Honey Bee

With Monsanto, the bees are dying. And without bees, we’re dead. So Monsanto has got to go. Photo: Cygnus921 via Flickr.

It’s all in a day’s work for family farmers of the 21st century: Colony Collapse Disorder, dealing with Monsanto’s threats, global warming disasters, the government crackdown on family farms, genetically-engineered crops.

Where once American plowmen had merely to contend with unpredictable weather, infertile soil, inaccessible water supplies, poverty, accidents and disease, today’s food producers face a further cornucopia of sophisticated and bewildering attacks from all sides. That fewer than one percent of Americans want to wrestle a crop from abused soil, while attempting to anticipate how global warming or ailing honeybees may thwart them, should surprise no one.

Nonetheless, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is calling for hundreds of thousands of new farmers nationwide.

Assuming a new crop (sorry) of fresh-faced novices can surmount the double whammy of little affordable land and even less capital, what else awaits them, in as uncertain a future as humankind has ever confronted? We’ll consider the “easy” problems first. The 800 pound gorilla – climate change – will just have to wait.

Cole Porter was right: Bees do it – or used to

Back in the early 1990’s, I began subscribing to a beekeeper’s magazine (the title of which I’ve long since forgotten), thinking it could serve as an introduction to my latest enthusiasm. That was a smart move on my part, because the editors were pulling no punches. My surprise and disappointment at what I read caused my curiosity about this potential new hobby to ebb quickly. The long and the short of it was, something was wrong. Speculation at the time centered largely on bee parasites and viruses. What was happening in the bee world that was causing such widespread concern? It’s still hard to believe, but entire colonies of bees were, and are, simply disappearing.

Hence the name, Colony Collapse Disorder.

While early research focused on pathogens, a recent Purdue University study is only one of a growing number that have isolated pesticides as a primary culprit. One in particular, Clothianidin, is considered highly suspect. Clothianidin is used to treat seeds. It’s absorbed by the resulting plant’s vascular system, and proceeds to damage the central nervous system of bees that collect its pollen. Heightening the likelihood of Clothianidin’s role in the still-unfolding tragedy is the fact that it is widely used to treat genetically-engineered corn. Purdue University’s research shows that bees do indeed forage in the treated corn.

The plot thickens

Not only that. It now appears planter exhaust is loaded with Clothianidin, and, during spring planting, spreads it far and wide. Researchers found the pesticide in nearby unplanted fields, on dandelions in close proximity, in dead bees below the entrance to their hives, and in pollen stored in the hives.

Almond and blueberry farmers are especially worried, because their crops must be pollinated by honey bees, along with at least 68 other crops that are equally dependent upon the tiny insects. Though the EPA approved Clothianidin, even after their own research pointed to its toxicity, there is growing hope amongst beekeepers that, once the national election is behind us, the pesticide’s use will be reconsidered. One can only lament the fact that doing the right thing has to wait on politics.

Corporate monsterhood (Monsantohood?)

Raise your hand if you’ve never heard of Percy Schmeiser. Fifteen years ago, Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer, discovered that genetically-modified (GMO) rapeseed grown by a neighboring farmer had contaminated his crop, thereby ruining the seeds so carefully developed by his family over a 50-year period. This, as you might imagine, was not cause for rejoicing.

Insult was subsequently added to injury when, to Schmeiser’s consternation, he was informed that he was the defendant in a lawsuit brought by Monsanto against him! It was Monsanto’s contention that their GMO seeds belong to them no matter where they grow or how they got there. In essence, they claimed, Schmeiser’s crop belonged to Monsanto.

Wait, it gets better.

Monsanto sued the Schmeiser’s for a million dollars. Nothing could satisfy the corporate behemoth’s insatiable craving for control including putting the Schmeiser’s out of business.

And that’s not all. Monsanto sued to seize the Schmeiser’s land and equipment. The Canadian Supreme Court wouldn’t allow that, and called for legislation to regulate the use of genetic materials.

