Harvest of Fear (home)NOVA

should we grow them?
engineer a crop
what's for dinner?
interview: gerald tumbleson

picture of gerald tumbleson
How long has your family been farming this part of Minnesota?

My father and mother moved to Martin County in the late 1930s, so they've been farming here. I was born in the 1040s, and my brothers were born in the 1930s and 1940s. So our family operation has been in southern Minnesota for a number of years, and it's worked out fine.

He farms 2,700 acres in southern Minnesota, growing only corn and soybeans. Tumbleson discusses U.S. agriculture's "monstrous farms," how GM technology helps his crops, and his vision of tying together the production and the processing of crops in order to benefit the farmer. (Interview conducted October 2000.)
My father started with 240 acres of tillable land, which, at that time, was quite a bit. He rented that, and most of it was pasture then, because they had a lot of livestock. Their operations were made from livestock back in those days. Today we've expanded this operation through my brother and my two sons. We're at about 2,700 acres. That's a fairly large operation . . . probably the top 10 percent, because we run a lot of livestock with it. But if you split it up four ways between four families, then it's only 600-700 acres apiece. That's a pretty small operation. So it depends on how you look at it. how you share machinery, and how you try to make agriculture profitable today. It sometimes varies, but that's what we're working at.

What challenges do farmers face?

One of the most difficult parts of farming is weather. It changes every hour, every day, and every month. . . . As far as the livestock part of it, it's disease and things like that. So these are really the most difficult parts of it. We have grain prices. We have prices that vary. But our yields and our diseases and our weather are probably our biggest concern. Once we could get those protected in some insurance program or some form like that, then we can move on into really worrying about price.

we put leather gloves on and coveralls, so [insecticide] doesn't get on us [when we spray it].  That is not a fun thing. I don't even want the thing in my machine shed with my grandkids around.   But those are the types of things we don't have to have wit Right now, in the United States, it is very difficult to make it in grain farming, because of the price of corn and soybeans, which we raise here. Prices are really quite low at this time.

With the way the industry has gotten into what you'd call science, agriculture has changed. In the last ten years, it has turned to what I call agricultural industrialization, which has become so exciting. I envy my sons, because they're just getting started in a time that I think is very important. Sure, we went through the mechanical part and production part. Now we're into the science part of it. We're going to be raising things on this land in 10 or 15 years on this soil that we haven't even dreamt of. And that's exciting to me, because when I was in college, that was what I was into--research.

This is where we're going. We will raise different crops. It might be corn, but the corn will be different. The kernel will be made of different parts, and we will raise what the consumer wants or what can be used. Today the consumer wants this product, but in ten years, they don't know what they want yet, and we don't know what we're going to be raising. That's what's so exciting about it.

What are the differences between the corn and soil you first planted, and what you currently plant?

Of course, I was fortunate enough to come in after hybrid corn. That was a big, big change in corn yields, when we produced hybrid corn. Before that, they just took a kernel of corn out of the field, and they broke it and planted the kernel. They took the best ears and planted the kernels. But once we got the hybrid corn, we upped our yields tremendously. We doubled them. The fact is, we're increasing our yields from 1 percent up to 4 percent every year. I think, in the next 10 to 20 years, that we're going to increase it faster.

Now we're understanding how the kernel is put together. We're understanding the genomics. We're understanding the genes. We're going to be moving into production that is unheard of. As we do that, we're going to call corn an energy source. Now, we've used it mainly for livestock. Years ago, when I was a little kid, we used it for livestock. Then we got into human consumption. Now we're getting into all sorts of energy: energy for livestock, energy for humans, and energy for automobiles. As we do this, this corn is going to be an energy source that's going to just be unbelievable.

We're doing the same thing with soybeans, as we move off into what uses we have for them. As we breed the soybean for different uses--for different human consumptions, for different animal consumptions, for different energy consuming or whatever it is--we're going to be able to double our production out here.

It seems strange that people worry about our environment, that when we increase production, we're harming the environment. No, we're not. You take a stalk of corn and you look at the number of leaves--16-17 leaves on that--every leaf is taking carbon out of the air and putting it back in the soil. So in all this carbon problem that we're having in the world, every stalk of corn is a tremendous grabber of carbon out of the air and putting it back. If we can double our production and double our number of leaves out here, look what we're doing.

