Many organic farmers are hopping mad at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and their reason involves perhaps the most underappreciated part of agriculture: plant food, aka fertilizer. Specifically, the FDA, as part of its overhaul of food safety regulations, wants to limit the use of animal manure.
“We think of it as the best thing in the world,” says organic farmer Jim Crawford, “and they think of it as toxic and nasty and disgusting.”
Every highly productive farmer depends on fertilizer. But organic farmers are practically obsessive about it, because they’ve renounced industrial sources of nutrients.
So on this crisp fall morning, Crawford is rhapsodic as he watches his field manager, Pearl Wetherall, spread manure across a field where cabbage grew last summer.
“All that green material — that cover crop and the cabbage — all mixed up with that nice black manure that’s just rich and full of good microorganisms, and we’re going to get a wonderful fertility situation for next spring here,” he says
Crawford has been farming organically in south-central Pennsylvania for 40 years.
Crawford, founder of New Morning Farm in south-central Pennsylvania, buys hundreds of tons of manure every year from a big turkey farm a few miles away. “It’s really at the heart of our operation for having good, rich soil, and good fertility, so that we have the highest-quality crops.”
It’s also part of a natural cycle, and the basis of organic farming. Most crops strip vital nutrients from the soil. But the nutrients don’t disappear; if you feed those crops to cattle or turkeys, the nutrients mostly end up in manure. For the turkey farmer, the manure is waste. For Crawford, it’s precious. “Cycling nutrients. That’s what it’s all about. Cycling organic nutrients.”
This is a typical practice among organic farmers, especially the smaller ones. But they may now have to change.
The Food and Drug Administration considers manure a food safety risk. Disease-causing microbes, such as salmonella or toxic forms of E. coli, are commonly found in animal waste.
Patricia Millner, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research center in Beltsville, Md., says scientists are now trying to figure out exactly how long such bacteria survive in the soil. “In some cases, salmonella will survive for a few weeks; in other cases, it’ll be reported that it survives for 300-plus days,” she says
Pearl Wetherall, field manager at New Morning Farm, spreads manure.
When they survive, microbes do get on food. Carrots or radishes, of course, grow right in the soil. But bacteria also end up on salad greens. Raindrops, for instance, splash soil and microbes onto the plants.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about exactly how big of a risk this is. But the FDA is saying better safe than sorry.
The agency is proposing new national food safety rules. If those rules are enacted, when farmers spread raw manure on a field, they won’t be allowed to harvest any crops from that field for the next nine months. (This applies only to crops that people eat raw, such as carrots or lettuce.)
The rules don’t cover the smallest farms. They apply to farms with more than half a million dollars in annual sales, or which supply food to supermarkets.
But that includes Crawford’s farm.
He already follows the organic rules; he doesn’t harvest crops within four months of spreading manure. But having to wait nine months — longer than a growing season — would completely disrupt his operations. “We wouldn’t even be able to function,” he says.
There is an alternative: composted manure. The heat from composting kills disease-causing microbes. But Crawford says compost would cost him anywhere from three to six times more than manure. And he just doesn’t see why he should have to switch, because he doesn’t believe that what he does now is at all risky.
Feeding the chickens at New Morning Farm.
“No one’s ever been sickened by anything we’ve grown, in probably millions of transactions between us and our customers over 40 years,” he says. Crawford sells most of his food at farmers markets in Washington, D.C.
Yet organic farmers are not united in their opposition to the FDA regulations. There’s a divide between large and small producers.
Earthbound Farm, in California, is among the biggest organic producers of salad greens. Will Daniel, the company’s chief food integrity officer, says, “History is not always your greatest ally, unfortunately. We never thought that we would see spinach or other produce involved in outbreaks.” But in 2006, his company’s spinach was linked to an outbreak of E. coli poisoning; 200 people got sick. Three died.
Raw manure was not the source of that outbreak. (There’s evidence the E. coli could have come from wild pigs that got into the fields.) But Daniel says using manure does involve risks that his company won’t take.
Instead, Earthbound Farm uses mostly “a pelletized, processed chicken manure product” that’s been treated with heat and pressure to kill all microbes.
“We’ve gone in that direction because we feel that it’s very important to assure that we are not spreading these pathogens in our fields, that could lead to contaminated product,” he says.
Daniel supports the FDA’s proposed rules on manure. Many smaller organic farmers, meanwhile, are sending the FDA a blizzard of comments, arguing that the environmental benefits of using manure far outweigh the risks.
Farm apprentices enjoy hands-on experience growing food at Caretaker Farms in Williamstown, Mass. While most farm apprenticeships are unpaid, Caretaker Farms provides a monthly living stipend
Small-scale farmers and homesteaders are in a powerful position to bring about the changes our food system desperately needs. By growing food locally and sustainably, farmers improve the physical, economic and ecological health of their communities.
Today’s average farmer is in his or her late 50′s. These farmers will need replacements, and their numbers need to be dramatically increased. Transferring their knowledge to future farmers is vital to the expansion of the emerging sustainable food system.
Young Farmer Nights (YFN) are bi-weekly social and educational events where young and beginning farmers gather to share ideas, a meal and stories. Each event includes a farm tour, a potluck dinner and other host-inspired activities. In 2013, YFNs also include informational workshops.
Industrial agriculture is disastrous for the soil and environment, animal welfare, and local economies — not to mention human health. Most North Americans rely on this system for their food, however, and its sudden disintegration would be a catastrophe. Some experts argue that the collapse of the current food system is imminent because of its dependence on three fragile conditions: cheap petroleum, plentiful water and a stable climate.
Monsanto and Big Ag want us to believe that only industrial agriculture can feed the world. The truth is actually the opposite. The Institute for Food and Development Policy reviewed available farm productivity data from 27 countries and concluded that the productivity of smaller farms — which integrate growing multiple crops with raising livestock — is anywhere from two to 10 times higher per unit area than on industrial-scale, monocrop farms. This is due to several factors, including the following:
• Small farms use more niche space by planting crop mixtures. This complexity makes a huge difference in total production per unit area and cannot be achieved with machinery.
• The integration of crops and livestock allows plants to benefit from manure, while animals benefit from surplus crops that aren’t consumed by humans.
• Small-scale farmers invest more manual labor in their land. The quality of this labor tends to be better on small farms, because farmers can devote their attention and energy to intensively managed plots.
Chuck Currie (left) of Freedom Food Farm in Johnston, R.I., explains tractor implement use to NOFA/RI Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) Workshop participant, Mark Laroche.
If you decide to become a farmer, you can glean helpful knowledge from many sources, including universities, books and — most importantly — hands-on experience.
Volunteers through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) learn to dry garlic on their host farm in Princeton, N.J
One of the best ways you can connect with established farmers is through apprenticeship programs. You will need practical experience and access to affordable land, and experienced farmers need laborers and, sometimes, a trained person ready to buy their farm. Apprenticeships bring these two groups together through an agreement: Knowledgeable food growers pass on their know-how to people who want to learn to grow food in exchange for having additional, enthusiastic hands and minds around the farm.
Mardy Townsend waited an hour for the hay man, and when he didn’t show, she turned to her 90 creatures of habit, now mooing with attitude.
Mardy Townsend of Windsor walks out to her cattle on Friday, August 16, 2013. She raises a Hereford Angus mix on a farm overlooking the Grand Valley in Ashtabula County. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Honestly, you’d think cattle had wristwatches.
