Agriculture | KNKX

Agriculture

Trade was at the forefront of the conversation with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue Monday in Spokane.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently failed to pass a farm bill and Northwest farmers are worried that the process is not plowing ahead.

In farm fields from the Willamette Valley to the Kittitas Valley and east to Idaho, energy developers want to plant a new crop: commercial solar arrays. But a surge in utility-scale solar farm applications is generating pushback.

Courtesy of the Thurston Conservation District

An election at a Thurston County land stewardship board is getting more attention than usual.

Saturday's election for an open seat on the Thurston Conservation District's board comes as the body faces a state investigation into allegations of dysfunction. 

Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX

More than 18,000 foreign workers, most of them from Mexico, traveled legally to Washington last year to labor on the state's farms, largely in the apple, pear, and cherry industries.

Recent high-profile lawsuits have thrust the state into a debate about the benefits and shortcomings of the H-2A visa program, which allows farmers to import temporary workers from other countries to make up for labor shortages at home.

The recent bite of arctic air is causing real worry for Northwest fruit farmers. They’re fretting over their trees’ tender buds. And it all might get worse as things warm up.

East of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon, it’s been about five to 10 degrees warmer than normal for most of the winter. Those unusually warm conditions have buds on fruit trees and grapevines starting to “push,” or emerge early.

And that has farmers worried.

As a group of visiting scientists prepared to board a plane in Hawaii that would take them back home to China, U.S. customs agents found rice seeds in their luggage. Those seeds are likely to land at least one scientist in federal prison.

At the public library in the rural Morgan County town of Brush, Colo., Marissa Velazquez welcomes her students to class. It's a sunny Saturday morning, and the day marks the halfway point in Velazquez's class, a 10-week crash course on American history, civics and English.

Nearly all of the students work in either meatpacking or dairying. Everyone in it has the same goal: become an American citizen. In two hours, Velazquez runs through voting rights, the legislative process and some grammar tips.

Pop quiz: When do we celebrate the venerable American holiday of Flag Day?

With climate change and the decline of honey bees, Northwest farmers are looking for more reliable ways to pollinate cherry and apple trees.

Kobe beef is supposedly the finest steak in the world. It’s very hard to get -- and very expensive -- in the United States. But it's getting easier and easier these days to find more affordable “American style Kobe beef" or “American Wagyu” at your neighborhood steak house or upscale grocery.

Though he didn't come from a farming family, from a young age Tim Joseph was fascinated by the idea of living off the land. Reading magazines like The Stockman Grass Farmer and Graze, he "got hooked on the idea of grass-fed agriculture — that all energy and wealth comes from the sun," he explains, "and the shorter the distance between the sun and the end product," the higher the profit to the farmer.

Maybe money does grow on trees after all.

Households in several African countries grow more trees than scientists previously realized. And those trees may account for an average 17 percent of a farm's income, according to a study funded by the World Bank's Program on Forests and published online in January in Forest Policy and Economics.

The recent testy back-and-forth between President Donald Trump and Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto -- could end in real cash losses for agriculture in the Northwest.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture said it's recorded the largest Japanese beetle infestation in the state's history. But officials hope to stop the pest from spreading with an aggressive eradication program.

Low temperatures, snow drifts, and northeasterly winds east of the Cascades are making things difficult for Northwest ranchers and dairy owners. They are struggling to keep their animals hydrated, fed and warm.

You may think of ants as picnic pilferers. After all, who hasn't had to ward off ants stealing crumbs from picnic tables or hoarding tiny pieces of food from kitchens? But a new study shows that they're in fact hard working farmers. Or at least one species of ants is. It lives in Fiji and has been farming plants for some 3 million years.

If you want to feel virtuous the next time you chug a brewski, consider the Long Root Ale. This new beer, mildly fragrant and with a rye-like spiciness, is the first to use Kernza, a kind of wheat that could make agriculture more sustainable, especially in the face of climate change.

Blackberries grow so voraciously in the Pacific Northwest that it's not rare to stumble across rural barns or abandoned homes that have been completely consumed by the thorny vine. Let them grow too close to a window, and they'll break the glass. They're common — easy to forage and hard to get too excited about. At least compared to the marionberry, a type of blackberry that has become an Oregon obsession.

One of the reasons the marionberry is so beloved is because it is entirely a product of Oregon. It's "born and raised" in state, so to speak.

The chuga-chuga sound is one any dairyman would want to hear — daily. It's the sound of milking machines collecting the white liquid, which is turned into edible products that support their farm.

For Greg and Ana Kelly, the chuga-chuga sound means fresh milk from their flock of 80 milking ewes — milk to be made into cheeses and caramel at their Gallant, Ala., sheep farm, named Dayspring Dairy.

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.

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

First, they grew wild varieties of crops like peas, lentils and barley and herded wild animals like goats and wild oxen. 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.

Pages