Series: The Benevolent Side of GMOs
Calling all farmers!
Awhile back I put out an open call to farmers who might be interested in answering some questions about their farms and farming practices. I wanted to hear from big operations, little operations, those that use GMOs, those that don’t. The responses were enthusiastic, varied, and I am excited to present the finished results today. I sent out questionnaires to eight farmers and received five back. Though not every type of grain, crop or produce farm is represented below, it is, I think, a fair representation of styles of farming in America today.
I still welcome input from any other farmers who would like to participate and I very much appreciate the thoughtful answers I received. If you are interested in future involvement please leave a comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before I go any further I’d like to say a few words about the scope of farmers and what they mean to our world through my eyes. I admit, I don’t know a lot about farming. I have a stepbrother, Pat, who with the help of his family, owns and operates a large wheat operation in Eastern Oregon. Their land is so vast over there that Pat has trained for a few marathons just running about his fields! With no irrigation, their farm is completely dependent on rain – in north eastern Oregon (semi-arid climate). I have heard stories of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants growing seasons and broken combine air conditioners during harvest. That is the extent of what I know about farming.
When I take a step back and ponder all that is dependent on what farmers grow, it is more than humbling. I can start with food, clothing, shelter and get much more specific from there but I feel those three italicized words can stand alone. Does it get more basic than that? Farmers, thank you for all you do. You sustain us. I’ve truly enjoyed this glimpse into your world.
To start, let’s meet the farmers – in their own words!
Mike Bendzela of Dow Farm Enterprise: I’m one of four partners at Dow Farm Enterprise, a (very) small market farm and CSA (community supported agriculture) in Standish, Maine. My soon-to-be spouse Don Essman is on the right. Our “landlords” and co-partners, Ken Faulstich and Claudia White are in the middle. Dow Farm is a tiny flea on a big planet.
We grow about a hundred different varieties of vegetable crops in Northern New England. We’re basically a home garden gone wild. All together, we cultivate just over an acre of crops, and we also have a small orchard of 85 trees, mostly “heritage” apples. The idea was to partially restore the farm that Claudia’s great-grandfather, Herbert W. Dow, ran a century ago. We’ve found most of the apple tree varieties he planted. We add a little bit more to the vegetable plots each year.
It’s monstrously difficult because the conditions here in Maine are horrendous: cold, dank, fungal, rocky, and dark, and it’s a nasty, brutish, short growing season. Visit Dow Farm Enterprise at Facebook.
Tom and Barbara Womack of Homestead Hill Farm: Our farm is a small, diverse operation located in Southern Augusta County, Virginia – in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Originally, it was a whole-family operation. Now that the chicks have grown and flown, it’s just us empty-nesters. We grow all sorts of vegetables and fruits as well as raise chickens and sheep. Our chickens provide delicious eggs and excellent meat. The sheep keep the grass mowed and provide lamb products so tasty that no one seems to miss the mint jelly.
(Note from Sleuth4Health: I recently ran a repost of an excellent article written by Suzie about the success of her farm. Read Kiss The Boll Worm Goodbye! She also blogs about farming at Kissed A Farmer.)
Jan Hoadley of Slow Money Farm: I’m an Illinois native now in northwest Alabama getting ready to expand into Kentucky. We do custom options – rabbits, poultry, produce and herbs right now. We’ll be expanding into larger stock – sheep, pigs, cattle – with the purchase of land in Kentucky. We just don’t have room here! We do farm shares, food packages and CSA with flexibility to allow for food choices. There’s a special focus on heritage/heirloom production. Visit Slow Money Farm on Facebook.
Brian Scott: I’m a 4th generation farmer growing corn, soybeans, popcorn, and wheat in Northwest Indiana. More specifically we raise dent corn, waxy corn, commercial soybeans, and soybeans for seed as well. We grow soybean seed for two different companies. Visit Brian’s blog: The Farmer’s Life.
