farming

Across the U.S., small farmers have been struggling for years with low commodity prices and rising production costs. Even for organic farmers, who can justify higher prices, making a profit is tough.

But throughout the Midwest, a new farm-to-table strategy is giving a boost to some farmers.

Nick Lapatas spent 18 years living in Chicago. Then he returned home to Greece and bought a small farm. Today he and his son sell tomatoes in an open-air market in Athens. Despite the depressed economy and cheaper imports from Bulgaria and Albania, he's doing OK.

"I don't know how, but we are making some money," he says. "Now, what is going to happen a month from now, I don't know."

Rearranging veggie genes is big business, and we're not even talking about biotechnology. Private companies and university researchers spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year breeding better genetic varieties of food crops.

But organic farmers say those programs have a big blind spot when it comes to figuring out which new varieties are truly better. Few companies or researchers test those varieties under organic conditions.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

May 2015 was Oklahoma’s wettest month on record. The historic rainfall washed away an economically draining drought that haunted parts of the state for five years. For many wheat farmers in southwestern Oklahoma, however, the record rainfall is too much, too late.

To find a farmer in the wide, unbroken prairie of southwest Oklahoma, scan the horizon and look for clouds — of dust. In a field five miles south of Altus, Fred Schmedt peers through the haze and watches a gray-and-black combine pull alongside a tractor with a grain cart.

Schmedt grins as the bin fills.

“We’re really tickled to death,” he says.

Nobody really likes to be graded. Especially when you don't get an A.

Some organic farmers are protesting a new grading system for produce and flowers that's coming into force at Whole Foods. They say it devalues the organic label and could become an "existential threat."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

The right-to-farm bill got through the legislative process last week. That means voters will have a chance to decide next year whether to give farmers and ranchers broad protections against future state laws that might interfere with their operations.

But opponents say right-to-farm is a license that allows big ag to harm animals and the environment. But where do actual Oklahoma farmers and ranchers stand on the issue?

StateImpact randomly knocked on current and former farmers’ and ranchers’ doors east of Norman to find out.

“I don’t have an opinion. I don’t know anything about it. Do you know anything about it?” Debbie Downey asks her son, Dustin. “I know absolutely nothing about it,” Dustin says.

KOMUNEWS / Flickr

Oklahoma voters have at least a year before seeing ads for and against state questions on the ballot in November 2016. But you might want to get used to hearing this phrase now: right-to-farm.

It’s a divisive national issue that’s made its way to the Sooner State, one that puts agriculture at odds with environmentalists and animal rights advocates.

In Missouri, it was a fight between two sides that loathe each other. The right-to-farm amendment narrowly passed there in 2014, and not until after a recount. Part of Missouri’s constitution now reads like this: “The right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state.”

On a breezy morning next to a cornfield in rural Weld County, Colo., Jimmy Underhill quickly assembles a black and orange drone with four spinning rotors.

"This one just flies itself," he says. "It's fully autonomous."

Underhill is a drone technician with Agribotix, a Colorado-based drone startup that sees farmers as its most promising market. Today he's training his fellow employees how to work the machine in the field.

After more than a decade of explosive growth, sales of local food at U.S. farmers' markets are slowing. A January report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that while more farmers are selling directly to consumers, local food sales at farmers markets, farm stands and through community supported agriculture have lost some momentum.

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