Townsend unhooked the electric fence at her Ashtabula County farm and stepped over the bottom wire. That was the signal for the black and white Hereford Angus herd – each animal 1,000 pounds at maturity – to close in on her fast.
She walked a few hundred feet to open the gate to a fresh field of grass. They swirled past her, like in a cowboy movie, some kicking their heels in the air.
“Those are the young ones,” she said of the unnamed group.
“I just call them all Sweetie Pie.”
Mardy Townsend of Windsor guides her cattle to a fresh pasture on Friday, August 16, 2013, checking for health issues as they pass. She raises a Hereford Angus mix on a farm overlooking the Grand Valley in Ashtabula County. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Maybe a male farmer wouldn’t call them Sweetie Pie, maybe they would. But Townsend, with her smooth, toast-colored complexion shaded by a baseball cap, is clearly doing a job long associated with a man.
Despite one broken finger and a lot of bruises, it suits her fine.
Just as it suits a growing number of women.
Statistics extrapolated this spring by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2007 census figures showed a startling change: There are nearly three times as many women farmers as there were 30 years ago.
In three decades, women have gone from 5 percent of all farmers to 14 percent. The numbers from that census also shows Ohio in the top 10 among all 50 states with 29,060 women farm operators and 9,127 principal farm operators.
Women have always been integral to agriculture, but they have not always been counted. Up until 1978, U.S. census forms only had room for the name of one operator, and that usually went to – surprise – the male head of household.
Now that the government is counting all chief farm operators, the growth of the female ranks is evident. Some even call it a movement.
“I fully expect that results of the 2012 census [due out in 2014] will show even stronger data for women,” said Sharon Sachs, who helps run Central Ohio’s Women Farm, a consulting and support group. “One, I think it’s true. And, two, I think women are getting better at reporting into the census.”
Sachs, among many others, cites the growth of the local food movement as a job engine for all small farmers, especially women.
“You can farm on a smaller scale and be successful in a business,” she said. “You can have a small plot, a half acre or an acre, and make a contribution to the local food market.”
Success is not guaranteed, of course, and it won’t make up for the loss of millions of farmers since the 1930s who were absorbed by larger, industrial farms. But it is one of those rare upticks in agricultural numbers.
The USDA study showed that today’s female farmers may not yet have as much land or income as their male counterparts, but large percentages of them are grabbing a head start by making a beeline into higher profit forms of farming such as livestock and specialty crops. These women are older and more educated than male farmers, and more of them are coming into the business than going out.
They are now a million strong.
We talked to three of them working the land in Northeast Ohio, each with her own success story: Townsend at Marshy Meadows Farm in Windsor, Monica Bongue of Muddy Fork Farm near Wooster, and Diane Morgan of Maggie’s Farm on the West Side of Cleveland.
Mardy Townsend, Marshy Meadows Farm, Windsor
While she has a master’s degree in agronomy from Ohio State University, it’s not like Townsend craved a life with beef animals. But she discovered her 226-acre property along the Grand River was suited to it. In spring, floods often cover a large section of the east side, and storms had a way of washing the topsoil off the higher sloping land to the west. If nothing else, the grass grew well.
“It’s the best way to cheat the environment,” she said, explaining that she can make a living off the land without damaging it.
And it’s not like Townsend comes from a long line of farmers. Her late father, Norman, ran Judson Manor, the deluxe retirement home in Cleveland. Townsend describes her mom, Marge, as one of the original “back-to-the-land hippies.” Marge bought the property in 1972, raising crops, chickens and hogs, eventually moving there from Shaker Heights. Townsend, 57, and Marge, now 85, live in a white frame ranch on the property and rent out an older home across the street.
“I’m not your typical farmer,” said Townsend, noting that farmland is traditionally transferred to sons. Both her brothers followed careers out of state.
After all the time she spends with cattle — calving, castrating, spreading manure, making hay, eradicating invasive multiflora roses and performing the routine of field rotations — Townsend can describe the animals well.
“They’re always hopeful and curious,” she said. “They could watch chickens for hours.”
The life looked good to her after two tours of duty as a relief worker in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
“I vowed I’d never do it again,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking, especially when people are so poor.”
Farming isn’t as hard, but it isn’t easy, either. She’s grown her herd on her own, starting with 12 animals in 2002. Last year’s drought raised the price of hay, forcing her to sell off about a quarter of her stock. Her farm is certified organic, but the cattle are not, because she can’t afford the higher price of organic feed.
In the past few years she’s been leading an anti-fracking campaign in her neighborhood. Five injection wells have been operating in Windsor Township, taking in wastewater from Pennsylvania fracking operations. She worries about the toxicity of the chemicals used in that water and its effect on the only ground water she has for her animals.
Things are brightening, though. Fracking has slowed with the lower price of natural gas. She has a contract with Heinen’s supermarkets to sell her grass-fed beef. She will start supplying the Chardon and Bainbridge stores within the next two weeks.
It will relieve her of the job of going to a farmers market, for which she says she doesn’t have the time.
“But they’re going to put my picture up in the store,” she said with a groan.
Because she doesn’t pay a mortgage, she was able to spend money to erect a hoop barn for young cattle.
She said she’s happy producing for customers who want a product considered leaner, therefore healthier, that comes from a more humane operation than a muddy feedlot and helps put money back into the local economy — all elements more closely associated with local, rather than conventional, agriculture.
“I’m thinking about starting a marketing cooperative for grass-fed beef farmers in Ohio,” she said. She’s already taken a workshop at Kent State University and is now in touch with a consultant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“A cooperative would give us more leverage with buyers,” she said. “And we could work toward having a year-round supply of consistent product.”
Monica Bongue of Muddy Fork Farm, Wooster
Three years ago, when Wooster opened Local Roots Market & Cafe, Ohio’s first all-local food store, farmer Monica Bongue had a chance to pay $50 and become a member. She ponied up $1,000, believing strongly in what she calls food sovereignty and food security. It’s another way, she said, to feed ourselves better. She’s now on the board of directors.
This coming spring, she and two other women farmers — Martha Gaffney and Jennifer Grahovac — will launch a new business, Farm Roots Connection (www.farmrootsconnection.com), a farmer-owned local food buying club, or community supported agriculture (CSA) group that will grow food in Wooster and sell to the Cleveland market.
Monica Bongue of Muddy Forks Farm in Wooster arranges her display of fresh produce at Local Roots Market, Wooster, on Tuesday, Aug 20, 2013. Bonque is vice-president of the market, which sells locally grown and made products to the community. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
“We’re maxed out here,” said Bongue, 51, of the customer base in her rural county. “And we have worked with CSA groups who buy from us. We don’t get the best prices; the customers don’t always know which farm the food came from, and the farmers don’t always know how the food was handled.”
Apparently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees. Bongue and her partners received a $22,500 federal Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education (SARE) grant this year to launch their cooperative. About 10 farms are expected to participate, with plenty of room for growth.
In designing the farmer-owned cooperative, Bongue hopes to simplify the farmers’ jobs. Instead of raising a wide variety of produce for customers, each farmer can narrow his or her focus to a few crops. Teamed with other farmers, they can continue to offer diversity without having to do a wide variety of labor themselves.