I asked each of these farmers a short set of questions. Below you will find each question followed by the answers in the same order as above. It was extremely interesting to get different perspectives on the same issues. Happy reading!
1. Who or what is your market?
M. Bendzela/Dow Farm: We went from four subscribers in 2011, to ten in 2012, to nineteen this year. We’re what you would call a traditional CSA. We also take what we can to a small farmers market in Gorham, Maine. This is not a big-time operation. I have a “real” job, of course: I teach writing at the University of Southern Maine. I’m on a leave-of-absence from a volunteer fire-rescue gig with our town until I figure out how well the farm is going to do and whether it will persist.
B. Womack/Homestead Hill Farm: All our products are sold directly to the end consumer, primarily at the Staunton/Augusta Farmers Market.
D. Wilde/West Texas Cotton Farm: The dryland cotton that we raise here is of lower quality (shorter fibers and less strength.) This leads to our cotton being used for lower end cotton products, not the luxury shirts and sheets. Due to this, most of our cotton is exported to China and India where they have the proper mills to weave this quality of cotton.
J. Hoadley/Slow Money Farm: We market to those who want food choices and transparency. When people buy a group of birds or some meat rabbits for us, they can do so with confidence in knowing where they were raised and what they ate. They have the option to follow the growth of their food, should they care to. It costs a little more sometimes, but often we’re competitive with grocery stores. We normally sell direct to the customer.
B. Scott/corn, soybeans, popcorn & wheat farmer: Our dent corn mostly goes to The Andersons. Some to a normal grain terminal, or if the the price is right for the extra few miles of trucking we’ll go another 10 miles to their ethanol plant. We occasionally sell corn to a local elevator that operates quite a few hog facilities. All our waxy corn goes to Tate & Lyle. We grow popcorn for Weaver Popcorn. You’ll find Weaver branded as Pop Weaver, Pop Secret, and many private labels including Trails End which is sold by Boy Scouts. They are also suppliers for some other companies and movie theaters. And the Pentagon cafeteria! Soybeans will also go to The Andersons, and sometimes further down the road to an ADM facility in Frankfort, Indiana where they process bean meal and soybean oil. The new high oleic oil varieties go there although we have not contracted any acres for that process yet. Here is a blog post about all this. http://thefarmerslife.com/agchat/where-does-my-harvest-go/
2. Do you use any kind of genetically modified seed? Why or why not? And if so, what type(s)?
M. Bendzela/Dow Farm: No GMOs, simply because they’re not available to small farmers. I hesitate even to call myself “farmer,” which makes me think of thousands of acres and huge equipment in the Midwest (where I grew up). I’m more comfortable with “grower” or “market gardener.” I’d plant GMOs if they were available. Well, depending on what our customers thought about it, of course. Popular opinion is an issue. Most of our friends and customers are very liberal, and liberals’ marching orders demand that they hate hate hate GMOs. We’re very old-fashioned here, but I have a foot in the future as well as one in the past. Here’s how we plant potatoes (see photo below). I’d plant genetically-engineered potatoes the same way, if we could ever get them.
B. Womack/Homestead Hill Farm: Presently, we do NOT use genetically modified seed. GM seeds are not available for the crops we grow. We do, however, find ourselves talking about GMOs constantly.
Our animals eat grain (and that opens a whole ‘nother can of worms…) The only options at present for feed grains are “certified organic” and well… not. Certified organic feed is at least double the cost of “not”. We have been doing this whole thing since long before GMOs became an issue and our animals have always done extremely well on regular feed, so it doesn’t seem economically prudent to make a switch. It is our customers’ concern with the whole GMO in feed thing that got me interested in researching the subject of genetically modified organisms. Since we are on a first name basis with the feed mill owner, he was my first information source when it came to GMO feed. He was astounded at the questions and concerns from our customers. He pointed out that much of the information that is constantly repeated in internet-land is totally and utterly false. While the grain we use is LOCAL, I have absolutely no idea how it is produced.
