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As urbanites from the U.S. coasts and from other countries fly into and over Nebraska, a perpetual question arises from spring through fall: Why do High Plains farmers plant their fields in the form of giant crop circles?

As you can see from this satelite image of the Platte River valley, Nebraska's farmscape has today become a patchwork of nearly uniform circles, varying in color and shade, dotting the landscape. Those circles represent a significant change in how the common crops, particularly corn, wheat, and sorghum, are grown.

Why do farmers do that? Nebraska is the nation's No. 1 state for the use of irrigation to grow crops, according to 2013 census data from USDA, the most recent data. Nearly 40 percent of all Nebraska acreage now employs some form of irrigation—or nearly 16,000 farms. Those crop circles illustrate the most common method for applying that irrigation, a method that some say was itself invented in Nebraska: The center pivot.

A center pivot irrigation system uses a long chain of pipe that typically stretches from a water well or pumping station in the middle of a field to the outermost edges. The pipe carries water from the pump system housed in the field's center out to those borders. Irrigation water pumped through the piping delivers a continuous spray out of nozzles spaced along the pipe.

That pipe is carried above the crop on a series of wheel chassis that hold it above the ground. Those wheels are then driven so that the entire pipe system walks slowly around the center pump like the hands of a clock. It typically takes a day or more for the entire pipe to make a complete circle, watering all areas of the field reached evenly.

Because the circular arrangement of the center pivot can't reach into the corners of the fields, and because crops won't grow or aren't planted in the areas that aren't reached by the irrigation, the system results in fields that appear as circles from high above. In addition, some fields are also divided into only portions of a circle, depending on how and when crops are planted and the irrigation frequency, sometimes giving fields the appearance of pie wedges.

Like large parts of the Midwest, Nebraska's irrigation wells are fed in part by the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast reservoir of underground water that covers parts of eight states. Lying from 100 to 350 feet beneath the surface of the soil, the aquifer was formed by the giant rivers and streams that formed the landscape during the last ice age ending thousands of years ago. Because the aquifer must be "recharged" by surface water that slowly seeps down through soil, some have expressed concern that practices like irrigation are withdrawing water faster than it can be replenished.

Center-pivot irrigation is a water-conservation tool designed during the 1950s by Colorado farmer Frank Zybach, who along with friend and Columbus, Neb., car dealer A. E. Trowbridge and Robert Daugherty, the young owner of a fledgling Nebraska farm equipment company called Valley Manufacturing, developed and marketed what would come to be called "the most significant mechanical innovation in agriculture since the replacement of draft animals by the tractor." Because, unlike traditional water sprinklers that shoot water into the air, center pivots drop water directly onto crops, less of it is lost to evaporation and more goes to water growing plants.

Today's center pivot systems are often computer-controlled, high-tech engineering solutions that distibute water evenly across 1-mile diameter fields of rolling hills, and have even begun to solve the problem of empty field corners by adding robotic arms capable of swinging out to reach into those corners.

When it comes to labeling foods as to what farmers do—and don't do—the contradictions abound:

  • Consumers say they want "welfare-friendly," but "raised without antibiotics" is more likely, not less likely, to make animals suffer needlessly.
  • Consumers say they want "sustainable," but by decreasing the efficiency of the food chain, "GMO-free" actually reduces environmental sustainability.
  • Consumers say they want "cage-free" so hens don't suffer, but research shows more birds die and are wounded, on average, in barns that don't put them in cages.

It's a food-labeling jungle out there, and new research shows it's getting more confusing. Do consumers know what they really want?

University of Nebraska ag economists Kate Brooks and Taro Mieno, working with a fellow economist from Illinois, try to answer that thorny question—at least about livestock-raising—in an upcoming issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values. They point out that although the research is "extensive" showing that consumers say they want products labeled as organic or with animal-welfare claims, the trouble is most of the science only asks consumers to consider one production claim on a label at a time. Although that makes the experimentation easier to carry out, it bears little resemblence to the stew of differing labels shoppers now face in the store.