We can do this by putting two ears on the stalk instead of one, because today, most of our stalks have one ear. Once we go to two ears on that stalk, with the same nutrients in the soil, by shortening the stalk, look what we've done. Now our energy source in the world can be corn, can be a renewable, and all the energy comes from the sun. So we're not depleting anything. We're just turning it around. It's so fantastic, what we're learning about corn and soybeans out here. . . .

What is hybrid corn, and what is its advantage?

It's kind of like taking livestock, where you take one breed of livestock . . . and cross it with another. You get the best genes from both races and you cross them, and you come up with a crossbreed that's superior to either breed. When you take hybrid corn and you take a certain corn that the breeders have developed in their research, you put that in what they call a male row. The male row is called that because the pollen of a corn is on the tassel. As the pollen falls off, it falls on the silk of the ear. . . . If that pollen lands on the silk, you get a kernel. If it misses a silk, you have a bare spot there. You won't have a kernel. Through the breeding of corn, they've been able to cross these things and make a hybrid out of it that produces a lot more corn per acre. That move was tremendous in corn production in the United States.

Today, now they're taking the corn apart, and they're learning all the genes there are in a corn through the chromosomes, and they're mapping that corn. Now we're finding out how many genes are really in it. Now when we cross a gene, we can make a corn that can grow on a soil that's depleted in water, or one that's on a soil that has excess water, or one that's on a shorter growing season. When I'm talking about growing season--it takes so many degree days to make an ear of corn. If you're in northern Minnesota, you only have maybe 80 days. If you're in Texas, maybe you have 160 days. So you develop that corn to raise it in the area you live in.

This moving of genes back and forth is going to make our production tremendous. That's going to help our renewable source of fuel for energy, whether it's for livestock feed, for animal consumption, or for human consumption, or for running whatever you want in energy.

Explain BT corn.

. . . BT is mainly for European corn borer. We plant this corn, because then the European corn borer bites into the stalks and passes away. Well, if you get some corn borer resistant to that, then you're going to have an area in the field that you can't protect. So we leave 20 percent of a field. We leave strips in the field so that corn borer can still cross-pollinate itself, you might call it. That's not what they call it in corn borer, but that's what I call it in corn.

If we're planting corn out here in this field, and we get a year of a high corn borer moth, they burrow into the stalk, and then it rots the inside of the stalk. They burrow into the shank that holds the ear, and it rots that. And the wind comes up and the corn falls off. Now, to keep that from happening, if we don't have BT corn, we spray our field with an insecticide. . . . What happens then is that we can't get selective. We spray for one type insect, and we might get four or five types of insects. And we don't want that. By putting BT corn in here . . . we don't have to worry about killing the insects we want to keep here.

. . . If the European corn borer does not cut the stalk, we don't get an infection inside. We don't get other things into that stalk. . . . Mycotoxins are developed through these scars, as you might call them, in corn plants, or corn ears. Mycotoxins are what we want to keep out of our corn for human consumption, animal consumption, and whatever it is. We can do that much easier through BT corn--keep the mycotoxins down, and improve the quality--and then we don't have the loss in the field of the ear droppage.

If you're going to go through all the work of producing an ear, you want to harvest it, because you're going to use it for somebody to eat, some animal to use, or some energy source. Now we have it. We don't have to worry about it falling off in the field and losing it. And then that turns around to be a weed in our beanfield the next year. Now we got to go back and control in the beanfield. So we add another chemical to control it the next year in a beanfield. So this type of thing with the BT is fantastic for the years that we have a high corn borer rate. Now, some years we don't have that high rate. We can check the year before for moth, so we kind of bury that. We don't always have to use it, and that helps on our refuges, too.

How does crop rotation work?

We rotate our crop to control diseases. The more we can control by rotating a crop, the less insecticide or pesticide we have to use. I'm a farmer, and I don't care to use insecticides or pesticides. The less I can use, the better I feel about it. It keeps it off the soil, keeps it off of me, and keeps it off of everybody else. So we really like that. We rotate our crop from corn one year to beans the next year, so we don't get some kind of disease buildup. . . .

