As we move into February we take one last look at some of our most important stories of 2020: meatpacking plants and COVID, pesticide use (dicamba) and mental health on the farm. These important issues will continue to resonate in 2021 so look forward to more a lot more coverage in the future. We also bring you our latest Graphic of the Week.

There is lots of rain and snow here in central Illinois today. We hope you are all safe and warm wherever you are! Read on.

‘They think workers are like dogs.’ How pork plant execs sacrificed safety for profits.  

From City Hall to the White House, our investigation found, officials let Triumph Foods stay open as hundreds of workers got coronavirus. Four died. 

By Rachel Axon, Kyle Bagenstose and Kevin Crowe, USA TODAY; Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting 
November 11, 2020 

Leer en espanol

Bernardo Serpa cut pork legs eight hours a day, six days a week.

He made the same cut roughly 12,000 times per shift, wielding a sharp knife as a production line worker at the second-largest pork processing plant in the country.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. In one week, dozens of his colleagues at the Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, got sick. It prompted the company to test all of its 2,800 employees. In late April, large white tents appeared outside.

When it was Serpa’s turn, he got his nose swabbed. Then he went back inside where he stood elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, with dozens of other potentially infected employees to await the results. 

His test came back negative, but his relief was short-lived. One week later, the Cuban immigrant was among hundreds of his co-workers to contract the coronavirus in what would become one of the nation’s largest meatpacking plant outbreaks.

Serpa would spend nearly four months in the hospital, much of it in a coma. 

On Oct. 16, he died.



‘Buy it or else’: Inside Monsanto and BASF’s moves to force dicamba on farmers

Internal company records show the companies knew crop damage from their weed killer would be extensive. They sold it anyway.

By Johnathan Hettinger, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting 
December 4, 2020

Get poisoned or get on board.

That’s the choice soybean farmers such as Will Glazik face. The past few summers, farmers near Glazik’s central Illinois farm have sprayed so much of the weed killer dicamba at the same time that it has polluted the air for hours and sometimes days. 

As Glazik puts it, there are two types of soybeans: Monsanto’s, which are genetically engineered to withstand dicamba, and everyone else’s. 

Glazik’s soybeans have been the damaged ones. His soybean leaves will curl up, then the plants will become smaller and weaker. He’s lost as much as 40 bushels an acre in some fields, a huge loss when organic soybeans are $20 a bushel. He has to hold his breath every year to see if the damage will cause him to lose his organic certification.  

His neighbors who spray dicamba are frustrated with him, he said. There’s an easy solution to avoid damage, they tell him: Buy Monsanto’s seeds.


SEEDS OF DESPAIR: Isolated, and with limited access to mental-health care, hundreds are dying by suicide.

Farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide, compared to other occupations

By Katie Wedell, USA TODAY NETWORK Lucille Sherman, USA TODAY NETWORK Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting 
March 5, 2020 

One by one, three men from the same close-knit community took their own lives.

Their deaths spanned a two-year stretch starting in mid-2015 and shook the village of Georgetown, Ohio, about 40 miles southeast of Cincinnati.

All were in their 50s and 60s.

All were farmers. 

Heather Utter, whose husband’s cousin was the third to take his life, now worries that her father could be next. The longtime dairy farmer, who for years struggled to keep his operation afloat, sold the last of his cows in January amid his declining health and dwindling finances. The decision crushed him.

“He’s done nothing but milk cows all his life,” said Utter, whose father declined to be interviewed. “It was a big decision, a sad decision. But at what point do you say enough is enough?”


Graphic of the Week: More meatpacking companies are using temporary visa labor

By Sky Chadde, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting 
February 3, 2021

Meatpacking companies have long relied on immigrant workers to staff the dangerous plants that kill, cut and package America's protein. The federal government has estimated that more than a quarter of the industry's workforce are foreign-born non-citizens.

But, since 2015, the number of meatpacking companies employing people on temporary work visas has nearly doubled, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The number of companies using these visas is small compared to the entire industry, but a trend has emerged over the past several years.


ICYMI: Our latest stories

COVID on Campus: Unprecedented challenges, mixed results

COVID on Campus: Containing hot spots a difficult challenge

COVID on Campus: Tracking and isolating students was hit-and-miss

Biden administration reviews Trump regulatory rollbacks likely to harm farmworkers

COVID-19 deaths go uninvestigated as OSHA takes a hands-off approach to meatpacking plants

Central Illinois in winter.
Photo by Cynthia Voelkl, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
Copyright © 2021 Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, All rights reserved.

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