So the Nebraska researchers instead subjected sampled consumers to a scale that forced them to rank as "best" or "worst" differing side-by-side production claims, including:

  • Certified organic
  • Humanely raised
  • Grass-fed (for cattle) or vegetarian diet (for chickens)
  • No growth hormones
  • No antibiotics
  • Free-range (cattle) or cage-free (chickens)

After weeding out practicing vegans, respondents who didn't reply completely and people who don't regularly shop for meat, milk and eggs, the researchers ended up with 1,039 responses. Their best/worst question structure allowed them to place each production claim on a relative scale, compared to one another, of importance to consumers. They found:

The most important production claims were "no growth hormones," "no genetically-modified organism" and "humanely raised." Together, these three claims captured three out of four shares of preference claims for beef, milk, chicken and eggs. The "no antibiotics" claim ranked in the middle importance for all products, while the "free-range/cagefree," "grass-fed/vegetarian diet" and "certified organic" claims were ranked as the least important. Women were more likely to prefer the no hormones claim compared to men, who were more likely to prefer the free-range/cage-free and grassfed/vegetarian diet production claims.

Which label claims count?

The study offers little to point to the logic of consumer interest in such "absence labeling" product claims:

  • The ag economists found it particularly interesting that low- and medium-income shoppers tended to rank the humanely raised claim as more important than high-income ones did, in contrast to previous research and conventional wisdom that the opposite is true. In their study, high-income families tended to prefer the no antibiotics and organic production claims more than the low-income families did. Another surprising finding: While they expected consumers with a farming background to have different preferences for production claims than shoppers with no farm background, no differences were observed between the two groups.
  • Even though the "no growth hormones" claim was one of the most important traits across all product types, no growth hormones are used in chicken or egg production in this country and haven't been for almost a half-century—a fact USDA requires processors to remind consumers of on every package of chicken labeled as grown without antibiotics. Milk marketed as produced without use of recombinant growth hormone is likewise required to be labeled stating no science exists to prove it's any different from regular milk.
  • As Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, the seemingly simple term "animal welfare" covers some complex nuances that are often unsubstantiated and even contradictory. Yet "humanely raised" ranked relatively high in all product categories.
  • This latest study purposely excluded an entire category of common label the researchers considered too vague, including "agriculturally sustainable," "environmentally friendly" and "natural." While they may describe how some farmers raise animals, their precise definitions were deemed too unclear to the researchers to test, and likely less clear to consumers. How they would have affected the rankings is unknown.
  • Although shoppers across the board ranked "certified organic" as the least important trait to look for when shopping, the irony is that obtaining an organic certification from USDA means the farmer must to some degree incorporate all of the other tested traits those shoppers rated as more important. Whether shoppers' devaluing of the certified organic claim comes out of ignorance about what it means or out of some desire for something else wasn't clear. However, with the scientist's typical flair for the understatement, the Nebraska researchers did note that shoppers' expressed desire for multiple claims on the same package instead of the umbrella organic claim does "suggest some skepticism about consumers’ knowledge."

As the long days, sleepless nights and feverish work to get crops out of the fields and the year's beef cattle out of pastures and into feedlots get into full swing across Nebraska over the next six weeks, chances are unfortunately good that farmers will get hurt or die in the process.

Statistics show farming remains America's most dangerous occupation, both here and across the nation, with Nebraska farm workers suffering an accident rate of more than six injuries for every hundred workers, about 50 percent higher than the accident rate for grocery stores.

Our popular "Why Do Farmers Do That?" series takes on the question: Why do farmers injure themselves so regularly? The question's not as simple as it may seem, and surprisingly unsettled among the experts. Here are a few known—and suspected—contributors:

The nature of the occupation. Farmers work outside (and suffer heatstroke). They work with often large and sometimes aggressive animals (and get stepped on, crushed, gored and suffocated or drowned by exposure to fumes from their stored manure). They handle pesticides and other lethal chemicals (and suffer exposure-related illness). They drive tractors and work around other heavy equipment (and get crushed, buried and maimed by open machinery). They work on tall structures (and fall or get electrocuted by coming into contact with overhead power lines).

