In the not-so-distant past, “non-existent” would have been an apt term to describe the Midwest’s farm winery and craft beer industries. As recently as the year 2000, only 300 acres were in grape production.
But today, ethanol isn’t the only alcohol being produced in this region. There has been big growth in the beer and wine industry, a trend that is allowing for more diversity in farm production and helping expand local and statewide agri-tourism.
The winery and craft beer industries are moving out of the hobby stage and making an estimated $10 billion contribution to the economies of Midwestern states. More than 12,000 acres of grapes and 600 craft brewers now call the Midwest home. This growth has been fueled not only by the development of winter-hardy varieties of grapes, but also by more-supportive government policies.
In Iowa’s largest city, Des Moines, the local water utility operates the largest nitrate-removal facility in the world. It runs any time nitrates reach levels above the federally mandated limit of 10 milligrams per liter. The cost of operating the facility, Des Moines Water Works says, can be upwards of $7,000 a day. Now, the utility wants some local drainage districts in surrounding rural counties held accountable for the costs associated with treating what it calls “extremely high concentrations of nitrate” in local rivers. (The costs were approximately $900,000 in 2013 due to severe rain events, but less than half that figure in 2014.)
At a time when commodity prices are the lowest in years, agricultural producers have been looking for ways to increase demand. One answer to the market problem, it turns out, could be just 90 miles away from the U.S. border. That is because agriculture — a major Midwestern strength — stands to be one of the biggest potential beneficiaries of President Obama’s plan to ease economic and trade restrictions with Cuba.
Can voters in California dictate how Midwestern farmers house their hens? If the farmers want to sell eggs to California, the answer could be “yes” — unless an appeal filed by Iowa, Nebraska and four other states is successful. Beginning Jan. 1, egg farmers in California must comply with Proposition 2: a new law, approved by voters in 2008, under which hens must be able to stand up, turn around and spread their wings without touching their cage or another bird.
The ballot initiative came in response to criticism of conventional cages. According to groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, which organized the effort to put the measure on the ballot, the cages are cruel. Critics also say the stress and confinement make hens more susceptible to diseases, including salmonella.
In Kansas, some visitors come to the State Fair for the carnival rides, others for the food, music and entertainment. But organizers and legislators alike also don’t lose sight of one of the fair’s more important missions — as a source of boundless agricultural education for the young and old alike.
The annual event is promoted as the “state’s largest classroom,” and as Kansas Sen. Larry Powell notes, legislators themselves are among those getting lessons as part of an event that has them team up with a 4-H member who teaches them the finer points of cattle showmanship. A contest is then held, “much to the delight of the crowd,” Powell says. Illinois has a similar event with legislators driving harness horses in a race.
Beyond the fun and education, state fairs can also help boost the economies of host cities and surrounding regions. Some studies, for example, have put the impact at over $100 million a year. But state fairs also cost money to operate and maintain, and in recent years, states in the Midwest have had to grapple with this question: Should tax dollars be used to help keep the fairs going?
Eight years ago, a statewide ballot initiative ended the hunting of mourning doves in Michigan. Ever since then, Matt Evans of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs notes, sportsmen in the state have been concerned about what animal hunts might be banned next.
Will industrial hemp eventually become a viable cash crop for the Midwest’s agricultural producers and rural communities? Three states in the region have taken initial steps to begin exploring the possibility, and the new farm bill is also opening up the opportunity for research and pilot programs across the country.
Bees are in trouble. The major pollinator of our fruit, vegetable and nut crops, they are also responsible for such agricultural staples as alfalfa, canola and sunflower. What role can states and provinces play in helping save the population of their — and the continent’s and the world’s — pollinators?
The region’s legislators explored this question in July during a session of the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee meeting, and learned how one state, Minnesota, already took significant steps in 2014.
For farmers and ranchers, the promise of “big data” to vastly improve operations is hard to ignore. Take, for example, the idea of “prescriptive production.” By merging a decade’s worth of fertilizer, climate and yield data with advanced soil maps and existing conditions, a producer can make more-informed management decisions — down to the fertilizer used and seeds planted on each acre of land. Evidence shows that this approach can increase yields by between 10 and 25 percent.
“Big data” is the term applied to the sorting and processing of enormous quantities of data. And the ability to crunch massive amounts of data may be as important to the future of food production as the development of the tractor was for 20th-century agriculture.
But it is also hard to ignore the myriad policy and privacy issues arising from increased use of “big data.”
For the first time, state legislatures are passing measures to require labeling of foods that contain products from genetically engineered crops — part of a recent upswing in food regulation that has producers challenging the rules as unconstitutional.
Vermont has become the first U.S. state mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods. (Laws passed in Connecticut and Maine only take effect if at least four other states adopt similar measures).
In the Midwest, GMO-labeling bills have been introduced in six states. Though none has become law, some of these measures have captured considerable attention, as shown by the large turnout for an informational hearing held earlier this year on Minnesota’s HF 850.