Amy Mayer

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also  previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth.  She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times,  Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.

Amy has a bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies from Wellesley College and a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Amy’s favorite public radio program is The World.

The nation has a new agriculture secretary.

The U.S. Senate on Monday voted to confirm former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to lead the Department of Agriculture. He takes over a department that was without a top boss for three months after former secretary Tom Vilsack resigned. Vilsack served the entire eight years of the Obama administration (one of the longest-serving agriculture secretaries in recent decades).

Three months after his nomination, Sonny Perdue faces a confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate Monday for the post of secretary of agriculture.

If confirmed, Perdue will find a desk at USDA piled high with priorities and will be one of the last members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet to be seated.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

President Donald Trump has nominated former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue as Agriculture Secretary, bucking a recent trend of Midwest leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and making many in the farm country of the Midwest and Great Plans a little leery.

Coupled with the appointments of leaders from Oklahoma and Texas to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy, respectively, there looks to be a shift in the power center of the parts of the federal government that most directly impact agriculture.

Luke Runyon / KUNC/Harvest Public Media

Five of the six biggest companies that produce and sell seeds and chemicals to the world’s farmers are pursuing deals that could leave a market dominated by just three giant, global companies. They say getting bigger means bringing more sophisticated and innovative solutions to farmers faster, but opponents say consolidation has irreversible downsides.

Dow and DuPont want to merge and then spin off three separate companies, one of them dedicated to agriculture. Monsanto has accepted an offer from Bayer. And China National Chemical Company, known as ChemChina, wants to purchase Syngenta.

Luke Runyon / KUNC/Harvest Public Media

The massive industry that supplies farmers with the tools to raise crops is on the brink of a watershed moment. High-profile deals that would see some of the largest global agri-chemical companies combine are in the works and could have ripple effects from farm fields to dinner tables across the globe.

Six companies currently dominate the marketplace for agricultural seeds and farm chemicals, like fertilizer and pesticides: BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Dow, Monsanto and Syngenta. Of those, only BASF is not currently in discussions to merge.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

On a gray day, just as the rain begins to fall, Roger Zylstra stops his red GMC Sierra pick-up truck on the side of the road and hops down into a ditch in Jasper County, Iowa. It takes two such stops before he unearths amid the tall weeds and grasses what he’s looking for.

“Here is one of the tiles,” he says, pointing to a pipe about six or eight inches in diameter. Water trickles from it into a culvert that runs under the road after flowing through a network of underground drainage lines below his farm field. “That’s where it outlets.”

Water like this is called runoff and it can contain harmful chemicals, such as nitrates from fertilizer that plants don’t absorb or excess pesticides. For years, contaminants like these have reached public waterways.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Growing up on a family farm in West Bend, Iowa, Haley Banwart and her brother were like other farm kids. They did chores, participated in 4-H, and even raised cattle together.

“My brother and I have had the same amount of responsibilities. I can drive a tractor, I can bale square hay,” Banwart says. “But it was just expected that my brother would return home.”

She says they never discussed it, she just accepted that she’d find a different path.

“It was always kind of the unwritten rule that my brother would go back and farm,” she says.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

Peggy Fogle and her dog, Abe, walk among rows of aronia berry bushes on the family property outside Carlisle, Iowa. Plants on the ends of rows are smaller from years of being nibbled by deer and rabbits. But on nearly nine acres, filling four separate fields, the bushes are reaching maturity, eight years after Fogle and her husband decided to put in their first ones.

“We had looked for something organic, sustainable, native to the area, low-maintenance,” Fogle says, “that could be done here to provide a secondary income and be a healthy alternative.”

A weathered wooden shed that holds wheelbarrows, hoes and other basic tools is the beacon of the Student Organic Farm, a two-acre swath within the larger horticultural research farm at Iowa State University.

On a warm spring evening, a half-dozen students gather here, put on work gloves and begin pulling up weeds from the perennial beds where chives, strawberries, rhubarb and sage are in various stages of growth.

"I didn't know how passionate I [would] become for physical work," says culinary science major Heidi Engelhardt.

On a cold windy morning, Kelly Nissen feeds the cows at the Iowa State University Beef Nutrition Farm. He weighs out specific rations and carefully delivers them to numbered feed bunks.

"When you're feeding, you're always double-checking yourself to make sure it's going in the right lot," Nissen says. It's important — because these cows munch on more than just the common mix of hay, corn and distiller's grain. They're also charged with testing out different formulas developed by the researchers in the animal science department at Iowa State.

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