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Today’s Farm Buzzing for bees

Nature’s flying machines help farmers monitor their crops: Page 4

ALSO INSIDE: Illinois’ acting ag director lays out his priorities – Page 2 Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A supplement to Sauk Valley Media


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Sauk Valley Media • March 12, 2019

| TODAY’S FARM

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From the law of the land to the lay of the land Former lawmaker turned ag director lays out priorities: education, broadband and more BY PETER HANCOCK Capitol News Illinois phancock@capitolnewsillinois.com

SPRINGFIELD – After 16 years in the Illinois General Assembly, former state Sen. John Sullivan is settling into his new role in state government, that of acting director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Sullivan was tapped by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to head the state’s agriculture agency, succeeding the former director, Raymond Poe. Sullivan also served on the transition team with a group of other officials focusing on agriculture and rural development. Speaking to reporters during a news conference at the agency’s headquarters in January, Sullivan said that experience on the transition team taught him about the diversity John of agricultural interests in the state. Sullivan “When I talk about the diversity, we had folks representing urban ag, we had folks obviously from all the different commodity groups, we had rural development folks, we had economic development folks,” Sullivan said. “And everybody, when we made our introductions, we laid out what our goals were for the group, everybody put their own issues aside and tried to move forward with a plan that we can present to the governor that would improve agriculture, and we expanded it to not only include agriculture but rural development.” AG DIRECTOR continued on PAGE 34

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“I’d say number one, broadband out in the rural areas of the state was just an issue that came up over and over and over again ... Other areas, hemp was certainly on everybody’s radar ... I’d say the third area would be ag education.” John Sullivan

Acting director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture

• March 12, 2019

Sullivan, a Rushville Democrat who represented the 47th Senate District from 2003 to 2017, is no stranger to the agriculture community in Illinois. He and his family have operated a family farm in west-central Illinois, and he has been involved in a family-owned auction and real estate business. Now as he prepares to lead a state agency charged with regulating and promoting the state’s entire agriculture industry, Sullivan said three major issues have already risen to the surface. “I’d say number one, broadband out in the rural areas of the state was just an issue that came up over and over and over again,” Sullivan said. “I can speak to that from our own home and family location as well as our own business. Trying to get high-speed internet is very frustrating out in the rural areas of the state, and it

is absolutely a hindrance to trying to do business.” “Other areas, hemp was certainly on everybody’s radar,” Sullivan continued, referring to the state’s recent action to legalize the production of industrial hemp. “I certainly feel like there’s going to be a lot of opportunities there.” “I’d say the third area would be ag education,” he continued. “We had a lot of folks from the education field that were on our panel. Certainly offering programs in-person or online, and that gets back to the high-speed internet.” Sullivan also acknowledged that the Department of Agriculture faces a number of challenges, most notably its lack of staffing. Due to recent budget and staffing cuts, he said the agency is down to about 300 to 325 employees, which is down from its previous head count of about 600. Sullivan will continue to lead the agriculture agency in an acting capacity pending his confirmation by the Illinois Senate.

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TODAY’S FARM | Sauk Valley Media

Sullivan: Rural broadband access a big issue


Fields are the place to bee Researchers are coming up with a way to use nature’s flying machine to help farmers Scientists have been using tracking devices on large animals for decades to monitor the health of a herd, or study an animal’s range and habits. Now, a group of University of Washington researchers has figured out how to put a tiny tracking sensor on a bumblebee. The sensor, or “backpack,” weighs as much as seven grains of dry rice, and can be glued to the back of the insect. One day, a fleet of bees equipped with these sensors could help farmers monitor the health of their crops, and give biologists insights into how bees forage

for food, find pollen and navigate through the environment. To put a backpack on a bee, researchers had to solve two riddles: How to make a sensor lightweight enough to be bee-friendly, and how to use it to track the insect’s location. The work grew out of an earlier engineering challenge the UW team tackled: an effort to create a wireless, robotic flying insect. RoboFly could flap its wings and fly on its own, but the device couldn’t fly far, said Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. RoboFly “consumes

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The UW team designed a sensor “backpack” that weighs 102 milligrams and can be mounted on the back of a bumblebee. RoboFly, the group began working on a way to put a sensor on an insect.

