Inside Farming: View from an Iowa Farm

By: Brendan Louwagie, CanACT Member, University of Guelph

Misconceptions in agriculture in choosing seeds, ‘I’m no pawn of Monsanto’

Farm & Food Care Ontario photo

Winter allows a bit of downtime for most farmers. We use it to look back on the prior year and to make plans for the next. We learn from mistakes, failures, and successes, and attempt to make sense of it all. Personally, I think of each growing season as a clean slate to test out theories and debunk some popular myths about how a corn or soybean plant creates maximum yield. It’s also a time when we get to make choices about what to plant, where to plant it, and what seed to use in each situation. It’s often a very personal and private decision.

I put on some Stevie Ray Vaughan; pull up a mountain of reports, yield data, my own yield maps, and spreadsheets; drink lots of coffee; fire up the old adding machine and go at it. Our decisions are based on dollars and cents as well as market demand. Each decision must make the most sense to our bottom line and align with the goals we have for land stewardship. It’s a burdensome responsibility. The right decision assures future success for the farming business, puts food on the table for our family and hundreds more, helps ensure the land will yield its bounty for years to come, and allows us the income to enjoy life as a family. The wrong decisions can be disastrous.

If you believe many of the cyber-arguments, the seed and chemical company Monsanto has control over what farmers do, say, plant, and so on. I’ve been told by denizens of the online forums that Monsanto “controls” farmers. I suppose the company may have secretly adapted some sort of Vulcan mind-meld without our knowledge, but this seems improbable. Others claim Monsanto has some really deep pockets and influential people working for it to tell every commercial farming operation what to do – a daunting task, I’m sure, but also a completely baseless accusation. No, really, spend some time on the Monsanto Facebook page and read the comments.

There are no seed company minions running around out here in the countryside telling us what to do. Sorry to disappoint, but it simply does not happen. If someone from Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, or whomever else tried to come into my office and tell me what to do, they would likely get a tongue lashing that would make a sailor blush, then quickly be told were to put that opinion and to get the hell out or be removed. Without a shadow of a doubt this would happen, and it has.

So, what does influence my decision? Actually, it’s pretty simple and no great secret. You see, I’m a no-nonsense, dollars and cents, ‘just the facts’ kind of guy. When the seed salesmen come around each year, we sit down and have a conversation about what he has learned, and what I already know. I ask for data – tons of data – and then the conversation is over. On goes the Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I fire up the coffee pot. I will occasionally call with a specific question on disease resistance or best population for a certain hybrid, but I don’t leave much room for someone “selling” me.

For our operation this spring it will be the traited seed, or the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) seed, that I think will have the best impact on the bottom line and the least impact on the environment. The last time we set up a comparison of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn versus non-Bt corn and measured it strictly for yield, the Bt showed a 14 bushel per acre advantage, mainly due to corn borer damage in the non-Bt hybrid. At the current price, that’s about $60 per acre. Sure, the GMO seed costs more, but adjusting for that, Bt still has a significant advantage in profit per acre. It protects the yield against pests that we might otherwise have to use non-selective insecticides to control. It allows us to use more environmentally friendly herbicides and reduce the amount of tillage used to control weeds. Reduced tillage in turn reduces soil erosion and allows us to sequester more carbon in the soil. Reducing tillage also saves me wear-and-tear on the machinery and equipment, saves labour, and saves diesel. It’s a win-win, really, and one that those in the green movement are just starting to realize – or at least, I hope they are.

In the end, it’s a choice that we are free to make, and it’s our personal choice. We are not pawns of some Illuminati-like seed and chemical company, and I’m fine with that.

Inside Farming is a series of articles written by Canadian Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow (CanACT) members at the University of Guelph.

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