I don't worry in the united states about what i eat, because i think it's the safest place in the world to eat anything.  It's been proven.  We live longer.  We enjoy life more.  We have the best food, i think, and we're creating better food. How long have you been using BT corn? What are the noticeable advantages?

We've used BT corn for about five years. One year it really was an advantage. It saved us 20 bushels, or better, per acre. Well, even at $2 a bushel of corn, that's $40 an acre. . . . Every year it seems to be a protection. . . .

We have Roundup Ready soybeans. We've used those for four years. It's a way to control noxious weeds in there, with a surface-applied chemical--not on the soil surface--but on the plant surface. It does not get in the soil. Some of our herbicides we put in the soil. This one we put on the top. We don't have to put anything on the soil. We have no carry-over. It's gone. It's a very friendly herbicide. So that's why we use that on some of our acres--it's so friendly.

We pay a tech fee to get to use it. That's a fee to the company that developed it. That's why we don't maybe use it on all, because we don't care to pay that kind of a fee. But there are times when it's great, and environmentally, it's really friendly, because there's no carry-over from it and it doesn't harm anything but just that plant.

Has it been beneficial financially?

Financially, it's kind of a wash. It's a convenience, because we can control a lot of weeds with it, yes. You have to understand, and I hope the consumer understands, that technology is really a benefit to the consumer, not the producer. To a lot of people, that's hard to understand. But ultimately, the consumer is the one that benefits, because if we can produce this crop at a less cost, they buy it at less cost, and they're the ones that benefit. . . .

That's what we're here for. We're here for the consumer. It's people. That's the only reason you're on this earth--for people. If you weren't on here, why would we exist? So I don't have any problem with that. Just don't make it so I can't make a profit.

Biotech is under fire because of health risks. What is your take on those fears?

Well, change is difficult to all of us. . . . I can remember when I was a little kid and we had polio. They got this vaccine. You took a shot of this vaccine. People said, "You can't put that in me, because that's really polio." Look at what it did. Do we hear about that anymore? No. But there was a fight. You could hardly get penicillin on the market. You take penicillin off the market today, and you're going to have a fight. This is what happens as we do anything in change. This is what's going to happen in this biotechnology in agriculture. There's a fear out there that we're going to create something. . . .There are things out there that people have no need to fear, but they are afraid.

The greatest part about this biotech thing is that the research has been done over and over and over again. We're not out there destroying humans. We're not out there causing problems. We're doing a ton of research, and we're backing it up with more research to make sure it's okay. If we run into an allergy, they drop it. They're doing the research on it.

God gave us a mind. He created the world, okay? I'm along with that. But he also gave us the mind to make it better than what he did. He said, "I'm starting this. You make it better." And we are. I can think of nothing in the past that I think is fabulous. But I can see a lot of things in the future that are going to be really fabulous. . . .

We have rice that they're developing today, called Golden Rice, where you put the vitamin A and the iron into the rice when you plant it in soil. We can have children who will be able to see when they're 60, but they're going blind today at 30. Just because we in the United States have all these things doesn't mean the world has the same things. If I can make a child see until they're 60 instead of 30 by just putting it in the grain--because I can't get the vitamin A and the iron there any other way they plant it--I'll do that any day of the year. I'd be very, very disappointed in anybody that fights that.

. . . I'd like to be the age of my son instead of my age, because he gets to do all this, and I'm going to be gone. In the meantime, I'm having fun with it, and we're developing it. I hope we can stop the fear that's out there that something's going to happen here. We're not going to turn into Draculas or something on this thing. We're doing enough research. We know what's there and what isn't there. But we also know we're going to save a lot of people's lives and we're going to create a much better universe. We're not going to have carbon problems in the future. We're not going to have all these things. We're going to solve problems with this, instead of creating more problems.

How well are regulatory agencies monitoring this technology?

After you've been through some of those regulatory things that they go through, you will feel very comfortable that they're doing a fantastic job. The regulatory industry is doing great. . . . If you don't think they're doing a good job, go watch them. If you try to put something on the market today, it's very difficult. I feel a little bit sorry for the people that are doing the research, because they're doing a lot of research and can't get it on the market because they have to test over and over and over and over, and prove this over and over again. So they are doing a good job of making the research people prove that it's safe and it's working. Yes.

How do you feel about the activist campaigns?