Bongue, a native of Colombia, is married to David Francis, an agricultural researcher who moved to Wooster for work at Ohio State University. She has her own agricultural history, studying nutritional microbiology at the University of California at Davis.
She has always farmed at home, including her years raising three daughters.
“I had this idea [for the cooperative] 10 years ago,” she said. “But I didn’t have the money.”
So far, part of the grant has paid for marketing materials and attorney fees to set up by-laws. The rest will be used to acquire a refrigerated truck and pay for a part of Bongue’s salary managing the operation.
Muddy Forks Farm produce sold at Local Roots Market, Wooster, on Tuesday, Aug 20, 2013. Farmer Monica Bonque is vice-president of the market, which sells locally grown and made products to the community. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
“We’re a little behind,” she said of the current season. “We only have a few customers. But it’s a good practice run to work out the kinks before we launch next spring. We hope to make this a pretty substantial business.”
Diane Morgan, Maggie’s Farm, Cleveland
Diane Morgan, owner of Maggie’s Farm in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood on the West Side collects a variety of potatoes on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Surely this isn’t the only farm ever born in a meltdown moment. The way Diane Morgan tells it, she was living in her grandmother’s old neighborhood (Cleveland’s Stockyards) south of Clark Avenue. She had a good job at a computer company, but it really wasn’t what she wanted. Her husband Russ, a chef, was between jobs.
“I came home one day,” she explained in her sweetly lilting voice. “He was just sitting there and I started stamping my foot. I almost screamed, saying, ‘You’re doing what I’m supposed to do.’”
What she was “supposed” to do is look for her next opportunity.
“It’s funny when I think about it now, but it was a great experience,” said Morgan. “It made me ask myself, ‘Why are you mad at him about something you should do?’ It gave me the courage to do this.”
Today, Russ has a job in food at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Diane has 10 city lots to her name. Or to her dog’s name. The “Maggie” of Maggie’s farm is her pet, and relevant to the lyrics of the old Bob Dylan song about seizing your destiny, “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.”
“It’s always interesting to see who gets it,” she said, adding that it’s usually a surprising number of young people.
Morgan doesn’t own all 10 lots, but she manages them as growing plots for a spectrum of people: churches, neighborhood groups, two dozen volunteers who help her do the work, the community supported agriculture members who pay her at the beginning of the season, wholesale buyers, and the customers who show up at her farmers market booths and her Friday and Saturday farm stand, 3164 W. 61st St.
“Neighbors Feeding Neighbors,” is her slogan.
Volunteers who work get paid in “Maggie Bucks,” her handwritten pieces of paper they can redeem for food.
Who participates? The employed, unemployed and the underemployed – all kindred spirits.
A week ago that group included Diana Mitchell of Lyndhurst, who was on vacation from her troubleshooting job at Progressive Insurance. Mitchell, 60, cleaned baby beets in a donated sink under a volunteer-built canopy and tore weeds out of some of the raised beds. Her reasons for being there made a long list: chance to do something different, love of organic food, Earth-friendly operations, chance to learn, chance to help.
Diane Morgan, owner of Maggie’s Farm in Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood on the West Side, passes freshly picked carrots to Arelis Latimer, a summer employee, on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)
Arelis Latimer, 18, worked beside Mitchell at the sink. The Puerto Rico native got introduced to Maggie’s Farm during a Youth Opportunities Unlimited program for work and mentoring. When Morgan needed help, Latimer stepped up again before starting civil engineering studies at Cleveland State University. Her little brother likes to make smoothies from the carrots she brings home from the farm, 10 blocks away.
“I didn’t even know there were purple carrots,” said Latimer. “And they taste sweet.”
And there’s Christina Keegan, 28, whose new job starts soon, but passes the time until then at Maggie’s.
“I love to work outdoors, and I don’t like working with chemicals,” said Keegan, who is trained in traditional construction trades and in alternative forms such as straw bale houses.
“And I have a 3-year-old who eats a lot,” she said.
All three describe Morgan as a great teacher and businesswoman.
“Want to see my spreadsheets?” Morgan asks.
There have been failures at Maggie’s Farm. Groundhogs ate all the green beans last year. A phone was stolen at the market. A hazelnut tree crop failed.
And Maggie’s Farm isn’t where Morgan wants it to be quite yet.
“The business model we have is a cooperative but we’re still too small,” said Morgan. “This is our second year and we haven’t made any money yet. But when we do, people who work the farm will share in it.
“I’m a firm believer that human equity is just as important as financial equity. That probably sounds anti-capitalist, but I value the work and assistance I’ve gotten, and this seems the only fair way to go.”
Morgan taught herself how to farm organically, but she started networking that way, too. She attended the first Sustainable Cleveland conference and picked people’s brains. Her first “farm” was really a community garden. She sidestepped the usual method of handing out individual plots and told all the farmers that they were all working together to grow for one another. The group, she said, has continued nicely without her.
And while Maggie’s Farm still isn’t in the black, there is plenty in the plus column. It sells to a local food aggregator, Fresh Fork Market. It obtained the equipment to take food stamps as payment for local foods. And it built a refrigerated room and indoor market space.
The farm will be selling its granola bars this winter at the Rooted in Cleveland stand at the West Side Market.
And it hasn’t run out of volunteers yet.
Morgan recently put a notice on the farm’s Facebook page to talk about an upcoming art project to call attention to the market.
“Oh yay!!,” responded Kayla Kelsey. “This is right across the street from my house! Let me know if you ever need help with anything! My boyfriend and I are more than willing to lend a hand!”
The recent addition of the Double 7 Herringbone milking parlor have helped Kyle with milking on the farm.
By Matt Reese
There is little doubt that the Sharp family of Fairfield County has made a tremendous impact in Ohio agriculture off of the farm.
Don influenced the lives of countless young people as a 4-H Extension agent for 11 years, coach, and school board member. His sons Scott, Adam and Kyle have also been very involved in serving Ohio agriculture. Kyle was formerly the editor of “Ohio’s Country Journal” and teaches agricultural and writing courses at Ohio State University and Ohio Christian University. Adam serves as the Ohio Farm Bureau vice president for public policy and Scott is an area ag-ed teacher. While these men clearly have a passion for serving agriculture in many ways off of the farm, they also work together to carry on the family tradition of producing food from the land on their Fairfield County grass-based organic dairy farm that is this year’s Ohio Dairy Producers Association Environmental Steward Award winner.
Don’s father purchased the farm in 1947 and started milking cows soon after. In 1967 they added a three-unit milking parlor on the top of a hill surrounded by rolling pastures.
“When grandpa built that, it was fine. That is how things were done, but dad and Kyle knew the facilities needed a major update, so a lot has changed in the last few years around here,” Adam said.
Through the years, the hilltop landscape has offered environmental challenges with the potential for run-off from the cattle manure into nearby streams. To address this challenge, the Sharps, with the help of Dave Libben, Natural Resources Conservation Service District Conservationist, have taken great steps to keep the manure (and the nutrients it contains) on the farm and out of the water.
The farm’s water management strategy capitalizes on the topography of the hilltop milking facility and uses a u-shaped waterway that wraps around the building. The newly refurbished building collects all rain water and funnels it into the waterway that forces the run-off to take the very scenic route away from the steep hillside at the front of the barn and down and much more gradual and gently sloping course to a distant creek. Any nutrients and sediment in the runoff are captured in the vegetation of the waterway. Water quality tests conducted as the water leaves the farm clearly demonstrate how effective the system is at removing any nutrients and sediment from the water.
