GMO flash point

Agriculture isn’t the first thing most people think of when they hear “Hawaii.”

The reality is that Hawaii’s favorable year-round growing conditions have led to a thriving seed crop industry in the state, with seed corn particularly important. Seed from corn and other crops raised in Hawaii has become a key component of U.S. agriculture.

So there are far-ranging consequences to efforts by some residents of the state  to regulate genetically modified crops and the pesticides used on them. One county already has passed a law to to create buffer zones around GMO crops on large farms. The law is set to take effect in August; seed companies have sued to stop it.

What’s happening in Hawaii is another reminder of how interconnected modern agriculture has become. What happens in one part of the world inevitably has ramifications, often big ones, elsewhere.

A little parody can go a long way

My knowledge of rap music is limited, to say the least. So I never heard of LMFAQ or it’s hit, “I’m sexy and I’m know it.”

But I pay attention to what’s happening in agriculture. So I heard about the Peterson Brothers, young Kansas farmers, who came out with their parody music video, “I’m farming and I grow it.” The parody garnered a great deal of attention, both in and out of ag.

Greg Peterson, one of the brothers, will speak at 7 p.m. April 22 in Sheppard Arena on the North Dakota State University campus in Fargo. He’ll talk about “activist websites, celebrity opinions and Internet misinformation.”

The event, open to the public, is hosted by North Dakota Farm Bureau’s Collegiate group.

Ag groups have worked diligently to use social media to spread their message. Given his accomplishments, Peterson clearly has some insights into how to do that successfully.

Questions on GMO? They’ve got answers

GMO food is one of the most controversial issues in modern agriculture. To its supporters,  food that contains genetically modified organisms is safe and necessary to feed a hungry world. To its critics, GMO is actively dangerous or, at best, an unproven risk

The supporters recently came out with a new web site,, that promises to provide expert answers to submitted questions about GMO and biotechnology. “Be skeptical. Be open. We want to hear from you,” the site says.

More than 100 experts are listed as participants. My very quick scroll through the roster found that most are scientists and farmers. Two are North Dakota farmers: Terry Wanzek from Jamestown and Bart Schott from Kulm.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s, which bills itself  as “a non-profit organization committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices.”

Personally, I think GMO food is safe. I’m not a scientist; I’m not qualified to assess its safety. But there seems to be a fairly strong scientific consensus that GMO food is safe. (I also think that consumers who want to buy non-GMO food, and are willing to pay more for it, should have that option.)

If you haven’t made up your mind yet, study both sides of the issue. The web sites above can help.

Clever crooks, despicable scam

Farmers are only as good as the seed they use. Planting poor seed inevitably leads to a poor crop.

So it’s easy to sympathize with farmers in Uganda, who are being victimized by counterfeit seed. A new report from the World Bank says that counterfeiting gangs there dye regular maize with the pinkish orange of industrially processed maize seed. The farmers pay hard-earned money for seed that won’t even grow.

Clever crooks, despicable scam.

The U.S. agricultural system has its flaws. But the seed con in Uganda should remind us that, on balance, our system works well.

Please, not a repeat of last spring

Area livestock producers seem to have avoided major problems from the late March/early April snowstorms that hit parts of the Upper Midwest. Now, producers are hoping to avoid a protracted battle with the elements.

April 2013 provided a nightmarish example of what happens when nature turns nasty for an extended period. Heavy snows and unusually cold temperatures throughout the month made calving and lambing a misery for some producers. Here’s a link to my Agweek story that ran in early May last year:

It’s hard for me to believe this spring will be as bad. The odds must be strongly against two back-to-back miserable springs. Still, all of us who live on the Northern Plains know just how fickle and unpredictable the weather can be.

N.D. soybeans keep moving up

When I was growing up in central North Dakota, soybeans were still unusual, at least in my neck of the woods. They weren’t exactly exotic, but they weren’t part of my everyday world, either.

Times sure have changed. Soybeans’ popularity in North Dakota has risen for years, reflecting improved seed varieties that allow it to be grown in places where beans hadn’t been suited.

Not that we needed it, but the National Ag Statistics Service’s 2014 prospective planting report provides another sign of how well soybeans are doing in the state. NASS projects that North Dakota farmers will plant 5.65 million acres of soybeans this year, about 1 million more than a year ago.

If NASS is right, only Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota will plant more soybeans this year. The estimates are just projections, of course. Actual planted acreage might be higher or lower. But regardless of the final numbers, soybeans are shining brighter than ever in North Dakota.


Do you get excited about National Ag Week?

I pay little attention to “special” days, weeks and months that promote awareness of a particular product, cause or issue. No doubt they have their uses, but to me they’ve always seemed artificial and arbitrary. And there are so many of them that their significance diminishes.

So it slipped past me, until today,  that March 23-30 is National Ag Week. I’m sure the designation has value: it gives agriculturalists a valuable opportunity to promote what they do to the general public, which too often is ignorant of modern agriculture.

But people involved in ag — as am I, as Agweek readers are — already know how important agriculture is. We don’t need a special day or week to remind us. To me, National Ag Week is really for people outside ag, not the folks in it

Some aggies might feel differently, however. If you’re involved in agriculture and National Ag Week is a big deal to you, drop me a line and explain why.

A special time of year

Calving and lambing season in the Upper Midwest can be both exhilarating and exhausting, both satisfying and frustrating. When things go well — when calves and lambs are born healthy and stay that way, when the weather cooperates — life can be sweet. When things don’t go well — when birthing difficulties and disease problems mount, when the weather turns nasty — life is miserable.

By and large, calving and lambing are going well this spring in the Upper Midwest, ranchers and others tell me. The weather hasn’t been perfect (too many cold days and nights), but conditions generally have been favorable.

That’s good for the pocketbooks of folks who raise and sell livestock.

But people who raise cattle and sheep aren’t doing it only to make money. They’re also doing it because they enjoy being around animals. That makes this calving and lambing season, at least so far, even more satisfying.

Healthy interest in soil

There was a time, not all that long ago, when summer fallow was common across much of the Upper Midwest. The idea was, keeping some fields bare and black during the growing season would help to control weeds and to improve moisture for the next year’s crop. The thinking was, that’s the smart way to farm.

But times change. Our understanding of science and nature grows and changes. Now, experts increasingly stress the importance.of keeping a variety of plants on the soil as long and often as possible. The idea is, a variety of plants helps to keep the soil healthy, just as a variety of foods helps to keep people healthy. The thinking is, using cover crops is the smart way to farm

Skeptics may question if it will still be considered the smart way to farm in, say, 10 years. I don’t know the answer to that. Nor do I have any easy answers about balancing short-term economic needs with long-term soil health. But I remember what a veteran farmers once told me about healthy soils and sustainable agriculture. He said, “We’d have to be complete fools to want a system that isn’t sustainable.”

Read more about soil health in the March 24 cover story of Agweek.

Planting inches nearer

Much of the region’s snow has melted, and hopes of a “normal” start to planting are, ever so slowly, beginning to grow.

Of course, as everyone involved with agriculture in this part of the world knows, getting a handle on “normal” isn’t easy. Two years ago, planting began gloriously early. Last year, it began miserably late and stretched out, for some producers, into early July. I don’t know what’s normal anymore; nobody does.

Given that, area farmers are understandably reluctant to make predictions about when they might start planting this year. Nonetheless, we’re all hoping this spring will be more like the spring of 2012 than the spring of 2013.

Any thoughts on when planting will start in your area? If so, drop me a line.