Images of the traditional pastoral farm aside, today's full-time farms more closely resemble industrial workplaces than they do Old McDonald's farm, says John Shutske, longtime farm-safety expert and professor of safety engineering and agricultural health at University of Wisconsin.

"Today's farm has its big share of dangerous machines, potentially toxic environments and animals that are easily five to six times bigger and twice as fast as the NFLs biggest lineman," Shutske says. "But, I don't know that people living and working on farms view their farm that way. It's their home and their life. That's not a bad thing at all, but if we could convince every farmer and member of their family that—at least from a safety perspective—their workplace is a potentially deadly industrial workplace," he says, we could make a significant impact in farm-related injuries.

Economic pressure. Not unlike many of the grocers they supply, farmers exist in what some economists deem "commodity hell." Constant competition and relatively undifferentiated commodity products leaves farmers competing on a low-margin, cost-based basis. Cost-based competition requires continually increasing productivity, which leads to even lower prices, which requires even more productivity to survive. Such continual bleeding-edge cost-control leaves little margin to make improvements in equipment, so safety investments often fall to the bottom of list.

Take roll-bars and seat belts on tractors, for instance, which the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimates would prevent more than nine in 10 cases of the No. 1 cause of death on farms—overturned tractors that crush the driver. NIOSH estimates only 60 percent of the nation's 4.6 million tractors are so equipped.

Those economic contributors likely reach beyond equipment investment, as well. The seasonal nature of farming and vulnerability to weather delays condenses a year's worth of work into a few hectic and often sleep-deprived weeks, inviting accidents caused by distraction, fatigue and willingness to accept shortcuts in the name of time efficiency. Even the mental stress associated with economic booms and busts may contribute, Shutske believes. His work over the past year has drawn a connection between constant, chronic stressors and the deleterious impacts that occur on memory, attention and other higher brain function.

"Being highly distracted, forgetful, slow to act or economically unable to make needed improvements, repairs and corrections is not easily forgivable when you're talking about a 300-horsepower machine or a 1,500-pound animal," he says.

Lack of regulation and safety training. Small and mid-sized farms are not subject to most federal occupational safety regulations. Some might argue regulation doesn't make much difference in safety in the longrun, but that lack of regulation also contributes to a lack of safety training on most farms, which is hard to argue doesn't contribute to high accident rates. Farmers, who tend to work alone, seldom if ever have any safety supervision other than their own to rely on.

Cultural factors. Although it appears to be falling out of favor in modern times, the culture created by America's "agrarian myth"—the underlying belief that farmers must accept a life of deprivation and hardship, away from the comforts (and safety protections) of the city life, in order to permit urban society to prosper—has been suggested as a cause of high farm accident rates. Fewer safety experts, Shutske included, fully buy that explanation; however, the explanation remains tempting.

When Obama-Administration OSHA announced it planned to start regulating grain bins in 2013 to protect, in part, children who were being suffocated after being buried in and around them, reaction against the plan from the farm community was loud and angry. Opponents argued OSHA was intruding into farmers' traditional independence, and that farmers know better than bureaucrats how to keep their employees and families safe.

That sense of indendence and the sense of fatalism that accompanies it, an ethic not restricted to America alone, has been cited as a possible cause of farmer's willingness to take risks that can lead to accidents. And anecdotal evidence of farmers who actually display amputated fingers as badges of determination and long-suffering can't be dismissed as evidence farmers, at least in the past, have accepted injury as just part of the job.

"But I think we turned that corner a long time ago," Wisconsin's Shutske argues, "I don't think farmers just "accept" injury as part of life anymore. I truly don't think the cultural beliefs and the norms of a modern farm operator are all that different than a business person in any other industry."

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