The Sharps also added a combination manure storage and winter pen pack structure that allows confinement of the cows for up to 120 days when needed in the winter months, though the cows are on pasture whenever possible. This structure provides adequate storage of manure to eliminate the need for spreading in the winter months and keeps the cows off the pasture when it is not suitable for grazing.
“We tried to eliminate any rain water coming down on standing manure,” Don said.
They have also installed a settling basin and filter strip to treat the milk house water. Rather than running down the steep hill to a creek, any waste water is piped directly from the milk house into the settling basin where the liquids are filtered off into a wetland area that ties directly into the u-shaped waterway that collects every drop of water that falls on or in the facility.
The recent addition of the Double 7 Herringbone milking parlor with auto take-off added a key component to the water management strategy for the farm and it also made some tremendous changes for efficiency. After suffering from health issues that limited his ability to continue milking, Don had to decide what to do about the future of the dairy farm and its aging 1967 facility. As Don’s condition worsened, Kyle made the decision last year to take over the full-time (and then some) duty of milking the 75 cows twice every day.
With just few days of operation in the new parlor, Kyle had already seen huge improvements with the 14-unit facility that replaced the three-unit facility.
“The cows aren’t used to it yet, but it has already cut six hours of milking down to three so far,” Kyle said. “So that went from 12 hours of milking a day down to six hours and I hope we can decrease that even more.”
Kyle currently milks 88 head of Jersey and Holstein cows which graze in 14 small paddocks that cover 70 acres of pasture.
“They are generally moved every day, but it has rained so much we have been able to leave them in for two or three days this year,” Don said. “We have been rotationally grazing for around 30 years. They are fed outside before they go in for milking now and then they go back out onto the pasture.”
The Sharps have constructed livestock access roads and watering systems to make the rotational grazing system work more efficiently and provide the cattle access to water without going back to the barn. They have also added stream and creek exclusion fences built from locust wood from the farm, and paired the fencing with riparian filter strips.
Since 2006, the farm has been certified organic and the milk is marketed through Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative based in Wisconsin. The transition to organic was not really too tough for the dairy that has long been grass based.
“Things really didn’t change that much,” Don said. “We had to quit using antibiotics, but we really hadn’t been using them all that much anyway. Now, if we get a cow with a bad quarter, we just have to milk her separately, let her go dry and hope she is maybe better when she comes fresh again.”
The premium associated with the organic production has helped fund the environmental improvement projects on the farm and the new milking facility.
“We will typically see an extra $10 or $12 or so per hundredweight,” Don said. “That really helped when milk was down to $10 or $12 bucks.”
Adam, Don, and Kyle Sharp work together on their organic grass-based dairy farm in Fairfield County. Kyle gets a little help from daughter Kylee too.
The Sharps also produce nearly all of their own feed. Kyle makes hay on certified organic ground and they also grow some spelt, oats and corn. In addition, they have been feeding the spent brewing grain from a nearby organic brewery. The brewery needed a place to get rid of the spent grain and it works well to supplement the feed needs on the dairy farm.
“We pick it up there and feed it as soon as we get it,” Don said. “We get 1,500 pounds once a week or so and they are planning on doubling their brewing capacity.”
Kyle is now the third generation milking on the farm. Scott and Adam handle crop production on the total 500 acres of the farm, 196 of which are certified organic.
The farm regularly hosts tours to educate various groups, including new employees of Natural Resources Conservation Service for orientation. The measures the Sharps have taken to improve the situation on their farm, in turn, come full circle to bring real relevance to the great agricultural work the family has been so well known for off of the farm.
CHATTING WITH DAVID BRANDT outside his barn on a sunny June morning, I wonder if he doesn’t look too much like a farmer—what a casting director might call “too on the nose.” He’s a beefy man in bib overalls, a plaid shirt, and well-worn boots, with short, gray-streaked hair peeking out from a trucker hat over a round, unlined face ruddy from the sun.
Brandt farms 1,200 acres in the central Ohio village of Carroll, pop. 524. This is the domain of industrial-scale agriculture—a vast expanse of corn and soybean fields broken up only by the sprawl creeping in from Columbus. Brandt, 66, raised his kids on this farm after taking it over from his grandfather. Yet he sounds not so much like a subject of King Corn as, say, one of the organics geeks I work with on my own farm in North Carolina. In his g-droppin’ Midwestern monotone, he’s telling me about his cover crops—fall plantings that blanket the ground in winter and are allowed to rot in place come spring, a practice as eyebrow-raising in corn country as holding a naked yoga class in the pasture. The plot I can see looks just about identical to the carpet of corn that stretches from eastern Ohio to western Nebraska. But last winter it would have looked very different: While the neighbors’ fields lay fallow, Brandt’s teemed with a mix of as many as 14 different plant species.
“Our cover crops work together like a community—you have several people helping instead of one, and if one slows down, the others kind of pick it up,” he says. “We’re trying to mimic Mother Nature.” Cover crops have helped Brandt slash his use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Half of his corn and soy crop is flourishing without any of either; the other half has gotten much lower applications of those pricey additives than what crop consultants around here recommend.
But Brandt’s not trying to go organic—he prefers the flexibility of being able to use conventional inputs in a pinch. He refuses, however, to compromise on one thing: tilling. Brandt never, ever tills his soil. Ripping the soil up with steel blades creates a nice, clean, weed-free bed for seeds, but it also disturbs soil microbiota and leaves dirt vulnerable to erosion. The promise of no-till, cover-crop farming is that it not only can reduce agrichemical use, but also help keep the heartland churning out food—even as extreme weather events like drought and floods become ever more common.
THOSE ARE BIG PROMISES, but standing in the shade of Brandt’s barn this June morning, I hear a commotion in the nearby warehouse where he stores his cover-crop seeds. Turns out that I’m not the only one visiting Brandt’s farm. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—a branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that grew from Dust Bowl-era efforts to preserve soil—is holding a training for its agents on how to talk to farmers about cover crops and their relationship to soil.
Inside the warehouse, where 50-pound bags of cover-crop seeds line one wall, three dozen NRCS managers and agents, from as far away as Maine and Hawaii, are gathered along tables facing a projection screen. Brandt takes his place in front of the crowd. Presenting slides of fields flush with a combination of cover crops including hairy vetch, rye, and radishes, he becomes animated. We listen raptly and nod approvingly. It feels like a revival meeting.
“We want diversity,” Brandt thunders. “We want colonization!”—that is, to plant the cover in such a way that little to no ground remains exposed. While the cash crop brings in money and feeds people, he tells the agents, the off-season cover crops feed the soil and the hidden universe of microbes within it, doing much of the work done by chemicals on conventional farms. And the more diverse the mix of cover crops, the better the whole system works. Brandt points to the heavy, mechanically operated door at the back of the warehouse, and then motions to us in the crowd. “If we decide to lift that big door out there, we could do it,” he says. “If I try, it’s going to smash me.”
