particularly those in rural areas need to use common sense with 6 to 10 inches of rainfall.

"Because of the drought, and it's been so dry, (The National Weather Service) says the water would be spilling out onto the roads." he said.

Meanwhile, University of Illinois Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise asks students to take caution around campus. 

In a mass e-mail, she urges anyone not registered for the emergency campus Illini Alert messaging to sign up at http://emergency.illinois.edu.


August 25, 2012

Drought Means Water Woes for Indiana Livestock Farms

Indiana's worst drought in decades is drying up ponds, creeks and springs, leaving some livestock farmers scrambling to find other sources of water for their animals.

Although Indiana's drought conditions have lessened in the past week, one-third of the state remains in at least an extreme drought.

That includes much of southern Indiana, where Monroe County cattle farmer Keith Weathers says a spring he usually taps for water for his 70 thirsty cows has run dry. Weathers now has to pay in nearby Ellettsville to fill up a 400-gallon tank twice a day with water for his livestock.

Ellettsville Water Superintendent Michael Farmer tells The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/Pcw5lh ) the drought has sent more customers like Weathers to the town's coin-activated Automatic Water Salesman as ponds and creeks dry up.


Page 10 of 11 pages ‹ First  < 8 9 10 11 >