Agriculture

Maria Diaz sorts green bell peppers along an outdoor conveyor belt on a farm 25 miles west of Sacramento, discarding leaves and stems quickly before peppers are swept away by a mini-roller coaster onto a tractor-trailer.

Diaz, a single parent of three, is one of roughly 800,000 farmworkers in California. Under a bill recently passed by the California Legislature, Diaz could collect overtime pay.

Diaz says growers should pay overtime after eight hours. She adds that those extra earnings would help her cover child care.

Just southwest of bustling Charleston, S.C., lies a lush and rural gem called Wadmalaw Island, one of the Sea Islands that dot the shoreline. This is the home of the Charleston Tea Plantation, the only large-scale commercial tea plantation in America.

"Aerial photo of area surrounding Chief Leschi School Administration" by D Coetzee is licensed by CC by 2.0

Pierce County leaders are exploring a way to save more farmland from the development sweeping the Puget Sound region. But they risk upsetting some key stakeholders: the farmers. 

Every county in Washington has to decide which farms count as "agricultural resource land" -- basically farmland that can't be developed. 

No county has stricter criteria, or less farmland preserved in this way, than Pierce County. It boasts some of the nation's best soils, but about two-thirds of its farmland has disappeared since 1950 as the county's population nearly tripled. 

The Northwest apple harvest is just underway and pickers are wading into the lush orchards. And so far things look dramatically better than last year.

Growing up on their family farm in West Bend, Iowa, Haley Banwart and her brother Jack were like any other farm kids. They did chores, participated in 4-H and even raised cattle together.

"My brother and I have had the same amount of responsibilities," says Banwart, 22. "I can drive a tractor, I can bale square hay. But it was just expected that my brother would return home."

Her family never really discussed it. "It was always kind of the unwritten rule," she says. "My brother would go back and farm" — and she'd find another path.

Organic blueberries are really hard to grow west of the Cascades -- too many bugs and too much disease. And east of the mountains, growers must battle the desert. But one company growing blueberries in south central Washington state may have a solution.

Giant tents.

Where Did Agriculture Begin? Oh Boy, It's Complicated

Jul 15, 2016

Sometime around 12,000 years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors began trying their hand at farming.

First, they grew wild varieties of crops like pea, lentil and barley, and herded wild animals like goat and wild ox. Centuries later, they switched to farming full-time, breeding both animals and plants, creating new varieties and breeds. Eventually, they migrated outward, spreading farming to parts of Europe and Asia.

A weathered wooden shed that holds wheelbarrows, hoes and other basic tools is the beacon of the Student Organic Farm, a two-acre swath within the larger horticultural research farm at Iowa State University.

On a warm spring evening, a half-dozen students gather here, put on work gloves and begin pulling up weeds from the perennial beds where chives, strawberries, rhubarb and sage are in various stages of growth.

"I didn't know how passionate I [would] become for physical work," says culinary science major Heidi Engelhardt.

After several boom years while the rest of the economy struggled, farming is entering its third year on the bust side of the cycle. Major crop prices are low, while expenses like seed, fertilizer and land remain high. And that means farmers have to get creative to succeed.

Modern crop farms in the Corn Belt are sophisticated businesses. So put aside your notions of bucolic red barns surrounded by a few cows. And pull out your best business school vocabulary, because crops are commodities.

In a dimly lit hut made of mud and straw, a shaft of sunlight slices through a hole in the ceiling and lands on a bag of rice. Debendra Tarek, 80, pulls out a handful of the rough brown grains and holds them up to the beam of light.

His bare chest is sunken, and his eyes glow deep in their sockets. "This resists the saltwater," the village elder explains through an interpreter. This variety of rice, he says, allows his family to remain here on Ghoramara, the island where they were born.

Crispy fried sardines. Spicy labneh dip for sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and sliced cucumbers. Chilled arugula lemonade.

The top U.S. diplomat in Jerusalem, Counsel General Donald Blome, served Gaza-style cuisine at a garden party Monday night. Sound like the old-fashioned society pages? Nope. This is U.S. policy at work.

The event was designed to promote the potential of agribusiness in Gaza and tout new U.S. government investment in that crowded, narrow strip of Palestinian territory on the Mediterranean Sea.

Most food, if we trace it back far enough, began as a seed. And the business of supplying those seeds to farmers has been transformed over the past half-century. Small-town companies have given way to global giants.