For the agency, whose mission is building soil health, Brandt has emerged as a kind of rock star. He’s a “step ahead of the game,” says Mark Scarpitti, the NRCS state agronomist for Ohio, who helped organize the training. “He’s a combination researcher, cheerleader, and promoter. He’s a good old boy, and producers relate to him.” Later, I find that the agency’s website has recently dubbed Brandt the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of soil.”
One government agency website called Brandt the “Obi-Wan Kenobi of soil.”
Soon, we all file outside and walk past the Brandt family’s four-acre garden. Chickens are pecking about freely, bawk-bawk-bawking and getting underfoot. In an open barn nearby, a few cows munch lackadaisically. I see pigs rooting around in another open barn 30 or so yards away and start to wonder if I haven’t stumbled into a time warp, to the place where they shot the farm scenes in The Wizard of Oz. As if to confirm it, a cow emits a plaintive moo. Brandt’s livestock are something of a hobby, “freezer meat” for his family and neighbors, but as we peer around the barns we see the edges of his real operation: a pastiche of fields stretching to the horizon.
Before we can get our hands in the dirt, Brandt wants to show us his farm equipment: the rolling contraption he drags behind his tractor to kill cover crops ahead of the spring and the shiny, fire-engine-red device he uses to drill corn and soy seeds through the dead cover crops directly into the soil. As some NRCS gearheads pepper him with questions about the tools, he beams with pride.
Finally, we all file onto an old bus for a drive around the fields. An ag nerd among professional soil geeks, I feel like I’m back in elementary school on the coolest field trip ever. An almost giddy mood pervades the bus as Brandt steers us to the side of a rural road that divides two cornfields: one of his and one of his neighbor’s.
We start in Brandt’s field, where we encounter waist-high, deep-green corn plants basking in the afternoon heat. A mat of old leaves and stems covers the soil—remnants of the winter cover crops that have kept the field devoid of weeds. At Brandt’s urging, we scour the ground for what he calls “haystacks”—little clusters of dead, strawlike plant residue bunched up by earthworms. Sure enough, the stacks are everywhere. Brandt scoops one up, along with a fistful of black dirt. “Look there—and there,” he says, pointing into the dirt at pinkie-size wriggling earthworms. “And there go some babies,” he adds, indicating a few so tiny they could curl up on your fingernail.
Then he directs our gaze onto the ground where he just scooped the sample. He points out a pencil-size hole going deep into the soil—a kind of worm thruway that invites water to stream down. I don’t think I’m the only one gaping in awe, thinking of the thousands of miniature haystacks around me, each with its cadre of worms and its hole into the earth. I look around to find several NRCS people holding their own little clump of dirt, oohing and ahhing at the sight.
Then we cross the street to the neighbor’s field. Here, the corn plants look similar to Brandt’s, if a little more scraggly, but the soil couldn’t be more different. The ground, unmarked by haystacks and mostly bare of plant residue altogether, seems seized up into a moist, muddy crust, but the dirt just below the surface is almost dry. Brandt points to a pattern of ruts in the ground, cut by water that failed to absorb and gushed away. Brandt’s land managed to trap the previous night’s rain for whatever the summer brings. His neighbor’s lost not just the precious water, but untold chemical inputs that it carried away.
ASIDE FROM HIS FONDNESS FOR WORMS, there are three things that set Brandt’s practices apart from those of his neighbors—and of most American farmers. The first is his dedication to off-season cover crops, which are used on just 1 percent of US farmland each year.
The second involves his hostility to tilling—he sold his tillage equipment in 1971. That has become somewhat more common with the rise of corn and soy varieties genetically engineered for herbicide resistance, which has allowed farmers to use chemicals instead of the plow to control weeds. But most, the NRCS’s Scarpitti says, use “rotational tillage”—they till in some years but not others, thus losing any long-term soil-building benefit.
Brandt is “a combination researcher, cheerleader, and promoter. He’s a good old boy, and producers relate to him.”
Finally, and most simply, Brandt adds wheat to the ubiquitous corn-soy rotation favored by his peers throughout the Corn Belt. Bringing in a third crop disrupts weed and pest patterns, and a 2012 Iowa State University study found that by doing so, farmers can dramatically cut down on herbicide and other agrichemical use.
The downsides of the kind of agriculture that holds sway in the heartland—devoting large swaths of land to monocultures of just two crops, regularly tilling the soil, and leaving the ground fallow over winter—are by now well known: ever-increasing loads of pesticides and titanic annual additions of synthetic and mined fertilizers, much of which ends up fouling drinking water and feeding algae-smothered aquatic “dead zones” from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico.
But perhaps the most ominous long-term trend in the Corn Belt is what’s known as peak soil: The Midwest still boasts one of the greatest stores of topsoil on Earth. Left mostly unfarmed for millennia, it was enriched by interactions between carbon-sucking prairie grasses and mobs of grass-chomping ruminants. But since settlers first started working the land in the 1800s, we’ve been squandering that treasure. Iowa, for example, has lost fully one-half—and counting—of its topsoil, on average, since the prairie came under the plow. According to University of Washington soil scientist David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, it takes between 700 and 1,500 years to generate an inch of topsoil under natural conditions. Cornell agricultural scientist David Pimentel reckons that “90 percent of US cropland now is losing soil faster than its sustainable replacement rate.” Soil, as Americans learned in the Dust Bowl, is not a renewable resource, at least on the scale of human lifetimes.
Then there’s climate change itself. Under natural conditions—think forests or grasslands—soil acts as a sponge for carbon dioxide, sucking it in through plant respiration and storing a little more each year than is lost to oxidation in the process of rotting. But under current farming practices, US farmland only acts as what the USDA has deemed a “modest carbon sink”—sequestering 4 million metric tons of carbon annually, a tiny fraction of total US greenhouse gas emissions.
The good news, says eminent soil scientist Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, is that if all US farms adopted Brandt-style agriculture, they could suck down as much as 25 times more carbon than they currently are—equivalent to taking nearly 10 percent of the US car fleet off the road. (Lal, a member of the Nobel-winning International Panel on Climate Change, is so impressed with Brandt’s methods that he brought a group of 20 Australian farmers on a pilgrimage to Carroll two years ago, he tells me.)
If all US farms adopted Brandt’s methods, we could save as much carbon as if we took 10 percent of cars off the road.
In the middle of his cornfield, holding a handful of loamy, black soil, Brandt explains that he habitually tests his dirt for organic matter. When he began renting this particular field two seasons before, its organic content stood at 0.25 percent—a pathetic reading in an area where, even in fields farmed conventionally, the level typically hovers between 1 and 2 percent. In just two years of intensive cover cropping, this field has risen to 1.25 percent. Within 10 years of his management style, he adds, his fields typically reach as high as 4 percent, and with more time can exceed 5 percent.
Building up organic matter is critical to keeping the heartland humming as the climate heats up. The severe drought that parched the Corn Belt last year—as well as the floods that have roared through in recent years—are a harbinger of what the 2013 National Climate Assessment calls a “rising incidence of weather extremes” that will have “increasingly negative impacts” on crop yields in the coming decades.
As Ohio State soil scientist Rafiq Islam explains, Brandt’s legume cover crops, which trap nitrogen from the air and store it in nodules at their roots, allow him to grow nitrogen right on his farm, rather than importing it in the form of synthetic fertilizer. And the “complex biological systems” created by cover crops marginalize crop-chomping bugs and disease-causing organisms like molds—meaning fewer insecticides and fungicides.
