farming

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.

In love, timing is everything, the saying goes. The same is true for fruit and nut orchards in California's Central Valley, which depend on a synchronized springtime bloom for pollination. But as winters warm with climate change, that seasonal cycle is being thrown off.

Cold is a crucial ingredient for California's walnuts, cherries, peaches, pears and pistachios, which ultimately head to store shelves around the country. The state grows around 99% of the country's walnut and pistachio crop.

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.

It's been a challenging year for American farmers.

Farmers in the U.S. witnessed a trade war with China unfold, farm debt continues to pile on and delays in planting due to extreme weather linked to climate change.

And as farmers get older — their average age is 58 years old — what does the next generation of farmers look like? Will they face the same barriers?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has paid out a record $4.24 billion in claims for acres farmers couldn’t plant this year.

The “prevented planting” provision allows farmers to file a crop insurance claim when weather conditions leave fields unfit for a crop. Heavy spring rains and flooding left some Midwest farm ground too wet for seeds and equipment during the planting window, meaning farmers couldn’t put in the corn or soybeans they’d intended for those acres. 

During 2019, the curveballs thrown at farmers began with the partial government shutdown in January, when some U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies were closed. Spring brought a storm system—called a bomb cyclone—that dumped rain on top of frozen fields unable to make use of it, kicking off weeks of flooding exacerbated by additional precipitation. Planting ran later than usual and some farmers never got a cash crop into certain saturated fields.

Hemp farming exploded after the 2018 Farm Bill passed last December. The bill decriminalized the plant at the federal level, opening the door for many U.S. farmers to grow and sell hemp.

Over the past year, licensed hemp acreage increased more than 445%, according to the advocacy and research group Vote Hemp. More than 510,000 acres of hemp were licensed in 2019, versus about 112,000 acres in 2018.

Farm laborers in yellow safety vests walked through neatly arranged rows of grapes in a vineyard outside Healdsburg, Calif., Friday, harvesting the last of the deep purple bundles that hung from the vines, even as the sky behind them was dark with soot.

There is a swath of the Gulf of Mexico that's virtually devoid of life because algae blooms have choked out marine plants and animals; scientists say it is growing and getting worse.

One of the culprits lies to the north, in the massive amounts of fertilizers used on corn and soy farms throughout the Midwest.

Most farmers haven't had a good year since President Trump took office and his policies on trade, immigration and ethanol are part of the problem. Yet farmers, who broadly supported Trump in 2016 are largely sticking with him as the impeachment inquiry moves forward. And if they did abandon him, it may not matter.

Farmer Luke Ulrich says he works at least 12 hours a day, almost every day, tending his crops and cattle near Baldwin City, Kan.

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