Dan Charles

It's 2016. Stephanie Strom, a reporter at The New York Times, gets a hot tip from some of her Wall Street contacts. They're big investors, including hedge funds.

They tell her that some aggressive investors — they don't say exactly who — have made a big bet against chicken companies. Those investors think chicken companies have grown too fast, and the nation is headed for a glut of chicken.

"They were betting that the price of chicken was going to fall," Strom recalls; chicken companies' profits would disappear, and their stock price also would take a hit.

In American farm country, a grass-roots movement is spreading, a movement to keep more roots in the soil. (Not just grass roots, of course; roots of all kinds.) Its goal: Promoting healthy soil that's full of life.

I met three different farmers recently who are part of this movement in one way or another. Each of them took me to a field, dug up some dirt, and showed it off like a kind of hidden treasure.

"You can see how beautiful that soil [is]," said Deb Gangwish, in Shelton, Neb. "I'm not a soil scientist, but I love soil!"

Robots have arrived at Bill and Carol Shuler's farm near Baroda, Mich., and life has taken a turn for the better.

"It absolutely changes your lifestyle. It gives you a life!" says Bill Shuler.

For decades — for the entire time that Bill and Carol have been married, in fact — the Shuler family's routine was practically set in stone: Get up at 3:45 a.m., clean the barn, feed the cows and milk them. Then get breakfast and take care of other work around the farm. At 3 p.m., go back to the barn to feed and milk the cows again.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided that organic food companies can keep using an emulsifier called carrageenan in foods like ice cream and high-protein drinks, despite a vote by an influential organic advisory committee to ban the ingredient.

Robots have taken over many of America's factories. They can explore the depths of the ocean, and other planets. They can play ping-pong.

But can they pick a strawberry?

"You kind of learn, when you get into this — it's really hard to match what humans can do," says Bob Pitzer, an expert on robots and co-founder of a company called Harvest CROO Robotics. (CROO is an acronym. It stands for Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer.)

For scientists who monitor the health of the Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary, simply watching grass grow underwater can be very, very exciting.

The floor of the Chesapeake Bay off Solomon's Island "had no grass since 1972," says Robert Orth, a marine scientist at the College of William & Mary, and there's a undertone of amazement in his voice. "It was just last year, for the first time, we saw small patches of grass appear in front of the lab. Truly remarkable."

It's a long way, metaphorically speaking, from the campus of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., to the Sonic Drive-In burger joints that line America's highways and small towns, particularly in the South.

Last fall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration started looking for dangerous bacteria in a few of America's most beloved fresh foods: parsley, cilantro, basil, and prepared guacamole. The very freshness of these foods carries a risk. Since they aren't normally cooked, they may harbor nasty bugs like salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes.

The fishing industry has long been hard to monitor. Its global footprint is difficult even to visualize. Much fishing takes place unobserved, far from land, and once the boats move on, they leave behind few visible traces of their activity.

In Arkansas, there is a kind of David vs. Goliath battle underway over a weedkiller.

On one side, there is the giant Monsanto Company. On the other, a committee of 18 people, mostly farmers and small-business owners, that regulates the use of pesticides in the state. It has banned Monsanto's latest way of killing weeds during the growing season.

Terry Fuller is on that committee. He never intended to pick a fight with a billion-dollar company. "I didn't feel like I was leading the charge," he says. "I felt like I was just trying to do my duty."

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