GMO crop issue pits farmer against farmer

Sams Valley farmer Bruce Schulz stands in a field that has genetically modified alfalfa on one side and conventional alfalfa on the other.

"It doesn't take a scientist to figure out which one works better," Schulz said.

The alfalfa that has been genetically engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup is taller than the conventional alfalfa and its yield will likely be double, Schulz anticipates.

Schulz is not a supporter of Ballot Measure 15-119, which would ban genetically modified crops in Jackson County if voters approve it on May 20.

The issue has pitted farmers such as Schulz against other farmers who are trying to grow organic crops or support a local farming community that feels threatened by GMO crops.

Schulz said he sprays Roundup once during the growing season to kill weeds.

"Roundup, in my opinion, is a lot safer than other chemicals that we use," he said. He points out that he has to spray chemicals on his conventional alfalfa, as well.

But the Monsanto-created alfalfa does not guarantee a good crop, because there are so many other variables in farming, Schulz said.

"GMO is not the magic bullet — it's another tool that we use," he said.

Also, some of his customers don't want to buy GMO alfalfa, so he needs to make sure he has a diverse crop.

Schulz said he doesn't have a big company breathing down his neck or looking over his fields to make sure he's growing the genetically modified crop correctly.

"Monsanto doesn't tell me anything," he said. "I sign a paper and promise not to keep the seed or grow it," which assures Monsanto he will have to buy the seed from them.

If Measure 15-119 passes, Schulz said it will cost him financially because a crop of alfalfa can grow for six to 10 years if it's managed correctly, so he would have to work to be sure it's all pulled out.

He said he doesn't understand the opposition to genetic modification, likening it to the kind of cross-breeding that plants have undergone for centuries.

"It's not like they're making something weird," he said.

But other farmers say the genetic plants are a threat to their organic crops.

Chuck Burr, president of the Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association, said his farm near Ashland had to destroy $4,400 worth of chard seed because of pollen contamination from a GMO beet field nearby.

He said the approximately 35 Syngenta plots in the valley pose a threat to the organic farming community, including the organic seed community.

Burr said farmers need to test seed and crops to make sure they don't get contaminated by GMOs.

"This valley is relatively narrow and measures 41 miles long, with offshoots into the Applegate," Burr said. "Wind-borne pollen can travel for miles."

Because the valley is so narrow in many places, it's difficult for GMO and conventional or organic farms to coexist, he said.

"We need a certain amount of isolation to make it work," he said.

One local farmer tried genetically modified alfalfa, but now regrets that decision.

A sixth-generation Southern Oregon farmer, Jared Watters describes himself as a right-wing conservative.

He embraced the idea of genetically modified alfalfa for his fields off South Stage Road several years ago.

Over time, Watters discovered there was no benefit to growing the modified alfalfa, despite its higher cost, and he said he got better results with conventional seeds.

"The expectation we had for the genetically modified alfalfa did not meet what we were told by the salesman who sold us the seed," he said. "We bought into it."

He also found little interest from customers to buy any of the 120 acres of alfalfa that is resistant to glyphosphate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

"We plowed it under," he said, pointing to the fields.

He said the local farming economy appears to be heading more toward organic and sustainable practices, and he said he thinks it's important for the entire farming community to get behind it.

"Our economy will grow," said Watters. "The local farming industry will grow."

Dalton Straus, of Straus Ranches LLC, said he wanted to grow Roundup-ready alfalfa this year, but he's holding off until he sees the outcome of the ballot measure.

"I just don't support taking my right to grow what I want to grow on my land," he said.

In his mind, there is little difference between manipulating individual genes and the cross-breeding of plants that has helped improve yields and bug-resistance for years.

Straus thinks companies such as Monsanto have been given a bad rap, even though they have increased food production worldwide.

"Enough tests have been done by highly qualified researchers and scientists to prove it's not a bad thing," he said.

He has a neighboring farmer who grows one of the best crops of alfalfa he's ever seen.

"I'm green with envy every time I look across the road at his field," he said. "That is a picture of farming perfection."

Straus said the farmer is able to sell his alfalfa quickly.

"Quality alfalfa is all a customer wants," he said. "They want it weed-free."

Straus said he might have supported the measure if it were more localized, encompassing the south county and possibly out to the Applegate.

In the Sams Valley area, he said most of the farmers probably wouldn't support the measure.

He said it would remove one more tool that helps struggling farmers survive.

"I don't think, if it passes, that it's going to put me out of business, though," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or Follow him at

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