D. Wilde/West Texas Cotton Farm: I plant GM cottonseed that carry the Boll worm Resistant (Bt2) and Round Up Ready Flex (RRF) genes. The Bt2 trait makes the cotton resistant to the cotton boll worm, our major pest pressure. Once I started planting the Bt2 cottonseed, I was able to stop spraying insecticide. Since I don’t spray insecticide, the beneficial insects are now flourishing and controlling the minor pests naturally. Without the Bt2 trait, I would have to spray several times a year to control the boll worm, which leads to spraying for other pests because the beneficial insects are effected also. In a recent trip to Brazil, the farmers there told us that they don’t use GM cottonseed and they spray up to 13 times for insects.
The Round Up Ready Flex trait allows me to spray Round Up, a weed herbicide, over my growing cotton at any point during the year. However, after only a couple of years with the RRF trait, I was able to clean my fields so well with timely applications that there are very few weeds left to go to seed. Therefore, I only apply 2 applications of Round Up per year. The second application is only applied at the spots in the field that have weed pressure. T(If we receive rainfall at unusual times, this can lead to a crop of weeds that may require another spot application.) The clean fields don’t require tractors and plows in the field any longer. Back before the the RRF cottonseed, we would use a knifing plow to keep the weeds clean several times throughout the growing season.
J. Hoadley/Slow Money Farm: No we don’t – mainly because, despite what many think, it’s just not available for what we do. We also have a personal preference for conserving heritage/heirloom varieties.
B. Scott/corn, soybeans, popcorn & wheat farmer: All our of soybeans have been Roundup Ready for several years. RR soybeans fields have really great weed control on our farm. We rotate our crops and the types of herbicides we use which are important parts of weed control.
Most all of our dent corn contains multiple traits known and triple stacks. These are Roundup Ready and have multiple events for insect resistance. Most of what we planted this year is also tolerant to Liberty Link (glufosinate) herbicide. For Bt fields we do have to plant refuge acres that contain non-Bt corn to prevent resistance forming. This refuge is now being integrated as refuge-in-a-bag where the refuge corn is mixed in with the Bt as opposed to two separate products. I think this is a good thing as it will prevent some of those farms who plant corn after corn and don’t take the time to plant a refuge from doing so.
Waxy corn generally is not GMO. We’ve had some RR varieties in the past, but don’t spray Roundup on that corn because we have non-RR corn in the same field. Waxy is a big thing in the immediate area because there is a market, but I find you don’t have to go far to find a corn farmer who doesn’t know about waxy. So nationwide it is a small market. Breeders have a hard enough time taking a strong hybrid and breeding a waxy version that performs well. Pioneer had 5 or 6 varieties for use to choose from this season vs dozens of dent corn choices. The market isn’t large enough to support the cost of making GMO waxy. That being said I think it’s good we have at least half our corn crop where we can’t spray glyphosate. That way we aren’t adding to that selective pressure that leads to resistance.
Same goes for popcorn. Right now there is no such thing as a GMO popcorn plant available. Popcorn is not as tough a plant as field corn, so it will show signs of stress before the rest of our corn given similar circumstances.
All our corn and popcorn comes with seed treatments and so do most of our soybeans. Between seed treatments and Bt it’s a pretty rare thing for us to have to come in with a sprayer or airplane during the summer to take care of any pests. The good thing about different forms of Bt is that they are very specific in what pests they control vs spraying a pesticide over the entire field. Also we purchased a new planter in 2012 and did not equip it with a liquid application system. This means we are no longer applying liquid fertilizer at planting or the insecticide Capture as we were doing in the past.
