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BEACH PARK, IL

Valves open on ammonia tanks sickened 41

Federal investigators say open valves on farm fertilizer tanks apparently led to a serious ammonia leak that injured 41 people in Illinois in April.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the anhydrous ammonia spill in Beach Park, Ill., near the Wisconsin border.

The NTSB says a hazardous-materials team from Lake Forest, Ill., found some valves were fully open on a pair of 1,000-gallon tanks, which were being pulled by a tractor. The ammonia release stopped when a valve was closed. Investigators plan to examine the valves at a laboratory in Washington.

The NTSB says the loaded tanks were picked up at a farm cooperative in Kansasville, Wis., about 30 miles from the accident scene. Anhydrous ammonia is a colorless gas used as an agricultural fertilizer that produces pungent, suffocating fumes when released.

DES MOINES, IA

USDA: Weather delay cuts corn crop to smallest in 4 years

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has lowered its estimate of this year's corn crop to the lowest in four years, saying wet weather has delayed planting and reduced acres planted and the expected per-acre yield.

The expected production was cut in a monthly report released Tuesday by 1.4 billion bushels to 13.7 billion bushels, the lowest since 2015.

While weather problems also have slowed soybean planting, the USDA didn't change estimates since farmers have several more weeks to plant.

The USDA will release a report June 28 to provide updated farmer surveys more accurately reflecting the number of acres farmers planted.

The USDA report also says disputes with China and other nations have reduced corn exports for the current-year crop by 100 million bushels and soybean exports by 75 million bushels.

EAU CLAIRE, MI

Southwestern Michigan loses peach harvest after polar vortex

The polar vortex that enveloped much of the Midwest early this year nearly wiped out the peach crop in southwestern Michigan, according to experts.

Some of the region's apricot, plum and apple crops may also be affected after the blast of polar air plummeted temperatures to minus 20 degrees in late January, breaking water pipes and ice-jamming bridges in areas around the state.

Bill Shane, a tree fruit specialist at Michigan State University, told the South Bend Tribune that Michigan's southwestern counties will suffer millions of dollars in losses from damage to fruit crops.

The polar vortex also may have shortened the life span of trees that were severely damaged, he said.

Bill Teichman recently inspected his peach trees at Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm, a 500-acre orchard in Eau Claire. He found deep, vertical cracks in some of their trunks, while others were bleeding sap. Some were hardly able to produce leaves, he said.

Teichman said he doubts that his peach trees will be able to produce fruit this year and that he can already tell that several need to be replaced. He also found that some of his apple varieties aren't bearing fruit, either. He plans to file an insurance claim for his losses, but it'll only help him cover his bills.

The farm is still recovering from a late cold snap in 2012 that killed the farm's peach trees.

"We've lost our peach crop twice in the past seven years," he said.

Ben Smith, who manages Hinkelman Farms in Benton Harbor, said some of the farm's grape varieties were killed and that it could take a couple of years before it can get its grapes back to full production.

He said it's important for farmers to diversify their crops and where they plant to make sure they'll have a successful harvest.

CHARLES CITY, IA

Iowa chicken processing plant to close, lay off about 500

Officials at a chicken processing plant in northeastern Iowa announced the plant will close in August, taking 500 jobs with it.

The Mason City Globe Gazette reports that the Simply Essentials chicken processing plant in Charles City closes on Aug. 5.

Employees were told Thursday in a letter that 479 plant workers, 22 administrators and 12 field operations workers would be laid off. The letter says the layoffs are expected to be permanent.

Simply Essentials has been in business since 2013, with a primary focus on health and wellness foods. It bought the Charles City plant in 2016.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority Board awarded the company $1 million in investment tax credits and $66,000 through a refund of sales and other taxes paid during construction.

TOLEDO, OH

Some Ohio farmers won't plant crops at all because of rain

The constant rains this spring are forcing some Ohio farmers to give up hopes of planting any corn this spring and wonder if they'll have any crops at all this year.

Just one-third of Ohio's corn crop had been planted as of a week ago. In a typical year, farmers in the state would have nearly all of their corn fields planted.

Soybean planting is also behind because of the wet weather.

Only Indiana is further off pace than Ohio when it comes to delays in planting, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation said this is the worst planting season since it started tracking planting progress in the 1970s.

It's been especially bad in northwest Ohio, which is home to some of the most productive agriculture counties in the state.

"There are going to be a bunch of fields filled with weeds," Ty Higgins, a farm bureau spokesman, told The Blade. "It's going to change the entire landscape of the countryside of northwest Ohio."

Cooler temperatures have made it harder for fields to dry out.

"I've been farming 36 years and this is the first year I may not have an acre of corn," Swartz said.

Joe Logan, who leads the Ohio Farmers Union, said many farmers have decided not to plant corn and will now have to see if they can even get soybeans into the fields.

"They're exchanging seed as we speak," Logan said.

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