When the Field Moms visited the Jeschke Family Farm to learn about corn and soy, I was surprised by all of the information that we learned. There was quite a lot to take in. We moms visited 8 different stations set up around the farm to learn about farming operations, and corn/soy products. One of my questions / concerns for this visit was GMOs: genetically modified organisms. I had heard mainly negative things about these products, so I was interested in seeing the farmers’ point of view.
I really enjoyed learning about the technology that is involved in modern farming. Who knew that a tractor and planter cost more than my house? (way more…) Or that they can run on autopilot to follow a pre-set course that makes the most use of soil and land available? Or that fertilizers and pesticides are used sparingly and variably on fields according to soil samples? Not I!
There is much more to 21st century farming than haphazardly planting seeds, and following that with chemical usage. Farmers use soil samples, GPS, and photos / video of their crops taken by small flying cameras to make informed decisions about their planting seeds and tending crops. Farmers study the soil to determine which fertilizers to apply, and how much. You can have a sub-plot on the field that needs nothing, next to one that lacks nitrogen or potash. With these samples, farms apply fewer fertilizers to the ground.
Pesticides (both herbicides and insecticides) are also applied in smaller quantities than in the past. Farmers use technology to see where the needs are – back to those flying cameras, coupled with walks through the fields to inspect. Once that is determined, they can use modern equipment to apply only in areas in need, and close to the soil to avoid airborne spreading.
Farmers also use technology to decide when to apply fertilizers and pesticides. Obviously they want to avoid doing it right before a rain, but they also want to avoid wind to prevent any unnecessary spreading of these chemicals. High-tech farm equipment and meteorology tools allow farmers to make these decisions.
Now, how do GMOs play into this? Well, the development of new strains of seeds has allowed farmers to use fewer fertilizers and especially pesticides. Also, crops can be more resistant to extreme weather, which allows for a more successful harvest. How does this work? Scientists can take the strengths of some varieties of plants (corn, for example) and pass those qualities on to a new seed type. This can produce a crop that is better able to fight off grubs, or requires less water, or is successful in poorer soils. The biggest benefit here is lowered use of pesticides. If the seed and plant can fend off a certain disease on its own, there is no need to spray to fight that scourge off. Sounds pretty good….right?
So after the tour I looked online to compare what I knew from before about GMOs with what I had seen and heard on the farm. Do you know how sometimes an internet search is a bad idea? This seemed like one of those times. So much, frankly, scary information out there! But I am thinking of what the Jeschke’s said: that farmers have always moved ahead with technology, just like other careers. I am a teacher – how many slides rules have I seen in the building? Exactly 1 – it belongs to the calculus teacher and she shows students how to use it so they stop complaining. Do I keep all paper records and have to add up grades and percents? Years ago I did, but now report cards are all computerized. At home, I have a washer and dryer; no fear of crushing my hand in the hand-cranked rollers of what is now an antique. So it stands to reason that farmers are moving ahead. Illinois farmers do not use horses or oxen to plow, or pull wagons of seeds to plant. They have high-tech tractors and planters that follow GPS directions for straight and even rows. If there are seeds that tolerate drought, or resist disease, it stands to reason that farmers will choose to use those as they create a healthier growing environment.
People cross breed dogs and cats to be hypoallergenic and shed less. Granted I don’t plan to eat a ‘schnoodle,’ but should it be called a “Frankendog” as many GMO foods are labeled? I read an article about GMOs in Hawaii, and there was discussion of banning the use of GMO seeds. However, the act would “grandfather” in the so-called “Rainbow papaya” that resisted a type of fungus. So a plant that had already been modified was acceptable, but new changes are not? I can relate to Mr. Ilagen in the article as he struggled to find the truth about these methods.
I believe that I understand more about GMOs now. Before the visit, I was not sure why farmers would want to grow something that was modified – why not leave well enough alone? But it turns out that well enough may not have been so after all. I paraphrase Mr. Jeschke when he said that there will always be a farmer willing to produce “organic” as there will always be consumers ready to pay the increased price to do so. (even though “organic” does not always mean 100% pesticide free, but that is another topic). He also spoke of our obligations as comfortable and fortunate first world citizens. While most of us may worry over what to fix for dinner, we are lucky not to have to worry if there will be dinner to fix. Increases in crop production allow us to feed more people, especially the vulnerable who need our attention the most.
Thank you so much to the Jeschke family! They are using innovation to be good stewards of their land, and to look at how their actions can benefit others in our world. I thank you for sharing your field with us by providing the “Field Moms’ Acre.” I can’t wait to see how our crops of corn and soy fare this year as we continue to learn about farming throughout the growing and harvesting seasons.
Samantha is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.