BEES continued on PAGE 54

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a lot of power, and that has been the biggest fundamental challenge of making it work,” Gollakota said. That led the team to another inspiration: “Why don’t we use nature’s basic flying machine?” he said. To researchers, a living organism like an insect is a brilliant solution to the problem of energy storage because it recharges its living “batteries” by foraging all day long. Putting aside

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BY KATHERINE LONG Tribune News Service

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Sauk Valley Media • March 12, 2019

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Vikram Iyer, UW electrical and computer engineering doctoral student, studies how a bumblebee performs with a sensor package attached to its back.

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• March 12, 2019

And the bumblebee was the perfect candidate for the job. It’s robust enough to carry a tiny, battery powered payload. It returns to the hive every night, where the sensor’s battery can be recharged wirelessly. Bumblebees are used in agriculture, and they’re relatively gentle, said Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. Iyer became the team’s bee-wrangler, and was never stung, he said. This isn’t the first time that scientists have used sensors, or bee “backpacks,” to follow a bee’s movement. But those earlier efforts could only track a bee over a short distance, UW researchers said. Because GPS receivers use too much energy, the team had to find a different way to track bee movement. They set up multiple antennas that broadcast signals from a base station across a specific area. The receiver in the bee sensor uses the strength of the signal, and the angle difference between the bee and the base station, to triangulate the insect’s position. The information is stored in the sensor, and downloaded when the bee returns to the hive at night. The researchers are still perfecting the technology, but they hope to interest farmers in the

technology next year. Many farmers use drones to monitor their crops, but drones run out of juice after 10 to 20 minutes and have to be recharged. Bees, on the other hand, fly all day long. Iyer and Gollakota estimate that the sensors themselves will cost only a few dollars to manufacture, and the rest of the equipment, including a base station at the hive and antennas in the field, is also inexpensive. The sensors can collect information about temperature, humidity and light intensity, painting the picture of a whole farm. The researchers acknowledge that sensor-equipped insects sound like something out of a futuristic spy movie, and could raise privacy concerns. That’s one of the reasons why they’re publicizing their work. It’s also a reason to use bees, since people are naturally wary of them because of their ability to sting. To conduct the experiments, the research team bought some mail-order bumblebees and let them go in a greenhouse. Iyer also caught some native bumblebees at the UW Farm, and discovered that Washington bees are more robust than their mail-order cousins. Gollakota said part of the research was to make sure the bees weren’t stressed by the weight, and that they were well-fed and happy. When the experiment was over, Iyer said, researchers took the sensors off the native bees and let them fly free.

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BEES

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TODAY’S FARM | Sauk Valley Media

Sensor-equipped insects could raise privacy concerns


Farm loan delinquencies highest in 9 years Crop prices, export markets hit by tariffs BY ROXANA HEGEMAN The Associated Press

WICHITA, Kan. – The nation’s farmers are struggling to pay back loans after years of low crop prices and export markets hit by President Donald Trump’s tariffs, with a key government program showing the highest default rate in at least 9 years. Many agricultural loans come due around Jan. 1, in part to give producers enough time to sell crops and livestock and to give them more flexibility in timing interest payments for tax filing purposes. “It is beginning to become a serious situation nationwide at least in the grain crops – those that produce corn, soybeans, wheat,” said Allen Featherstone, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University. While the federal government shutdown delayed reporting, January figures show an overall rise in delinquencies for those producers with direct loans from the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency. Nationwide, 19.4 percent of FSA direct loans were delinquent in January, compared to 16.5 percent for the same month a year ago, said David Schemm, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Kansas. During the past nine years, the

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agency’s January delinquency rate hit a high of 18.8 percent in 2011 and fell to a low of 16.1 percent when crop prices were significantly better in 2015. While those FSA direct loan delinquencies are high, the agency is a lender of last resort for riskier agricultural borrowers who don’t qualify for commercial loans. Its delinquency rates typically drop in subsequent months as more farmers pay off overdue notes and refinance debt. With today’s low crop prices, it takes high yields to mitigate some of the losses and even a normal harvest or a crop failure could devastate a farm’s bottom line. The high delinquency rates are caused by back-toback years of low prices, with those producers who are in more financial trouble being ones who also had low yields, Featherstone said. The situation now is not as bad as the farm credit crisis of the 1980s – a time of high interest rates and falling land prices that was marked by widespread farm foreclosures. At the height of that crisis in 1987, U.S. farmers filed 5,788 Chapter 12 bankruptcies. There were 498 in 2018. Some fears are also surfacing in reports such as one this month from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which said the outlook is pessimistic for the start of this year with respondents predicting a further decline in farm income. About