Nor is Brandt any less productive than his chemical-intensive peers, Islam says. Quite the opposite. Brandt’s farm regularly achieves crop yields that exceed the county average, and during last year’s brutal drought, his yields were near the normal season average while other farmers saw yields drop 50 percent—or lost their crop entirely.
THE MORNING AFTER OUR FIELD TRIP, we reconvene in Brandt’s barn to take in a series of simple soil demonstrations. I don’t say “we” lightly—by now, I’ve been more or less accepted into the NRCS crew’s soil geek club. At a table at the front of the room, an NRCS man dressed in country casual—faded jeans, striped polo shirt, baseball cap—drops five clumps of soil into water-filled beakers: three from farms managed like Brandt’s, with cover crops and without tillage, the others from conventional operations. The Brandt-style samples hold together, barely discoloring the water. The fourth one holds together too, but for a different reason: Unlike the no-till/cover-crop samples, which the water had penetrated, this one was so compacted from tillage that no water could get in at all. The fifth one disintegrates before our eyes, turning the water into a cloudy mess that the NRCS presenter compares to “last night’s beer.”
Other demos are equally graphic—including one that shows how water runs through Brandt’s gold-standard dirt as if through a sieve, picking up little color. In the conventional soil, it pools on top in a cloudy mess, demonstrating that the soil’s density, or compaction, can cause runoff. The presenter recalls a recent Des Moines Register article about how a wet spring caused a torrent of nitrogen runoff into the city’s drinking-water sources, prompting health concerns and expensive filtration efforts.
As I watch, I imagine the earnest agents fanning out across the Midwest to bring the good news about cover cropping and continuous no-till. And I wonder: Why aren’t these ways spreading like prairie fire, turning farmers into producers of not just crops but also rich, carbon-trapping soil resilient to floods and drought?
While 66 percent of farmers polled believe climate change was occurring, just 41 percent believe that humans had a hand in causing it.
I put the question to Brandt. His own neighbors aren’t exactly rushing out to sell their tillers or invest in seeds, he admits—they see him not as a beacon but rather as an “odd individual in the area,” he says, his level voice betraying a hint of irritation. Sure, his yields are impressive, but federal crop payouts and subsidized crop insurance buffer their losses, giving them little short-term incentive to change. (For his part, Brandt refuses to carry crop insurance, saying it compels farmers “not to make good management decisions.”) Plus the old way is easier: Using diverse cover crops to control weeds and maintain fertility requires much more management, and more person-hours, than relying on chemicals. And the truth is, most farmers don’t see themselves as climate villains: Iowa State sociologists found that while 66 percent of farmers polled believed climate change was occurring, just 41 percent believed that humans had a hand in causing it.
Longer-term, though, Brandt does see hope. Over the next 20 years, he envisions a “large movement of producers” adopting cover crops and no-till in response to rising energy costs, which could make fertilizer and pesticides (synthesized from petroleum and natural gas), as well as tractor fuel, prohibitively expensive.
The NRCS’s Scarpitti concurs. He acknowledges that in Brandt’s corner of Ohio, the old saw that the “prophet isn’t recognized in his own hometown” largely holds, though a “handful” of farmers are catching on. Nationwide, he adds, “word’s getting out” as farmers like Brandt slowly show their neighbors that biodiversity, not chemicals, is their best strategy.
Sure enough, during the NRCS meeting, another local farmer stops by to pick up some cover-crop seeds. Keith Dennis, who farms around 1,500 acres of corn and soy in Brandt’s county, and who started using cover crops in 2011, says there are quite a few folks in the county watching what Brandt’s doing, “some of ‘em picking up on it.” Dennis has known about Brandt’s work with cover crops since he started in the 1970s. I have to ask: If he saw Brandt’s techniques working then, what took him so long to follow suit? “I had blinders on,” he answers, adding that he saw no reason to plant anything but corn and soybeans. “Now I’m able to see that my soil had been suffering severe compaction,” he says. “Because it wasn’t alive.”
On a breezy autumn morning in West Salem, Mike Haley pulls back leaves in his soybean field, admiring how the crop has outgrown the grass and weeds underneath.
“Right now we’re looking at soybeans that are about a foot taller than the grass. The soybeans were able to get above the canopy the grass was creating to the sunlight and absorb the full effect of the rainfall.”
These are soybeans that grew from genetically-modified organisms or GMO seeds.
Genes modified for higher crop yields The seeds are genetically-altered to resist Roundup, the world’s most popular herbicide, marketed since 1976 by the food giant Monsanto.
In the mid-90s when Monsanto first modified soybean seeds to stand up to Roundup, Haley bought the new seeds even though they were a little more expensive. He saw it as a way to increase his yield and stay competitive.
“Over in the corner field, there’s a little patch of giant ragweed. That’s where I missed spraying a spot. Don’t criticize me too much for that. But that weed was almost impossible to control in soybeans before Roundup. I remember growing up my Mom’s job was walking the fields and hand-spraying the giant ragweed with Roundup.”
Today, Haley says Roundup-ready seeds save him time, money and painstaking labor.
“We can go in there and we can spray the weeds in the field without hurting the soybeans.”
Haley says GMO seeds also helped him weather last year’s drought, and improve his soil quality.
“In order to control the weeds we’d have to do a lot more tillage which would mean more erosion. The way we’ve adapted our farm we feel it’s a lot better for our farm than it was 30 years ago.”
He’s heard others express concern about GMOs.
“Is there a reason for concern? It’s hard to say. I think that as the technology evolves we’re going to see a lot more benefits, not just to the farmer but also to the consumer.”
An organic farmer has another opinion About 50 miles southeast of the Haley Farm, at Creekview Ridge Farm in Minerva, organic farmer Kip Gardner couldn’t disagree more.
“GMOs help preserve a system of agriculture excessively dependent on chemicals. That is damaging to our soils and our environment. That system needs to change if we’re going to continue to feed our population.”
Compared with Haley’s 2,000–acre spread, Gardner’s farm is tiny, just 26 acres. He keeps 100 chickens, and grows fruit, vegetables and alfafa for hay.
Unlike Mike Haley, Gardner wasn’t born to farm. He’s an ecologist and molecular biologist teaching environmental science at Stark State College.
Three years ago he moved his family to a farm that dates back to 1875.
“When we bought the farm, it was a conventional corn and soybean farm. We are transitioning it to a diversified, certified-organic farm.”
His chickens lay about six dozen eggs a day and Gardner’s customers tell him they’re glad he feeds the hens only non-GMO grain.
“And they know that conventional chicken feed, because of the huge percentage of soybeans and corn that’s grown GMO, is going to contain GMO grain.”
There’s a nutritional difference in the eggs Gardner’s hens lay compared to what you get in the supermarket. Research shows chickens raised without GMO feed lay eggs with higher omega-3 fatty acids.
No tests on humans Gardner says the uncertain impact on human health is his biggest problem with GMOs.
“Here in the United States, we’ve pretty much allowed them to develop unregulated. There are currently roughly 100 crops approved for use in the United States, more in the pipeline, many we don’t know what the effects are going to be.”
Although GMO staple crops like soy and corn have become ubiquitous, there have been no human trials of GMO foods.
“In the United States,” says Gardner, “most of the research is done by the companies that develop the crops.”
