By Elena Day
May is my favorite month. Fields turn green and flowers delight the eye. One anticipates the abundance of summer. I think of Beltane, the ancient Irish May Day celebration when bonfires were lit, fertility was celebrated and cattle were moved to lush green summer pastures.
It hurts my heart that in more recent years more and more fields in Central Virginia green up and then just as quickly turn yellow and brown. Today’s agriculturalists spray glyphosate herbicide (Monsanto’s Roundup)* to deaden growth in order to monocrop Roundup-resistant corn and soybeans. These in turn are fed to our cattle and pigs and chickens. U.S. (and South American) corn and soybeans travel as far as China and Southeast Asia to feed their industrial meat production facilities. Energy efficiency and sustainability in such a system of intercontinental food transport were deep-sixed decades ago.
Recently I read in an issue of The Progressive Farmer about the 2013 world record corn yield per acre winner right here in Tidewater Virginia. Mr. Hula’s no-till fields are “Rounded-Up” and planted with Roundup-resistant corn. Mr. Hula listed applications of germination stimulants, products to protect against cutworms and wireworms, additions of products from a company called Biovante that provides BioRed—soil microorganisms-and feeds these with complex sugars with product names like BioMate and Assist 45. Fertilizer is regularly added by “fertigation,” the application of nutrients via irrigation. And finally, at brown silk stage Mr. Hula orders two helicopter applications of what he calls Kritter’s Kryptonite, which includes more fertilizer, amino acids, BioMate, Headline AMP (fungicide) and Tombstone insecticide.
All this occurs on Curles Neck Farm or Plantation (east of Richmond on the James River), which dates back to 1635. Industrial farming has come a long way from small plots of hills of corn fertilized with fish heads and companion plantings of squash, pumpkins and beans.
The Progressive Farmer has lots of information about pesticides and herbicides and fungicides. I cannot say it is happy bedtime reading.
Atrazine is now routinely used to control marestail, which has developed glyphosate or Roundup resistance, in corn and soybean fields. Atrazine is one of the most widely used weed killers in the U.S. and its highest use is on Midwest corn. Ninety-four percent of drinking water tested by the USDA has been found to be contaminated with Atrazine. Higher contamination levels occur from April to July. It has been banned in Germany and Italy since 1991, and in the European Union since 2004. Although studies have linked Atrazine to adverse effects on amphibians and fish and to birth defects in humans, EPA remains adamant regarding its regulatory safeguards.
I recently read the May 2014 National Geographic issue “The New Food Revolution.” The author is trying mightily to make the case for a new agricultural model combining modern industrial farming and organic methods. Within this article this particular subtext has stayed with me: “Though small farms tend to lag behind industrial farms in yields, they often deliver more food that actually ends up feeding people.” Once again, “small is beautiful.”
In the end we may pay heavily for the environmental degradation resulting from an agricultural system that currently showcases giant combines in Kansas harvesting wheat at 25 acres an hour. Note the disappearance of Monarch butterflies (an indicator species) from the vast farm fields of the Midwest as most milkweed on which these insects feed has been wiped out by herbicides that are integral to this method of feeding the world’s growing population.
Last week Vermont passed a GMO labeling bill and Governor Peter Shumlin has promised to sign it. The bill includes funds to fight the challenge that will likely be brought by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA). Pepsi, Coke, Kraft, Kellogg’s, Monsanto, etc. all are GMA members. Although GMO-labeling initiatives were defeated in California and Washington, efforts to pass “right to know” what you eat legislation continue in both states as well as in Oregon, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, and Colorado.
Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo (R) is sponsoring GMA’s dream legislation, The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014.” H.R. 4432 allows for “voluntary” GMO labeling and prohibits states from passing mandatory GMO labeling laws. Food manufacturers could continue to use the word “natural” on products that contain GMO’s.
A couple of weeks ago there appeared a long article in the Washington Post about Monsanto developing new seeds that are not genetically engineered. I figured it was an attempt to get some good PR. (Monsanto is forever buying full-page ads in the Post about its achievements feeding the world its “chemically challenged” food.) Monsanto and other chemical companies are calling “mutagenesis” plant breeding the old fashioned way in the greenhouse. Mutagenesis subjects plants to radiation and chemical baths to scramble genes to produce traits suitable to industrial agriculture. The USDA Organic certification allows for mutagenesis although it disallows irradiation of food. Clarification is necessary.
Don’t forget, the Crozet Farmers Market opens May 3.
*A study released early in April found glyphosate in mothers’ breast milk as well as at levels 10 times higher than in Europe
I believe industrial and organic farming can be compatible, and it’s indeed the most sustainable way to provide food in the quantities required for a growing population, but probably not with the same kind of industrial mechanization as in conventional farming, which contradicts many principles of organic farming. There are currently no machinery adapted to the specific needs of organic farming, namely lightweight robotic weeders, since weeding (labor) is one important cost in organic farming. This kind of technology would also benefit conventional farming because several weeds like marestail are already resistant to glyphosate and even other herbicides. The only form of weeding that does not create resistance is mechanical, not chemical.
Hey, I didn’t notice the name of the city until you mentioned the market day. Can you even find crozets in Crozet? These delicious buckwheat pasta squares are a specialty of the Alps, usually served with some local dry aged mountain cheese (Beaufort).
http://www.marmiton.org/magazine/tendances-gourmandes_crozets_1.aspx (in French, sorry)
Agriculture is a broad stoke of a brush and agriculture has changed. There is a need for smaller business ventures in agriculture and the support mechanisms for such operations are virtually nonexistent. The challenges for overhead cost, economic return and sustainable markets for the smaller enterprise are just some of the daunting factors that confront the local grower/supplier industry. The need to feed the world and economics has driven the conventional farm business model to mechanization and global commodity markets. That is not a bad thing and this is where the enduring farm family business still resides. These families can go back many generations and have been central to the legacy of American Agriculture that this country and the world have always been the benefactor.
It becomes pretty easy to overlook the real solutions; they become obscure and at times are found in unexpected places. Mr. Hula and his family are a microcosm in numerous ways. If you look into Mr. Hula’s stewardship relative to his crop management system you will be pleasantly surprised. There are a great number of folks that would argue that Mr. Hula and his family are highly regarded as pioneers in protecting water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Mr. Hula has been recognized by many in the industry and by those in the environmental and academic institutions for his accomplishments. Mr. Hula and his family are one of several farm families that go back several generations and have ventured into diversified products and local supply markets. These individuals have dealt with the certainty of supporting an agricultural business in a changing world and their story is compelling.
The folks at the local Soil & Water Conservation District would be glad to furnish details for anyone interested in additional information.
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