March….where the farmer is caught thinking too hard about the issues

Alan Jackson’s song “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere” keeps coming into my head, but its lyrics transpose in my head  to “It’s Got to Be Spring Somewhere.”  Here it is March 6, and the temperature has broken 40 degrees only once in the last month and a half, and it’s pretty tough to  even remember when last it was in the  30’s.   But farming is done by the clock as much as the weather, and so the greenhouses are up and running.  Despite the fact that the sun is getting stronger by the day (when the sun actually shines) the nights have been brutally cold.  A couple of after-hours trips to the greenhouses have already been executed to tweak temperature alarms, thermostats and propane furnaces.  This cold weather is playing hell on our propane contracts.

But we have had some sunny days this week and the greenhouse crew have begun trickling back after their long winter’s nap. There are sprigs of green in the pots and baskets.  Despite the outdoor temps in the low twenties, I have been shedding layers on sunny days as I work in the upper greenhouses. The furnaces will not come on if the sun is anywhere near out,  and I duck outside to cool off from time to time in the  midday.  I know that this weather will break, so we are trying to keep up with things and not be caught napping.  It could well be that the snow is all gone and we will be having 70-degree days in April.  This is, after all, New England.

One of the benefits of working at a bench in the greenhouse – besides being warm – is that I get caught up on world events through news broadcasts and talk radio shows. Much of the time I spend grafting tomatoes, taking cuttings, watering flats and seeding,  so there is plenty of time to hear what is going on beyond the realm of the weather at Edgewater Farm.   Of course, we have had the Olympics and the developing events in Ukraine, but the talk shows resound with many of the same issues as last year at this time.  Many are pertinent to what we do here. The ongoing issue of food safety, global food supply,  hydrofracking,  the FDA’s re-vamping of FSMA ( see earlier blogs for more info on that)  and how that will affect how and what we do for business on this farm.  We hear about GMO and gene splicing in plants and animals.  Yesterday I listened to a call-in program on NHPR where people were lamenting the fact that  many of New Hampshires’s  open  fields were growing up to woods, meaning the loss of open land. Meanwhile, two other callers talked about the benefits to the  environment that forests  provide through carbon sequestration.   Talk shows, discussions and the media are full of all sorts of authorities on all sorts of subjects.

I find myself marveling at the fervent nature and assured authority from which these media panelists argue their point of view.  Most of the time I can understand all points of view, and empathize to a degree.  Many of this season’s discussion  involves  mankind’s use of technology to solve problems. The GMO question is frequesntly  brought up to us all at the farm.    Do we use GMO seeds?   Is our sweet corn Round-up Ready? These are fair questions, and for the record we do not.  Upon investigation we do, it seems, use some varieties of vegetable seeds that come from companies whose parent company is Monsanto, who actually does  produce large amounts of   GMO soy and grain and feed  corn seed to complement the sale of their proprietary herbicide Roundup. Monsanto accumulated vegetable seed companies,   I suppose, for the simple fact there is money to be made selling seeds.   Then there is the GMO  labeling issue as well, which is not altogether  removed  from the GMO/gene modification discussion.

I find the food labeling issue a no-brainer. I think GMO foods should be labeled, since there are some issues regarding the safety and politic of its use, especially where  transgenic gene modification is used.  These are of burning interest to consumers,v as been demonstrated by petitions circulated by movements like MoveOn.org.     People have a right to know, and if the FDA mandates that the producers of Slim Jims have to state that they use “processed beef lips” in their product, then  I think folks should be allowed be able to determine whether their foods have GMO products in them.

However, how I feel about GMO as a science gets more complicated. I am against transgenic GMO plant production (remember the death of the Monarch butterflies?).   But GMO in plant development as a way of expediting  the process of hybridization?  I don’t know enough about that to be for or against it.  The other day NPR had  panelists discuss the introduction of genes into  the human reproductive process to prevent   generational transmission of endocrine immune deficiency into children.  Some panelists were fervently opposed because it would be “opening a Pandora’s box of medical mad science” and  might well lead to  the creation of “Franken-babies.”  On the other side of the fence the people who had this immune deficiency  maintained that they would have have cut off their arm not to pass the same  problem on to some  of their children.  So what is it….good science or evil science?

It is all about the march of technology.   I don’t envy scientists.   Poor old Robert Oppenheimer.    Did he really want to be remembered as the father of the atom bomb? Wouldn’t he rather be remembered as a physicist who  further the development  of the fission reaction that heats homes and powers  air conditioners?  The guy who expedited, in some small fashion, the development of radiation treatment for cancers?  Technology is always a double-edged  sword.    DDT was a swell way to treat soldiers in World War II when they came back from battle covered with body lice. Worked  well in agriculture, too, or so we surmised. Seemed harmless enough  for those  who used it as directed until some years later when  Rachael Carson pointed out it was accumulating in the food chain. Whoops.   Monsanto  developed  Roundup back in the 70’s.  We all were led  to believe that  there was  rapid breakdown of the active ingredient,  and it was the safe to humans.  But the Emperor’s clothes started to deteriorate  when it was discovered that  the compound actually did bind with certain soil types under certain conditions and  rendered damage to the very  plants  farmers  were trying to protect.  Meanwhile the parent company got involved in developing Roundup-resistant corn and  soybeans through GMO. Then they went about with their legal police force looking to  protect their proprietary rights and taking anybody who looked suspicious to court.  As if this weren’t bad enough or terminal confusing, we can look at some of the medical compounds  medical science  developed to fight diseases and infections over the years.   Many   have been pulled from the market  since because of the unintended side effects on some  humans.  Makes the old head spin.

This is all part of the human dilemma as we march forward.  Will technological advancement help humanity go forward or guarantee our species’ extinction?  Can we operate in a void and try to ignore it  while  it spins everywhere around us?  I have no answers, only questions.    We here just try to inform ourselves and make the best possible decisions with the fewest compromises as we  move forward.