A French study last year on rats showed those fed GMO grain developed tumors earlier than and twice as quickly as a control group.
“There’ve also been concerns about some anecdotal reports of allergic responses and other things,” says Gardener. “So we don’t know yet.”
Consumers can’t tell GMO from non-GMO Most of the European Union outlaws GMOs and where they’re legal, they’re labeled.
Maine and Connecticut recently enacted labeling laws and 20 other states are considering it.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Mark Udall last month urged the FDA to require labels on GMOs marketed as food.
But back in West Salem, Mike Haley remains confident that GMOs are good for his soil and his crops.
“We’re able to move forward way faster with using bio-technology than with traditional breeding because they’re able to evaluate the different genetics and work with them so much quicker instead of working years to isolate the genetics through traditional breeding techniques.”
He says the latest innovation is heart-healthy.
“Omega-3 soybeans. They’ve altered the oils in the soybeans so that it’s heart healthy. So when French fries are deep-fried at McDonald’s, it’s going to be heart-healthy oils, very similar to an olive oil. So I’m kind of excited about being able to grow more nutritious crops because of the new technology that’s coming around.”
But research scientist-turned farmer Kip Gardner wonders at what cost to the environment.
Still uncertain: the long-term environmental impact New weeds that even Roundup can’t kill have been popping up.
“So now they’re talking about creating GMO corn and soybeans that are resistant to more powerful herbicides like 2-4-D. Now we’re going to see that back in the environment, where the use of 2-4-D has been pretty severely limited in recent years.”
Gardner empathizes with farmers who think chemicals and GMOs are essential. He just thinks they’re wrong.
“For those folks who are in that system of agriculture, it is solving some immediate problems. But we’re saying we are working on a different model, hopefully one that we can demonstrate is as effective.”
Organic farming is growing stronger with consumers increasingly concerned about nutrition and food safety.
But with 7 billion of us on the planet now and another 2 billion expected by 2050, the higher yield potential of GMO’s attracts powerful support.
Last month, the editors of Scientific American came out against labeling GMO foods, saying the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proved they’re neither toxic nor allergenic. The editors write: “In the growing battle over GMO foods, science is being used as a weapon.”
COLUMBUS, Ohio – A new jobs bill would allow local farmers to expand their markets and get fresher food into school cafeterias.The local farms, food, and jobs act would allow more farmer’s markets to accept supplemental nutrition assistance program money and senior coupons.
It would also give farmers whole crop insurance, and allow local schools to purchase locally-grown food instead of buying pre-packaged items.
Bryn Bird owns Bird’s Haven Farm in Granville, and said that demand for fresh produce in schools is growing.
“The parents want to know that their kids going to school are getting the most nutritious lunches that they have available, and I think the schools see it as a win-win economically. It’s local tax dollars going back into the schools, and keeping those dollars again going back into farms,” Bird said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown said the new legislation will cost $120 million each year, nationally, but it will save $20 billion over ten years by eliminating farm subsidies paid to larger farms.
On Wednesday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced bills to the Senate and House of Representatives that would require food manufacturers to clearly label any product containing genetically engineered ingredients — or risk having that product classified “misbranded” by the FDA.
Boxer and DeFazio have both previously sponsored bills that would have mandated GMO labeling — Boxer in 2000 and DeFazio on numerous occasions in concert with former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). But the new “Genetically Engineered Food Right-To-Know Act” is the first genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling bill to be introduced with both bicameral and bipartisan support. Its nine co-sponsors in the Senate include Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, while Rep. Don Young, also a Republican from Alaska, is among its 22 cosponsors in the House.
In a phone conversation with The Huffington Post, DeFazio, who’s been growing organic produce for 40 years, said that he remains agnostic about the health impact of GMOs. He supports mandatory labeling of food with genetically-engineered (GE) ingredients because he wants consumers to be able to decide for themselves whether or not to eat organisms that have only existed for 20 years.
“Even the most ardent free market advocate, someone who’s a devout follower of Adam Smith, would have to admit that consumers aren’t being given full information right now,” he said. “Depriving them of the knowledge of whether or not this food has GMOs does not support a free market.”
DeFazio said he hoped the new act would generate a “grassroots tidal wave of support” from constituents, as the National Organic Standards did when he and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) proposed them in 1993.
“That year, my amendment was the only amendment to the Farm Bill that got passed,” he recalls. “We had built this incredible grassroots base of support — from farmers, co-op owners, parents. People would go see their members of Congress constantly asking them to support the standards. At one point, I remember one Congressman coming up to me in the hall and telling me, ‘DeFazio, I have no idea what an organic standard is, but I’m gonna vote for it just so people stop bugging me!’”
It’s not an unrealistic hope. Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Americans — over 90 percent — supports mandatory labeling of foods with GE ingredients. Sixty-four other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, already require such labels. And dozens of advocacy groups and food corporations have signalled their support of the new bill.
However, strong opposition from the agriculture and biotech industries has scuttled proposals for GMO labeling laws in the past. The most recent and high-profile of these failed attempts at a GMO labeling requirement was California’s Proposition 37, which was narrowly defeated in a popular referendum after opponents, mostly in these industries, spent $50 million lobbying against it.
On Wednesday afternoon, representatives of leading GE seed producer Monsanto and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a GE trade group, said that they generally opposed mandates for GE food labels, though they had not yet seen the full text of the new bill.
“Unfortunately, advocates of mandatory ‘GMO labeling’ are working an agenda to vilify biotechnology and scare consumers away from safe and healthful food products,” BIO spokeswoman Karen Badt wrote in an email to The Huffington Post.
Scott Faber, president of the Environmental Working Group and the Just Label It! campaign in favor of GMO labeling, said that opposition from the biotech and agricultural industries will mean the bill “faces an uphill climb in both the House and Senate,” despite its popularity. But he noted that Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) successfully introduced an amendment to the Senate budget bill in late March to require labeling of genetically modified fish. Moreover, the bill doesn’t necessarily need to pass to have its intended effect.
“No matter, what, it will put more pressure on the White House and FDA to act on this issue,” Faber said.
DeFazio confirmed that he intended the Genetically Engineered Food Right-To-Know Act to put political pressure on President Barack Obama and the FDA. He described the executive branch’s stance toward GMO labeling so far as “indifference or even overt opposition.”
“They’re approaching it more like a competitive biotech issue for the U.S., as opposed to a much more insidious threat to our farmers and to consumers,” DeFazio said. “They don’t seem to get it yet. We’ve got work to do there.”
But even if the bill fails to pass and to convince Obama and the FDA to require labeling on their own, GMO labeling could still happen soon — because of the private sector. Whole Foods recently announced that it would require the manufacturers of any GE foods sold in its stores to mark them as such. Elsewhere, a surefire way of avoiding GMOs is to buy organic. DeFazio and Leahy wrote National Organic Standards before the advent of GE crops, but they’ve since been amended to exclude the use of genetically modified ingredients.
Schools that get federal funds to provide lunches would be encouraged to buy locally grown produce under his proposed farm bill, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) said an an event in a downtown Toledo arts school Thursday.
With some 130 students in the sixth-to-12th-grade Toledo School for the Arts charter school eating their lunch in the background in the school’s Flying Pigs Cafe, Senator Brown said his proposal would boost local farmers, help the local economy, and improve the environment.
