Dan Charles

A month ago, America's pork farmers were in crisis. About 40 percent of the country's pork plants were shut down because they had become hot spots of coronavirus infection.

Millions of newly impoverished people are turning to the charitable organizations known as food banks. Mile-long lines of cars, waiting for bags of free food, have become one of the most striking images of the current economic crisis. Donations are up, too, including from a new billion-dollar government effort called the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Tyson Foods, one of the biggest meat producers in the U.S., is suspending work at its pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa. Officials in Black Hawk County, where the plant is located, say at least 150 people with close connections to the plant have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Iowa Public Radio.

Paul TenHaken, the 42-year-old mayor of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said it wasn't easy getting the world's top pork producer to shut down one of its biggest plants.

"It was tense," TenHaken said. "You know, you shut down a plant like that, it has a pretty big impact on the food supply. So we weren't taking this lightly, making this request."

Several meat processing plants around the U.S. are sitting idle this week because workers have been infected with the coronavirus. Tyson Foods, one of the country's biggest meat processors, says it suspended operations at its pork plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, after more than two dozen workers got sick with COVID-19. National Beef Packing stopped slaughtering cattle at another Iowa plant, and JBS USA shut down work at a beef plant in Pennsylvania.

As Americans scattered to the privacy of their homes this week to avoid spreading the coronavirus, the opposite scene was playing out in the Mexican city of Monterrey.

A thousand or more young men arrived in the city, as they do most weeks of the year, filling up the cheap hotels, standing in long lines at the U.S. Consulate to pick up special H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers, then gathering in a big park to board buses bound for farms in the United States.

Parker Smith grows corn and soybeans on land near Champaign, Ill., together with his father and uncle. But Smith Farms doesn't own most of the land it uses. "About 75 percent of what we farm is rented ground," he says.

This is common. Across the Midwest, about half of all the farmland is owned by landlords who live somewhere else. Farmers compete to rent that land. "There's only so much ground, and most of the farmers out there want more, so obviously it gets pretty competitive," Smith says.

The world's most remarkable date palm trees might not exist if Sarah Sallon hadn't gotten sick while working as a doctor in India in 1986. Antibiotics didn't help. What cured here, she thinks, were some traditional herbal remedies.

"It was just amazing. It was so incredible," she says. "And then I got very interested. There's nothing like a doctor cured of their problem to get them interested in something."

Every summer for the past three years, the phones have been ringing like crazy in the Office of the Indiana State Chemist. Farmers and homeowners were calling, complaining that their soybean fields or tomato plants looked sick, with curled-up leaves. They suspected pesticides from nearby farms — a kind of chemical hit-and-run.

It was up to investigators like Andy Roth to find the true culprit.

In 2019, the federal government delivered an extraordinary financial aid package to America's farmers. Farm subsidies jumped to their highest level in 14 years, most of them paid out without any action by Congress.

The money flowed to farmers like Robert Henry. When I visited in early July, many of his fields near New Madrid, Mo., had been flooded for months, preventing him from working in them. The soybeans that he did manage to grow had fallen in value; China wasn't buying them, in retaliation for the Trump administration's tariffs.

Pages