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Cross Pollination Potential of New Herbicide-Resistant Seeds Worries Organic Farmers

The USDA might OK new herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans.  This is one of the issues upon which conventional & organic growers disagree.The genetically-engineered seeds - developed by Dow AgroSciences are designed to resist and survive the weed killer  2,4-D.

The public can weigh inon the proposal through Tuesday, March 11.

A farmer in North Dakota is happy to share her opinion.

Theresa Jonk was one of six daughters raised on a seed potato farm in North Dakota’s Red River Valley.

“We had a poison shed; yeah we actually called it the poison shed and there was a skull and crossbones and we were told to never, never, never go in there. I left home with my mother’s admonition to .never marry a farmer,” she says.

Not, she says, because of the herbicides her dad occasionally applied to tackle weeds, but because her mother didn’t wish the rigors of farm life on any of her daughters.

Years passed and Theresa Jonk went off to college. That’s where she met her future husband Dan Podoll and learned about organic growing practices.

” I was taking a biology course and the biology instructor put up slides of his certified organic farm. And I was like WOW I had no idea that you could run a farm without using a “poison shed” and I ran back from the class to find Dan and said “ I just came back from this amazing class ” and started to tell him about organic agriculture and he very quietly said ‘well we farm organically,” she says..

HIS parents started farming in 1953; in 1972 Dan’s older brother David took on its organic transformation. Theresa – now Podoll - picks up the story.

“Fast forward, Dan and I got married and our intention was to go back and farm with his brother David had a small grains operation. They were a second generation turkey farm. When Dan and I came back we decided that we would bring the turkey flock back to the farm; only we were going to developed a certified organic meat production system.And so that was the next ten years of our life; besides starting our family.

We were told at the outside it couldn’t be done; we did it anyway,” Podoll says.

Podoll says a poultry science consultant said they would not be able to combat Coccidiosis “organically”.

“Coccidiosis," Podoll explains "is a soil-born disease; it’s a parasite and as turkeys are gazing around they could pick up eggs of this cocci and they would develop this disease and he said you says you can’t raise certified organic turkeys, you can’t do it organically."

Podoll and her husband studied the issues and devised a solution.

“ We were successful. We developed our own label and we were able to produce turkeys for about ten years, using this organic system and then we lost our processor. One link in the chain from farm to market, and we were done,” Podoll says.

So, Podoll says they reinvented themselves They developed an organic seed line. Her brother-in-law took the lead.

“He had been breeding varieties for our own use for years. He couldn’t find what he wanted in the seed trade so he just started crossing things and making selections; so he really is our family breeder,” Podoll says.

The Podoll’s started making seeds for other companies in 1997, and eventually packaged their their own seeds.

Maintaining the integrity of their grains and seeds is daunting, because Podoll says, their 480 acres are an organic island, surrounded by genetically modified corn and soybean crops. Although they time plantings to prevent cross pollination with GMO crops, Podoll says they don’t always succeed.

“We try to stagger the pollination windows to make sure they don’t overlap; so we can do some isolation that way. If there is any overlap due to weather, we get trace amounts of GMO contamination,” Podoll says.

The farmer sees the prospect of a new, more resilient genetically modified seed – along with the occasional drift of herbicides from neighboring farms as an ominous threat to organic farms like theirs.

“Our family has built this very resilient system of agriculture, but it’s not 2, 4-D ready; these are volatile herbicides that are prone to drift and so I find myself in a situation where, I’m not sure our farm is viable; years of working to make it possible to be fully employed within the farm is now at risk,” Podoll says.

Jim  (right) and brother Dan  Zimmerman have expanded their Fond du Lac County family farm from its original 80 acres to 2700. They grow corn and soybeans.

Some 560 miles east in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, “conventional” farmer Jim Zimmerman says he gets along with his organic neighbor.

“We have a neighbor that grows organic sweet corn and I know that they don’t want a pollen drift next to them in their sweet corn and they want to know what they need to do to maintain the integrity of their crops. So they give us a call and let us know; and we respond by letting them know what our rotations are, what our plans are for this year, what it might be for the next two or three years, so that they can have a good idea on how to manage it,” Zimmerman says.

Zimmerman’s grandfather started the family farm with 80 acres and a herd of dairy cows; His father gradually added acres; gave up milking and today, Zimmerman and his brother manage 2700 acres of corn and soybeans.

Zimmerman says over the years, he and his brother have gotten better at what they do – doubling their output, while at the same time using less fuel and water.

“It’s much more sustainable; we do nutrient management plans and we go through the soil loss equation and when we plug all these things in we’re so low, it hardly registers on their scale; so we’re actually building soil versus losing any to air and wind erosion. And when you keep the sediment and soil in place, you’re keeping all the nutrients in place, so that’s being a much better steward of the land; and that’s what needs to be done in order to meet future demand,” Zimmerman says.

But weeds remain a problem that Zimmerman says needs to be effectively addressed so his crops can meet the demand.

“You know here in the state here we have resistant weeds – that’s Mare’s Tail l and giant ragweed and in the major growing areas in the United States, in the Midwest and to the south, they have to deal with Palmer Ameranth, one of the first glyphesate resistant, but what all of this does is being able to manage all of these hard to control weeds and in doing so, we are able to control them musth more easily and be much more productive and then we can compete globally better and ultimately, with a larger supply, we’re able to provide more feed, food and fuel and fiber which will actually help keep the cost of food down,” Zimmerman says.

Zimmerman says tension between large producers and what he calls “niche” organic growers is a constant.

”They’ve been resistant to all biotech and they’ve been trying to find a way to coexist and maybe trying to level the playing field a little bit in their favor, being competitive.

Zimmermans say the overarching issue is the need to meet current and future needs.

“It’s great to have choice; consumers have different desires and it’s good to have those choices, but overall they’re only afforded to do that at times we seem to have enough food,” Zimmerman says.

Zimmerman says he and fellow growers are frustrated with the drawn out conversation around Dow AgroSciences herbicide resistant seeds that he’s says seems perpetually stuck in the “controlled study phase”.

”What’s happened this product is that it’s been in the system and we’ve been promised by through the regulatory system through USDA, APHIS and EPA and FDA which look at all of these products and we’ve been promised a shorter timeframe in making their decision to regulate and this one here, we would like to be think that the decision would be based on the science behind it. And it would appear that this being in the system abnormally long, that they’re not looking just at science and that’s always a cause for concern, because agriculture is largely about science, the best science that we have today and we know that it’s always evolving,” Zimmerman says.

Organic and conventional growers may never find common ground, but there are actually some common themes:

Jim Zimmerman looks at farmers as stewards of the land.

” That’s what a farmer is; he’s a conservationist; he’s a steward because he’s stewarding all of these valuable resources. It doesn’t matter if it’s the input produces – the fertilizers and things like that – and the seed technologies that he’s using, he needs to steward all of them; he needs to manage all of them and the land being the most precious, needs to steward that in a sustainable fashion,” Zimmerman says.

Back in North Dakota organic farmer Theresa Podoll hopes her three children can make a sustainable life on their organic farm.

Jim Zimmerman’s son just graduated with a degree in agronomy and is returning to work their farm. He says there’s nobody better at “walking the fields” and scouting for where and what problems need tending.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>