The question is whether the $120 million-per-year initiative will make it through a politically divided Congress.
Senator Brown joined with Toledo restaurateur Marty Lahey and two area farmers, Andy Keil of Swanton and Liz Bergman of Genoa, Ohio, to promote the legislation.
The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act would allow school districts to spend a portion of federal funds for free and reduced school lunches on locally grown fruits and vegetables, rather than U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities.
“By increasing access to fresh local foods, we can expand markets for Ohio’s agricultural producers while improving health, creating jobs, and strengthening our economy,” Mr. Brown said.
According to Mr. Brown, the act would cost up to $2 billion over 10 years and would be paid for by phasing out an estimated $22 billion in farm subsidies. The proposal passed the Democratic-controlled Senate last year but was not acted on by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, so the bill expired. Mr. Brown said committee work to reintroduce the bill and try again to pass it starts next week.
Mr. Lahey, owner of Manhattan’s Restaurant, caters lunches at the Toledo School for the Arts and six other schools.
“We’ve seen a growing demand in the restaurant for fresher, more local fruits and vegetables,” Mr. Lahey said. “The bill the senator’s talking about would help move in that direction.” He told the students that watermelons that were on the menu in the fall came from Mr. Keil’s farm.
Other aspects of the bill are to help small farmers buy crop insurance and enable seniors to use senior food stamps to pay for local produce at farmers markets. Ms. Bergman, owner of Sage Organics, said Mr. Brown’s legislation would assist local farmers by addressing production, aggregation, processing, marketing, and distribution needs.
“The next step to help build a vibrant food economy in Northwest Ohio is to develop large wholesale options for our farmers,” Ms. Bergman said. That means being able to place local produce in universities and other institutions.
Senator Brown said deficit concerns and the implementation of $85 billion in automatic cuts mandated by the sequester ought not prevent the program from getting off the ground.
“We’ve cut almost $2 trillion in spending in the last two and a half years. We should be funding some of these things that people want,” Senator Brown said. Mr. Brown, now in his second term, is the first Ohioan to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in more than four decades, according to his staff.
Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain, on Friday became the first retailer in the United States to require labeling of all genetically modified foods sold in its stores, a move that some experts said could radically alter the food industry.
A. C. Gallo, president of Whole Foods, said the new labeling requirement, to be in place within five years, came in response to consumer demand. “We’ve seen how our customers have responded to the products we do have labeled,” Mr. Gallo said. “Some of our manufacturers say they’ve seen a 15 percent increase in sales of products they have labeled.”
Genetically modified ingredients are deeply embedded in the global food supply, having proliferated since the 1990s. Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States, for example, have been genetically modified. The alterations make soybeans resistant to a herbicide used in weed control, and causes the corn to produce its own insecticide. Efforts are under way to produce a genetically altered apple that will spoil less quickly, as well as genetically altered salmon that will grow faster. The announcement ricocheted around the food industry and excited proponents of labeling. “Fantastic,” said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy group that favors labeling.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the trade group that represents major food companies and retailers, issued a statement opposing the move. “These labels could mislead consumers into believing that these food products are somehow different or present a special risk or a potential risk,” Louis Finkel, the organization’s executive director of government affairs, said in the statement.
Mr. Finkel noted that the Food and Drug Administration, as well as regulatory and scientific bodies including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, had deemed genetically modified products safe.
The labeling requirements announced by Whole Foods will include its 339 stores in the United States and Canada. Since labeling is already required in the European Union, products in its seven stores in Britain are already marked if they contain genetically modified ingredients. The labels currently used show that a product has been verified as free of genetically engineered ingredients by the Non GMO Project, a nonprofit certification organization. The labels Whole Foods will use in 2018, which have yet to be created, will identify foods that contain such ingredients.
The shift by Whole Foods is the latest in a series of events that has intensified the debate over genetically modified foods. Voters defeated a hard-fought ballot initiative in California late last year after the biotech industry, and major corporations like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, spent millions of dollars to fight the effort. Other initiatives have qualified for the ballot in Washington State and Missouri, while consumers across the country have been waging a sort of guerrilla movement in supermarkets, pasting warning stickers on products suspected of having G.M.O. ingredients from food companies that oppose labeling. Proponents of labeling insist that consumers have a right to know about the ingredients in the food they eat, and they contend that some studies in rats show that bioengineered food can be harmful.
Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, a campaign for a federal requirement to label foods containing genetically modified ingredients, called the Whole Foods decision a “game changer.”
“We’ve had some pretty big developments in labeling this year,” Mr. Hirshberg said, adding that 22 states now have some sort of pending labeling legislation. “Now, one of the fastest-growing, most successful retailers in the country is throwing down the gantlet.”
He compared the potential impact of the Whole Foods announcement to Wal-Mart’s decision several years ago to stop selling milk from cows treated with growth hormone. Today, only a small number of milk cows are injected with the hormone.
Karen Batra, a spokeswoman for BIO, a trade group representing the biotech industry, said it was too early to determine what impact, if any, the Whole Foods decision would have. “It looks like they want to expand their inventory of certified organic and non-G.M.O. lines,” Ms. Batra said. “The industry has always supported the voluntary labeling of food for marketing reasons.”
She contended, however, that without scientific evidence showing that genetically modified foods caused health or safety issues, labeling was unnecessary.
Nonetheless, companies have shown a growing willingness to consider labeling. Some 20 major food companies, as well as Wal-Mart, met recently in Washington to discuss genetically modified labeling.
Coincidentally, the American Halal Company, a food company whose Saffron Road products are sold in Whole Foods stores, on Friday introduced the first frozen food, a chickpea and spinach entree, that has been certified not to contain genetically modified ingredients.
More than 90 percent of respondents to a poll of potential voters in the 2012 elections, conducted by the Mellman Group in February last year, were in favor of labeling genetically modified foods. Some 93 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans in the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent, favored it.
But in the fight over the California initiative, Proposition 37, the opponents succeeded in persuading voters that labeling would have a negative effect on food prices and the livelihood of farmers.
That fight, however, has cost food companies in other ways. State legislatures and regulatory agencies are pondering labeling on their own, and consumers have been aggressive in criticizing some of the companies that fought the initiative, using Twitter and Facebook to make their views known.
Buoyed by what they see as some momentum in the labeling war, consumers, organic farmers and food activists plan to hold an “eat-in” outside the F.D.A.’s offices next month to protest government policies on genetically modified crops and foods. Whole Foods, which specializes in organic products, tends to be favored by those types of consumers, and it enjoys strong sales of its private-label products, whose composition it controls. The company thus risks less than some more traditional food retailers in taking a stance on labeling.
In 2009, Whole Foods began submitting products in its 365 Everyday Value private-label line to verification by the Non GMO Project.
But even Whole Foods has not been immune to criticism on the G.M.O. front. A report by Cornucopia, “Cereal Crimes,” revealed that its 365 Corn Flakes line contained genetically modified corn. By the time the report came out in October 2011, the product had been reformulated and certified as organic.
Today, Whole Foods’ shelves carry some 3,300 private-label and branded products that are certified, the largest selection of any grocery chain in the country.
Mr. Gallo said Whole Foods did not consult with its suppliers about its decision and informed them of it only shortly before making its announcement Friday. He said Whole Foods looked forward to working with suppliers on the labeling.