Percy and Louise Schmeiser’s lives were taken over by Monsanto’s megalomania and greed for ten years, and that’s still not all. As it turns out, the Schmeiser’s weren’t alone. Between the years 1997 and 2010, 144 farmers were sued by Monsanto. Seven hundred more have settled out of court for undisclosed sums.

Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue

Is there no justice, you ask? That remains to be seen.

On March 29, 2011, family farmers filed suit against Monsanto in what is sure to become a landmark case, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) et al v. Monsanto. On January 31 of this year, the first phase of litigation began.

Plaintiffs (family farmers) will ask that they be protected from genetic trespass by Monsanto’s GMO seed, and from the subsequent abusive lawsuits. Monsanto has, in fact, caused dozens of farmers to file for bankruptcy, as a result of their illegitimate claims.

Can family farmers withstand this never-ending onslaught? Stay tuned for the concluding portion of my article. Government interference is still on the docket, along with the ultimate game changer – climate change. If you like to eat, you’ll want to learn how American good-guy farmers plan to prevail.

Tilling the soil in 2012, Part 2

Somos Event Header

Farmers everywhere are finding new (old) ways to farm with integrity and sustainability. Image: Somos La Llave del Futuro

It’s hard to keep track of the number of ways the United States continues to find to shoot itself in the foot.

For instance, did you know that US meat and milk exports failed to pass European standards for drug residues last year? There oughta be a law, and in the EU, there is.

Since when do Americans fit the definition of international law breakers? It would appear since we began dosing farm animals with more drugs than we can keep track of. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine admits the violations of EU law involved scores of drugs. You, carnivorous reader, can bet your bottom dollar that some of those illegal drugs reside inside your very own self. If there were a contest to determine the worst offenders, you’d probably end up asking the residents of Wisconsin how they’ve been feeling lately.

Okay, everybody makes mistakes. After all, that’s why the FDA exists – to protect us from the lawbreakers, and keep consumers well informed about the threat.

If only.

Not only has the FDA taken nary a step in the direction of exacting penalties from, or threatening prosecution of, the Big Ag perpetrators. They, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with assorted state agencies, have decided that now would be a good time to criminalize family farmers who sell raw milk. Or sell food and milk without a license. Or slaughter meat outside a factory.

Pick your poison: Big Ag or Big Brother

None of the targeted farmers involved ship food across state lines. Multiple studies have shown that contamination takes place when food has been stringently processed and/or shipped the farthest. These family farmers farm, and sell, what they grow, locally. One participant involved in the alleged crime sprees is being sued by the state of Maine for selling the milk from his one cow without a license.

That’s right. One.

This just might be why, in March of last year, the tiny town of Sedgwick, Maine became the first in the nation to declare its own food sovereignty. The resulting ordinance declares,

Sedgwick citizens possess the right to produce, process, sell, purchase, and consume local foods of their choosing.

Residents go on to elaborate

It shall be unlawful for any law or regulation adopted by the state or federal government to interfere with the rights recognized by this Ordinance.

Thank goodness the citizens of towns in California, Vermont and Massachusetts have shown comparable common sense in devising similar laws. We owe them a debt of thanks for leading the way.

Climate what?

Leading the way toward recognition of climate change as the problem to end all problems has not been easy. Few of those who have long heralded its disastrous effects could have forecast the recalcitrance of Republicans in refusing to acknowledge the terrible dangers of a warming planet.

Over the years, as growing numbers of scientific organizations have agreed, not only that climate disruption is caused by human activity, but also that we ignore it at our peril, those who spend their lives in contact with the natural world have seen its accumulating effects. Family farmers definitely constitute part of the front lines that will meet the approaching calamity head-on.

