Kai Ryssdal walks with farmer Keith Halverson, outside of Sioux Falls, S.D.
Kai Ryssdal walks with farmer Keith Halverson, outside of Sioux Falls, S.D. - 
Listen To The Story

Flying into Sioux Falls, “you can see so much of their economic and social history just on the way in” says The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows. From the air, you can see the city’s history of growth from the old downtown to a ring of new suburban housing developments and big-box malls.

Beyond that, says Fallows, is “mile after mile of this perfectly square grid work.” A lot of it is corn, and also wheat. And it’s in one of those cornfields that we find another reason that Sioux Falls is the center of your economic universe.

Keith Alverson is a sixth-generation farmer who lives 45 minutes outside of Sioux Falls. The corn he grows looks for all the world like what you’d find at the super market but the stuff he grows, No. 2 Dent, isn’t the sweet corn you or I would eat.

It’s been grown for decades as livestock feed.

But now, "most of our corn goes to the local ethanol plant," says Alverson.

One of the largest ethanol companies in the country is based in Sioux Falls, named POET, and there are plenty of others throughout the state. Alverson says the ethanol plants created a whole new market for the corn he and his family was growing.

“I might not be back on the farm if not for the opportunities that ethanol and things like renewable energies have created," he says.

The Interactive:
Explore the Story Map:
Read regular updates from James Fallows during his travels across the country. And explore related interactive maps. More

Alverson’s farm is 2,500 acres -- about 4 square miles. He farms with just three other guys -- and something else: Satellite navigation. 

The GPS he uses is way more accurate than the one you’d get in your car. Alverson uses it to map where he plants each seed in the spring – some areas are better for growing than others. When he goes back to that field to lay down fertilizer, Alverson can put it down within a sub-inch of the seed.

The technology comes from a company called Raven Industries. They’re based in Sioux Falls, also. But they’re selling to farmers in Kazakhstan, Brazil, across Europe and in Asia, and of course, in North America. And a satellite they’ve got orbiting 12,000 miles up in space is helping Alverson steer 56,000 pounds of tractor and combine to the exact spot he wants it.

But more importantly, it’s helping Alverson do more with less.

And even though the equipment he’s using has changed, Alverson’s able to do something that every generation of Alverson’s before him have done – kept the farm profitable and working for the next generation.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal