Tuesday, September 30, 2008

First of Five: Ethanol and Livestock Producers

Ernie Brames, a third-generation hog farmer in Ferdinand, Indiana struggles to hold on to the family business in the face of the high costs of production. With corn crops subsidized for ethanol production, livestock producers are scrambling to hold onto their herds, which sell for less than it costs to raise them. With corn prices triple what they were two years ago, raising livestock that relies on corn and soy based feed has become a loosing proposition for farmers around the country.

Brames pushes a feed cart down the corridor of one of the barns, filled with 500 pounds of feed, worth about 100 dollars, or double what it was worth two years ago. Though some pork producers use only automated feed machines, Brames prefers to periodically to feed his farrowing sows and piglets by hand, so he can determine which need more or less feed. It also gives him an opportunity to evaluate the health of his pigs; low mortality is important, now more than ever, as the input costs of finishing pigs is as high as he has ever seen it.

The first of our five Saturday features about the election was published on Saturday, and this was the cover. I'm happy to report a positive response-- today a guy at a cross country meet was telling me about how we need to think more about the ways ethanol policy affects livestock producers. Where'd he learn about it? The Herald. It's gratifying to get unsolicited feedback about stories-- I hope the other four are just as interesting to our readers.

Here are a few more. I'll publish them all when I get 'em together:

At dawn Tom Brames's truck pulls down the dirt road past the house he and his brothers were raised in, headed to the barns on the north side of the farm, which has been in the family for three generations. The work is shared among three Brames brothers, Clarence, Tom and Ernie, who follow in the footsteps of their father, working the land they grew up on.

Brames leads two of his grandchildren, Nolan Brames and Ben Kleusner, on an evening ride around the farm that has been in their family for over 100 years. Though some livestock operations have closed due to rising costs, Brames intends to stick with hog farming until he can recoup the equity he's lost over the past few years.

Every few days feed is distributed among the ton-and-a-half feeders in the open front finishing floors. Here, Ryan Brames, Ernie's nephew and a senior at Forest Park, helps with the process as part of his summer job at the farm. In the past two years, the price of corn has tripled, due in some part to rising demand and governmental subsidy for ethanol production. With more corn going to fuel production, that means less for livestock feed, and the value of complete feed has coraspondingly increased, up to twenty cents a pound this August.

The Brames farm is a farrow-to-finish operation that encompasses all the stages of a pig's life cycle. Pigs are bred, birthed, weaned, finished, and subsequently sent to market. Here, piglets that are weaned begin the finishing process, which will take approximately 6 months from birth to market, during which time they will grow to 250 pounds. Finishing requires feed-- about three pounds of feed for every pound of pig-- with a current cost of up to 150 dollars per pig. With feed and energy prices so high, and hog market prices generally low, the Brames farm can expect to lose money on every semi of hogs they send to market.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Another part of this job is making pictures to preview benefits for families with sick children. This is not as depressing as it sounds-- every time I shoot one of these I get a reminder of the resilience of families in the face of difficulty. Here, a mother holds her 12 week old son, diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome, while a woman from evaluates the muscle tone in his face. Maisie Crow did a really powerful piece on Prader-Willi that you can watch here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Color, I have not forgotten you

It's tough to be shooting all the time, but not being able to post anything. Here's an innocuous interior that I like.

Monday, September 1, 2008

In the meantime . . .

When I'm not shooting at the hog farm or bowling with the soldier and his family for the Election series, I'm doing normal, everyday work for the Herald. That means covering festivals (top), sports (middle) and queen crownings (bottom, where the contestants get a sneak peek at the questions they'll be asked during the evening gown/interview portion of the evening.) Still fun work to do, though my heart is in the stories I'm working on. Can't wait to share!