THE BLOG
12/10/2013 04:50 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014

Do Farmers Have Choices?

There seems to be a consensus going around that farmers have no choice when it comes to the seed they choose to plant. Or if they do have a choice, large corporations like Monsanto force it upon them. And if anybody tries to voice their opinion and let the farmer's themselves speak upon their choices, the individual suddenly becomes a pawn for Monsanto.

Okay so the above example may be a little extreme. Doesn't mean I haven't seen it happen again and again online. Why is it that because we are behind a computer it gives us the license to be disrespectful? Anyway, back to farmers. I was interested in what the farmers themselves have to say about their seed choices, how they choose the seed they do, and why do they CHOOSE to plant GMOs or maybe they don't? So I asked several farmers some questions... And here's what I found.

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Do farmers have a choice when it comes to the seed they plant?

Out of every single farmer I surveyed, 100% said they felt like they have a choice when it comes to the seed they plant. Not one farmer surveyed felt pressured into choosing a certain kind of seed, but instead felt like they have a good variety of seed to choose from and that they were free to choose however they wished. One farmer responded, "Just as you have the choice on what seeds to purchase from your favorite garden store, we have the choice on what we want to buy from our favorite seed salesman." But farmers don't only feel like they have a choice, they are happy that they have a choice. One farmer told me, "I feel it's important that we have a choice in the seed we choose because not every system or seed type is a fit for every operation". There is no one solution fits all when it comes to seed.

What types of seeds are out there? How do you choose the seeds you do? What factors go into choosing seed?

Farmers today have a choice between conventional seed, or hybrids & GM seeds that have been altered using genetics. Regardless of what type of seed you choose, there are many different things factoring into seed choice. As one of the responses from my organic farmers stated, "Seed selection for organics is not very different from seed selection on a conventional farm. We may grow things differently, but for the most part, we are considering the same facts just as a conventional farmer does" Some of these factors include:

  • Maturity: How long it takes the seed to mature and eventually be harvested
  • Soil type: what kind of soil are you planting into? Some seeds do better in one type of soil versus another
  • Geography: Where you are growing the seed makes a big difference, some climate may be more wet or more dry than other.
  • Tolerance traits: This can be anything from weed tolerance, insect tolerance, to even drought tolerance. Some seeds do better with less moisture or rain than others
  • Yield potential or return: Which seed is going to give us the greatest chance for profit and keep our input costs within reason
  • Price: Being a farmer is a career and it's how they make money to feed and support their families so of course price is going to play into the choice
  • Availability: You may find a seed variety you like but it may not be available due to a number of reasons. Maybe natural disaster: in order for that seed to make it to you as a farmer, it must first be grown and harvested... What happens if a natural disaster hits where they grow the seeds? Maybe a frost out of season? There are many reasons as to why some seeds just may not be available.

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How do farmers make decisions on what seed to plan?

Many farmers look at the records for previous years. Often times they look at yield maps which are graphed by the harvester or combine while they harvest. It tells the farmer where the crop did good (had a high yield), where it was average, and where it was poor (had a low yield). Other farmers look to replicated research by universities paired with replicated research by seed companies. Some look to their trusted resources whether they be their seed dealers, local agronomists. As one of the farmer's shared with me, "The pace of change, new seeds, and seed technologies is quite fast. My ability as a farmer to keep up with all of it is challenging. I establish long-term relationships of trust and understanding with my seed dealers so that we can both work as a team towards selecting the right products for my farm."

If you plant GMO seed, what are the benefits of choosing that over a conventional seed?