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36 percent of farm lenders who responded said they had a lower rate of loan repayment from a year earlier. Tom Giessel said he borrowed some operating money from his local bank last year and paid it off. Giessel, who raises wheat and corn on some 2,500 acres in western Kansas, said the only thing that kept the farm economy afloat in his area was that people had pretty good fall crop yields. Giessel, 66, said he had once gotten to the point where he didn’t have to borrow his working capital and had a relatively new set of equipment, but he has had to borrow money for the last three years just to put in a crop. “A lot of people are in denial about what is going on, but reality is going to set in or has set in already,” Giessel said. The February survey of rural bankers in parts of 10 Plains and Western states showed that nearly two-thirds of banks in the region raised loan collateral requirements on fears of a weakening farm income. The Rural Mainstreet survey showed nearly one-third of banks reported they rejected more farm loan applica-

tions for that reason. Grain prices are down because farmers around the world have had above-average production for several years. But some nations’ economies are not doing as well, decreasing demand for those crops, Featherstone said. Grain prices peaked in 2012 and prices have roughly fallen 36 percent since then for soybeans, 50 percent for corn and 48 percent for wheat. When Trump imposed tariffs, China retaliated by stopping soybean purchases, closing the biggest U.S. market. While trade negotiations with China continue, many farmers fear it will take years for markets to recover – as it did when President Jimmy Carter imposed a grain embargo on the then-Soviet Union in 1980. Trump has offered farmers subsidies to compensate for the tariffs but they are based on harvested bushels. Many farmers are now scrambling to borrow money as spring planting nears. A key factor in whether farmers receive loans is the value of their land. Farmland values in parts of the Midwest and Plains regions largely held steady at the end of last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

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Sauk Valley Media • March 12, 2019

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Row of corn serves as natural barrier, and help save money

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Minnesota Dept. of Transportation

Living snow fences help keep roads clear during the winter, and save tax dollars, too. At left is a road with no standing corn rows in the field adjacent to the highway; at right, a road with standing corn rows. ships. In addition to McHenry County DOT, McHenry-Lake Soil and Water Conservation District staff joined the conversation. “Intergovernmental cooperation was critical. We asked if the county could pay us to leave corn in place as a snow fence. But there was no legal way to do it, so we had to get legislative help,” said Ziller. Farm Bureau members and Soil and Water Conservation District staff enlisted help from Rep. Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, to change a state statute to allow farmer compensation of at least 10 percent of fair market crop value. Then Markison met with Farm Bureau members to determine a fair price – $1 per foot, or about $1,000 per acre. “I hope we can definitely double participation this year. We hope some other townships will get involved,” said Ziller.

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Corn provides food, feed and fuel for the world, and thanks to a new project in McHenry County, it’s also keeping roads safer during the winter. McHenry County Farm Bureau member John Hughes installed the first living snow fence in the county along a heavily traveled stretch of Kishwaukee Valley Road west of Woodstock. The 1,200-foot long patch has successfully blocked several snowfalls from drifting onto the road. “There has been a marked difference on the road between the areas where the living fence is and where there’s no fence. The area with a snow fence gets icy and dangerous. It’s a safety issue,” said Hughes, who planned the snow fence in March with his custom operator, Chris McKee. “I was less interested in compensation and more interested in tax savings (for the county) and safety reasons. I feel compensated well enough, and I would do it again.” Ed Markison, McHenry County Department of Transportation maintenance supervisor, said that not only has the living fence made the roads safer for drivers, but it’s also reduced salt use, which further protects aquifers in the area. Dan Ziller, McHenry County Farm Bureau president, whose field along the road fell during a windstorm, said the project required persistence and partner-

TODAY’S FARM | Sauk Valley Media

Living snow fences make roads safer


Sauk Valley Media • March 12, 2019

| TODAY’S FARM

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