3. Has your experience with GM seed been favorable? Are you a repeat customer?
M. Bendzela/Dow Farm: No experience with GM seed. It’s just not available. I used to be against it, because I was a self-styled “organic” gardener for awhile, and such opinions were part of the package. I even had a part-time summer job at an organic farm for several years. About five years ago, I got nosy and started reading the standards and “fact” sheets for organic farming. I’m interested in the skeptics movement, and they convinced me that “organic” is pretty much a scam. I started feeling pretty stupid once I discovered what “organics” was really about. I now see the movement as a sort of secular religion. GMOs are their Devil. I now just call myself “grower.” I’m currently against any group or movement that puts an adjective before the word “farming.”
D. Wilde/West Texas Cotton Farm: I have told many people that if I have to go back to spraying for insects all the time, I don’t want to farm any longer. That has been the best benefit of all, to be able to eliminate most of the chemicals from my operation. The Round Up that I still use is a very safe and effective chemical that I feel good about using. It is not like the pre-emergent weed herbicide that I used before, which stays in the ground much longer and can have more runoff effects. I have planted GM cottonseed for maybe the past 10 years, with the only downside being the much higher cost. However, I feel that all the benefits I have far outweighs the extra expense. I have no intentions of going back to non-GM seed, however, there are hundreds of varieties that are non-GM available for farmers who live in areas that don’t have pest and weed pressure or who just choose not to grow it.
J. Hoadley/Slow Money Farm: With a large % of corn said to be GM, it’s likely that our chickens have eaten it as we don’t buy organic feed. There just isn’t the interest in paying double the cost of eggs (feed is double the cost) in order to have organic. We are looking at non GMO options for feed to serve those customers who wish to avoid it even in the meats they eat.
B. Scott/corn, soybeans, popcorn & wheat farmer: We like our GM crops. They perform well for us. Of course our non-GMO do well too. Personally I think we need to scrutinize insect pressure on our farm more intensely and see if we can buy less Bt in some fields for no other reason than to save some money on seed cost. We’ve seen our refuge corn perform as well or better when pest populations are low. But seeing as we have now integrated cover crops onto a good deal of the farm I wonder what bugs we are attracting by being the big green patch in the middle of brown patches during the winter.
4. Do you see GM seed in your sustainable farming future? Even if you’re not yet using it, or can’t yet use it because it isn’t available for your type/size of farm, do you see it as a way to sustain and/or help your operations? Why or why not?
M. Bendzela/Dow Farm: Sustainable is just a word. I agree with Professor Albert Bartlett that “sustainable” has both “virtue and vagueness” and can mean “anything you want it to mean.” Farming takes over land, grows populations, and uses non-renewable (fossil) fuels. Therefore, farming is, by definition, “un”sustainable. I do not care to speculate about what this means for our future. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’m an optimist who loves to read about the latest science and medical developments and the rosy future of mankind. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I’m a doomer who worries about climate change, peak oil, and over-population. I take Sundays off and don’t believe a damn thing.
B. Womack/Homestead Hill Farm: As the population continues to grow and the amount of farmland available continues to shrink, we, as global citizens as well as farmers, better investigate all the options. If GM crops enable “big ag” to continue to grow the grains that smaller operations need… then everyone should try to understand the science and not flip out over the fears. (The local old-timers tell how farmers who switched from small square bales to the large round bales were seen as radicals, turning their back on the traditional way of harvest and adopting some “new-fangeld high tech” thing.
Today, a single farmer can bale a large field in an afternoon by himself, sometimes after completeing his day job in town. This enables a small farm to be sustainable with fewer farm works. Keeping in mind that skilled farm labor is incredibly hard to find, technology that enables farmers to keep farming needs to be considered. While I don’t think ANYTHING should be accepted blindly, or without a great deal of thought and consideration, we must at least explore the options.
D. Wilde/West Texas Cotton Farm: I believe that GM cottonseed has made my operation more sustainable, because my impact on the environment has been greatly reduced. I use less chemicals and I don’t run the tractor as much, which is leaving my farmland cleaner than ever before. I believe that the technology will be able to adapt to future challenges and even more benefits for the land and the environment will be seen from GM seeds.