Each farmer has their own reasoning for choosing GM seed versus conventional seed. And to be completely honest, many of the responses were because of convenience. GM seeds make it less labor intensive which means employing fewer people as well as fewer passes through the field, and in result they use less herbicides and pesticides, "For us, GM seed creates less labor intensive operations in that spraying herbicides and pesticides is easier, quicker, and more effective to control weeds and pests." One farmer responded that by choosing GM seed allowed him to solve numerous weed problems he was having all at once. Another farmer responded that "The growers that I know, both GM and non-GM, simply view GM seed and crops as simply another tool or technology that are available." Much like the rest of us, farmers are always looking to do their job better & more efficiently with less labor (work) and input costs. And I understand that, if I could get paid the same while working less and spending less money in order to go to work, I'd be on board with that.

Another farmer talks about raising cotton, "We plant GM cotton varieties and we CHOOSE to do so. We don't want to have to use harsher chemicals and buy specialized equipment to put out chemicals on conventional cotton when there are more environmentally friendly options available. By using GM seed, we can save money on chemical purchases." Being that I now work in Ag retail and bill out all of our farmers for their seed and chemical, there is one thing I have come to learn... That stuff is EXPENSIVE! Farmers will not and do not spend money on things they don't absolutely need! If it's going to make for a better crop and it's within their input costs, absolutely farmers will use a certain product. But by no means we farmers just use an excess of insecticides, herbicides, or fertilizer because it costs a lot to apply! Whatever the reasoning, GM seeds are just another tool in the large toolbox of technologies at the disposal of the modern American farmer, not a weapon to unintentionally kill, hurt, or make people sick like some would have you believe.

So where do farmers get their seed from?

Would you be shocked to know that not every farmer answered Monsanto!? Some responses included: Dow Agroscience, Pioneer, Monsanto, as well as A LOT of regional seed companies throughout the U.S. which is great because it means that farmers like to support and keep good working relationships with the people local to them!

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To farmers: If somebody accused you of being a pawn for a large corporation because of the seeds you choose, how would you respond to that?

"Very simply, I choose my seed based upon the best variety for my conditions that we farm. I choose to use GM seed because it works for me, not because I don't have other choices"

"I would invite them to do the research with me. First we go through the list of potential seed candidates every year comparing conventional, GM, and hybrids. Then we compare yields, cost per acre to keep plants alive, and then we throw in the variables: drought, flood, extreme heat or cold, early frosts, and untimely rains during harvest. If they could come up with a perfect seed variety after comparing the hundreds of varieties available from the hundreds of corporations and mom-and-pop seed companies, THEN I'd listen to them."

And from the perspective of an actual seed dealer: "Seed companies, including ours, bring to market those varieties and traits that farmers want to buy. We have access to all kinds of conventional seeds, but when we have offered them, there are very few who want them. Farmers choose and want GM seeds, therefore, we supply that demand. Just as if there were a significant demand for conventional seeds, we would be happy to offer them."

Do farmers have choices? YES!

So there you have it, straight from the farmers. And YES farmers feel like they have a choice, sometimes too many choices, they enjoy the fact that they have a choice, they choose their seeds based on a variety of different factors not just money. Farmers drive the demand for the seed that is researched, bought, and sold. And really, it never makes any logical sense to me why people praise the farmers but demonize companies producing the seeds?

In the end, I think some people forget that no matter what side of the fence we are on, whether it be an organic farmer, an employee for Monsanto, or a GM farmer, we are all people. We all have families, friends, and people we care about. We are all passionate about the food we eat and how it is grown. We are all passionate about what we do and farmers are no exception. Only in an area where food is abundant do you have a CHOICE in what kind of food you put in your body. So let's celebrate that we live in a place where food diversity is abundant. Let's celebrate the diversity that is agriculture and the fact that as farmers, we are given choices so that we can produce the very best crops we possibly can and that as customers and consumers of agriculture, you too have a choice when it comes to the food you eat and put in your body. And let's work together in agriculture in order to ensure people in other places have that same choice too.

Thank you to those farmers who responded to my survey, I appreciate you taking the time to voice your thoughts on the matter and hopefully this post helps boost your voices!

Jenny writes a blog at jldphotographblog.com, where this piece first appeared.