A new round of industry consolidation is now underway. Multibillion-dollar mergers are in progress, or under discussion, that could put more than half of global seed sales in the hands of three companies.

If there's anyone who can trace the course of this transformation, and explain what drove it, it's Ed Robinson.

Aubrey Fletcher knew she wanted to work on a dairy farm ever since she was a little girl.

"I do remember my mom asking, 'Are you sure that's what you want to do?' " Fletcher recalls. She knew the work would be tough — she grew up milking cows every day. But it's what she wanted.

So she and her husband's family collaborated to start Edgewood Creamery outside of Springfield, Mo., last August. They recently opened a storefront on the farm selling their milk and cheese.

At the trendy South by Southwest conference in mid-March, there was buzz about music, movies, President Obama's keynote address ... and tractors.

Why? Because there's a new, low-cost (but pretty smart) mini-tractor that's part of a business start-up in Abuja, Nigeria, called "Hello Tractor." And it was part of a SxSW competition.

The fight to improve wages for Florida's tomato pickers hit the national stage over the past week, as part of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Carolina Chelele is a contestant on a popular reality TV show. It's not about dating, housewives or survival. It's about ... farming. Specifically, farming by females.

At the Lee Valley consignment sale near Tekamah, Neb., dozens of used tractors, planters and other equipment were on the auction block for farmers trying to save a few extra dollars. It was a muddy day, with trucks and four-wheelers leaving deep black ruts — fitting conditions for an industry wallowing in bad news.

In Northwest farm-country, tiny blueberry buds are already starting to plump up. But cold snaps could kill them. And that’s a bummer for your morning smoothie. Now, Northwest scientists are trying to help farmers by studying how low blueberries can go.

Deep in the heart of the arcane laws that give farmers a helping hand, there's something called "crop insurance." It's a huge program, costing taxpayers anywhere from $5 billion to $10 billion each year.

It's called an insurance program, and it looks like insurance. Farmers buy policies from private companies and pay premiums (which are cheap because of government subsidies) to insure themselves against crop failures and falling prices. It's mainly used by corn, soybean, cotton and wheat farmers. Defenders of the program call it a safety net.

Farm Contractors Balk At Obamacare Requirements

Feb 9, 2016

Obamacare is putting the agricultural industry in a tizzy.

Many contractors who provide farm labor and must now offer workers health insurance are complaining loudly about the cost in their already low-margin business.

Some are also concerned that the forms they must file with the federal government under the Affordable Care Act will bring immigration problems to the fore. About half of the farm labor workforce in the U.S. is undocumented.

Northwest farmers are watching several bills closely in Congress that would try to keep trade moving through ports in the event of a labor dispute.

According to an industry trade group, sales of alternatives to modern wheat are growing at double-digit annual rates.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Tuesday hailed a pending trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The deal would span 12 countries in the Asia Pacific region including Canada and Mexico.

In some areas of the Northwest, dryland farmers are getting impatient. They need rain to plant winter wheat.

The container yard at the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, looks forgotten. A tall crane next to the Clearwater River sits parked and unused.

Off in the distance, two orange metal shipping containers lie side-by-side, surrounded by asphalt in every direction.

"Last year, there would've been probably 250 containers here," says David Doeringsfeld, the port's general manager.

Courtesy of Kiley Riffell

As much as one-third of our food supply depends on pollinators like insects and birds that fertilize plants when they fly between blossoms.

David Cravioto

Even as the summer berry season gets underway, some of the workers who pick those berries have been battling with a Skagit County farm in court. They’ve challenged Sakuma Brothers Farms over its new policy to no longer provide housing for workers’ family members. 

Ashley Gross / KPLU

People in Seattle are familiar with the H-1B visa program that brings high-tech employees from abroad, but another, more obscure foreign worker program has churned up a lot of controversy in the state recently.

Bellamy Pailthorp

After a tumultuous year in which berry pickers at a Skagit County farm went on repeated strikes, a new group appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee is set to start tackling farm labor issues. 

Justin Steyer / KPLU

Wild mushrooms are going gangbusters this year in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to just the right weather conditions, and foragers are rejoicing after last year’s shortage

Among them is James Nowak, an amateur mycologist who spends most of his days working with mushrooms. When he’s not out in a forest hunting for mushrooms, he grows them in his lab in Seattle or processes them for sale to restaurants and home cooks.

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