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Iowa, USA

Jim Kenshaw, research scientist

Space age laboratories dot the landscape across Iowa. Here, research scientists like Jim Kenshaw create their own weather conditions. They are developing new high yielding seeds that are drought resistant and require less chemicals. It could have an enormous impact around the world.

"We test products across many, many different kinds of environments," says Kenshaw. "We like to expose our varieties and hybrids to drought, to heavy disease pressure, to heavy insect pressure, to heavy rains. We want them to be stable enough to handle almost any kind of weather that it can be exposed to."


Jim Horan, farmer:

"I don't know how we existed through those [the years of the Dust Bowls]. I guess we didn't know much about anything else out there then. There was no money, what would we do? Where would we go?"

Bill Horan, farmer:

"Basically, a farm in the Midwest is a protein factory, and the whole idea is to produce as much protein per acre as we possibly can to feed the United States and the rest of the world.

It's kind of frightening the speed that things are changing these days. We went from a generation ago with my grandfather harvesting a hundred bushels a day by hand with a team of horses and having a feeling like he had a really good day to where my brother and I now can harvest routinely 25,000 bushels. It isn't because we work any harder, it's because of the technology that we have available and the machinery we have available today."

Joe Horan, farmer:

"Since the government has loosened up a little bit on some of the global positioning equipment that they've had, we have gone to a more of a site specific management system. We apply fertilizer and herbicides where needed, as needed. We live here. Our kids live here. We drink the water. We breathe the air. We try and be as good a steward of the soil as we can."

On the edge of the Great Plains, during the harvest the time of day is meaningless. Joe and Bill Horan are in the middle of an around the clock forty day sprint; a race against time to bring in their corn and soybeans before the weather turns. An early frost or hail storm could ruin their entire crop.

Harvesting soybean crop in Iowa

Harvesting soybean crop in Iowa

Joe works in air conditioned comfort at a steady six miles an hour. His brother Bill maintains the pace, receiving the grain that will eventually be trucked to nearby storage silos. Their farm is about as far from hand-cultivated fields of China as you can get. Yet almost half their harvest will make its way to the burgeoning markets of Asia.

Video Excerpt: From September through November, Iowa's cycle of harvest never seems to end. In an effort to supply a global market, are America's Midwest farmers in danger of depleting the fertile soil of the nation's heartland?
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From late September through early November Iowa's annual cycle of harvest never seems to end. The continuous demand for food is at the heart of a major environmental dilemma: in the process of helping to feed the world are we in danger of depleting the soil of our nation's heartland?

At first glance, northern Iowa is a vision of agricultural stability; row upon row of corn and soybeans stretch endlessly toward the horizon. The rich black earth of these farms, the earth that nurtures their crops, is actually a gift left behind from the last Ice Age.

Ten thousand years ago nearly a third of Iowa was covered with glaciers. Over time, the climate changed. Temperatures rose and the ice slowly began to retreat. Left behind was some of the youngest and most fertile soil in the country.

The rich black earth of these farms, the earth that nurtures their crops, is actually a gift left behind from the last Ice Age.

The history of the tallgrass prairies is legendary; a place where the natural interaction of wild fires and grazing herds of buffalo enriched and replenished the soil, renewed each year into an exquisitely balanced eco-system.

With the coming of the pioneers, native grasses were ripped apart. In less than a hundred years the tallgrass prairies were transformed into America's corn belt. By the end of World War I it was becoming the breadbasket of the nation. In haste to reap the rewards of this naturally fertile soil, farmers worked the land hard. It was left unprotected and vulnerable to the elements. Then a prolonged drought hit the mid-west. What followed was the country's worst environmental disaster.

The dust bowls of the 1930s started when the seasonal winds began to blow, creating massive dust storms. Thousands of farmers packed up and fled westward. Bill and Joe Horan's father Jim tried to dig out, but eventually he gave up and left Nebraska and started over in Iowa.

Like the early pioneers, modern farmers grow similar crops, work similar land, and worry about the same uncertainties of weather. What separates them from previous generations, however, is technology.

There are no longer teams of plow-horses in Iowa. Quiet reminders that the mechanization of agriculture means fewer people are needed to farm larger tracts of land. At the turn of the 20th century farmers were nearly 35 percent of the population. Today, fewer than 10 percent of American families work the land.

Remains of an abandoned farm

Remains of an abandoned farm

But there is technology, and it is rapidly changing the face of agriculture. High above, a network of military satellites scan the landscape, not to pinpoint targets, but to tell farmers their exact position. Joe Horan's on-board computer is linked to the satellites above. Called precision farming, he now knows exactly when and where to apply chemicals. Coupled with yield information from previous years, farmers can now manage their land by the square foot instead of by the acre.

As night slowly turns into day, the Horan brothers continue their race to bring in the harvest. They are a new breed of farmers who try to increase yields by experimenting with the latest advances in technology. It's an admirable goal and for now it seems to be working.



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