The new USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is a case in point. Two-thirds of the contiguous 48 states now lie in Zone 6 or warmer. Huge swaths of the Midwest and Great Plains have experienced increases in temperature great enough to cause them to have advanced one full zone, as this arbor day map shows. The Arbor Day Foundation map preceded the USDA’s by 6 years, but the two are virtually identical. The higher the zone number, the higher the temperature.

What does this mean for gardeners and farmers?

According to David W. Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University, the revised map

…gives us a clear picture of the ‘new normal’ and will be an essential tool for gardeners, farmers, and natural resource managers as they begin to cope with rapid climate change.

For the many who work or play as a part of one of those three groups, this news is, in fact, pretty stale. The evidence has long since been in, and they will simply nod their heads in agreement. During these times of constant variability in the weather, a crystal ball would be of far more use.

… Nor any drop to drink

For instance, how would Texas farmers and ranchers have benefited, had they known in advance the duration and locations of the state’s worst drought in history, in many places still ongoing?

Knowing that a La Nina weather pattern is still in control is probably of more use to farmers than the plant hardiness map. After all, it was a La Nina that caused last year’s catastrophic fires, consuming 3.7 million acres of the Lone Star state. Water conservation coupled with drought-tolerant plantings will most likely be the new game in town.

Water, water everywhere …

Meanwhile, farmers in the Northeast deal with floods and hurricanes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is capable of seeing as far ahead as the current month, with La Nina and the occasional Arctic Oscillation in charge of the weather. Their predictions for spring and summer will undoubtedly be closely watched.

Even then, how exactly does a farmer or gardener plan for having their crops washed away? Insurance, if available and affordable, can help. Staying abreast of the latest developments within the farming/gardening communities is essential these days.

Let’s finish up by exploring one particularly notable development.

Hey, dude

Back in the days of the Old West, dudes (visitors from back East) were frequently referred to as greenhorns — to be “green” meant inexperienced.

Fast forward 130 years, and look what young American farmers have organized. Treating their lack of expertise with a healthy dose of humor, The Greenhorns is a non-profit made up of young farmers and their supporters. Their mission is “to recruit, promote and support young farmers in America.”

Begun in Berkeley in 2007, Severine von Tscharner Fleming began filming the trials and triumphs of America’s young farmers, attracting soil enthusiasts, filmmakers, graphic designers, and cartographers to the project along the way. By 2008-9, Greenhorns was based in New York’s Hudson Valley, growing organic vegetables and raising ducks, chickens, rabbits and pigs.

Serve your country food

The Greenhorns mission is accomplished in a number of ways.

For those land-based entrepreneurs seeking persons with a similar bent, Greenhorns maps are an invaluable resource. This portion of the website, called “Serve Your Country Food,” is described thusly:

It’s a website, it’s a portal, it’s a map, it’s a database. It’s an expression of profound patriotism. Here, represented by little dots on this map, we are the young farmers of America. United in our commitment to soil fertility, local nutrition, national health and a yummy hereafter. Land. Liberty. Stamina. Sunshine. These are the natural ingredients for an edible future.

Their blog, bearing the unlikely moniker of The Irresistible Fleet of Bicycles, exists for the purpose of matching up erstwhile farmers with land to farm. Other types of information, like where a Sustainable Farming Certificate can be earned, are also made available.

In case you haven’t guessed by now, these stewards of the land want nothing to do with industrial agriculture.

The future of farming

Beginning farmers will also find recommended reading, a calendar of events (I’d love to go to all of them!), The Greenhorns Radio program, and the organization’s journal, The Greenhorns Circular, at the website.

Over 3,000 young farmers belong to this network because it speaks to them and for them. Be sure to catch the film The Greenhorns (three years in the making) when it comes to your area. If you want to know what the future of farming looks like, this is a great place to start.

About the author
Vicki Lipski lives, writes, and attempts to garden permaculturally in Loveland, Ohio. She writes about climate change, and the transitions it will require, at http://www.writeaboutwarming.blogspot.com.