J. Hoadley/Slow Money Farm: We’ve lost squash to wilt, and have an issue with bugs. Some of that is not enough hands to observe the gardens as much as needed to be completely organic. Avoiding those would be an interest. I think every farm must use what works for them and their customers. When I buy grain for the chickens and ducks, admittedly cost is a factor – and if GMO helps farmers get more yield in the same area, it brings costs down.
B. Scott/corn, soybeans, popcorn & wheat farmer: GMO is not a silver bullet solution for everything. Nearly everything in farming is a trade-off. For example, my no-till fields tend to have more weed pressure than my tilled fields, but I didn’t spend any money on tillage. You just hope to gain more than you lose on each little choice. Weather wins every time no matter how you farm. We are definitely using less insecticides than we used to. GMO is a tool in the toolbox that we believe helps us cut both costs and inputs. Other resources like precision ag help us on that front as well.
5. If you could pick and choose GM traits that you would like to see available for your crop(s), whether or not they even yet exist, what would they be? This is your chance to dream!
M. Bendzela/Dow Farm: I would die for potatoes with stacked traits–resistance to blight and Colorado potato beetle. Same with all the nightshade crops. Maybe not “die.” I’d give a pinky finger for it, but only off my right hand because I play the fiddle. One day, all foods will be genetically engineered. Perhaps farmers will even be able to select and insert their own favorite traits into crops, tailoring them for their particular climates. They’ll do it in their garage. “Hybrids,” products of “conventional” breeding, may one day be as obsolete as the apples in our heritage orchard. Imagine Yellow Transparent apples that were engineered to resist scab! I spray, spray, spray (like right now: it’s scab season in Maine) to keep the fungus spores from germinating because they just ruin the appearance of those apples.
I have just one problem with GMOs: there ain’t enough of them. Bring them on.
B. Womack/Homestead Hill Farm: If I could pick GM traits, I would design pest resistant vegetables, potatoes and tomatoes that could withstand colder temperatures and floweres that would withstand the overzealous” application of weed-killers and weed-whackers by husbands hoping to neaten up the place.
D. Wilde/West Texas Cotton Farm: GM cottonseed that would produce a bale and a half of cotton to the acre on only 6” of rainfall per year. (The dream of every dryland cotton farmer out here next to the Chihuahuan Desert!)
J. Hoadley/Slow Money Farm: A tomato from which would cure all cancers. No radiation, no chemo – eat this tomato and be cancer free. That would be pretty awesome! And I think if it was available most facing cancer would take it, GMO or not. (Sleuth4Health thinks so too! I like this idea.)
B. Scott/corn, soybeans, popcorn & wheat farmer: I’m not sure I have a dream trait in mind. Nitrogen use efficiency is going to be a big deal in the future. Water use efficiency will be major. We don’t have to irrigate on our farm, but imagine if the many that do on the Plains could use less water or at a minimum make more effective use of water. I would like to see traits come to market that directly affect consumers. In fact, it would be nice if something like Golden Rice had taken off before something like Roundup Ready soybeans did. The consumer cannot easily see the benefits of biotechnology readily at this time. I believe traits that improve nutrition will help change a lot of perceptions often fueled by rhetoric and scare tactics used against biotech.
There was something in this questionnaire that really surprised me – to learn that some of the more localized CSA and farmers market types would welcome GMOs if they could get them but they’re not available for that size or type of operation. Granted, the customer base would have to be accepting of the technology, but even so, it was a surprise to me.
Again, I’d like to extend my appreciation to all the farmers who participated. I thank you for your candor and willingness to share a piece of your lives in this manner. First-hand accounts like these educate, enlighten and they’re a nice piece of Americana!
My, my, it has rained buckets here in the Portland area today, all day, won’t let up, highest rain measured for the year so far in fact. Makes me wonder if this rain is good for our local farms or is it drowning the fresh spring plantings?
~Julee K @ Sleuth4Health