Well, I kind of like their groups. I don't like it when they go crazy with it, but I like their groups, because they make us do the research, and somebody has to do that. So I'm not against that at all, because I'm an activist. I'm an activist on ethanol and things like that, and corn. So I'm not against activists. But once we get the scientific fact and we get the facts right on the table, then let's accept them. It's the same with myself. If I'm an activist on something and I don't care for it, if somebody proves it to me, then I have to say, "Okay, that's fine. We've got it where we know what it is. Let's go with it." . . .

That's why I feel safer in the United States--because we have those groups. They have made it so that we do the research. They haven't let us just go wild and do these things. So I'm comfortable with them. I don't have any problem with them. I sit down and talk with them. I don't have any problem with that. I like those people that question things, but who question it correctly. I don't have a problem with that. I think it's great. . . .

What about the fear of BT corn pollen affecting the monarch butterfly? How much milkweed is actually found within a cornfield?

Within a cornfield? I hope there's none in mine, because it's a noxious weed, to me. So we have destroyed it in our field. We have it in ditches. We have it on our lakes. We keep them there, and that's where it should be. That's where the monarch butterfly feeds off of it, and it works fantastic. . . .

Now, maybe we can set up so that we don't have that pollen in the BT. Then we don't have that problem with it. I don't have a problem against the activists finding this out. Nothing. Let's just prove that it doesn't do harm. So that's where I back the activists. "Look at what we found here. Let's do the tests on it. Let's check it out and let's prove that it's right or wrong." So I'm all for finding out to make sure we're not on the wrong track on this. I don't want to get rid of monarch butterflies. I kind of like them. I do play with them out here in the fields and so I like them around.

Are you concerned over too much power shifting to the biotech companies?

Well, there's what I call a concentration of companies in the United States. I don't care for that. I'm out here farming, and I'd just as soon not have a monster-size farm, because I like a lot of farmers around. It helps rural America. It develops rural America. The more farmers I can have out here, the more towns they can have out here, the more jobs that are available out here. . . . I don't care for the concentration of big business and moving it out of rural America. The concentration of big business doesn't give me a competitive advantage when I'm purchasing or selling. So that is a concern.

Now, if your research department of your company has developed this certain product, and they want to control it, it's theirs. I mean, they really did develop it. But . . . I think that sharing this information is way more important than controlling it. If we lived like Abraham for 600 years, then controlling it would be way more important. But we don't live that long. Let's share it. Let's make it better for human use. . . .

I think we're going to see that. I think we're going to see the companies go to the farmer, and the farmer saying, "Hey, I will use this product, but let me have a percent of your profit. Then together, look what we can do for the consumer." See, that ties the chain together now. We've got people working together as people, instead of the company coming out here, saying, "I have this product that's going to cost you so much an acre, and you'll make so much." But then in five years they say, "Well, I want this much more per acre." Well, wait a minute. See? That's where people don't come together. This whole world is about people. We have to remember that. If we tie that together and tie it back, we will get this high concentration of industry realizing that money is not the answer. People are the answer.

Opponents of this technology say it's a disservice to the farmer because the power and money go to the seed companies, away from the farmers. Is this technology really a financial advantage to the farmers?

That's an interesting subject matter, isn't it? Does this make larger farmers? Or does it make smaller farmers? What does it have to do with farming? What does it have to do with rural America when you do this? It's a very, very touchy subject when you get into that. Now you're talking about a different thing, because today my sons and I could farm 20,000 acres. We can do it. The technology is there. Do we want to do that? I don't know, because then I don't have rural America anymore. And rural America, to me, is what I live for.

That's why I think agriculture should move into production and processing, to the consumer. We should get a part of that whole step. If I'm getting something from the processing--which, in Minnesota, I own into some ethanol plants who process the corn to ethanol and then a protein and then an oil--if I own part of that, that some of that money can come back to supplement my production of agriculture. Look at what it does. Now I don't need the monstrous production to make the same amount of money. It's important to me, very important, that we tie these together. And that's what I like with the big companies--share in the profit, and join together on that, instead of becoming monstrous farms. . . .

If we're going to subsidize rural America, let's subsidize it through the processing end of it and through the production end of it, and keep rural America. Still, I can decide if I want to raise corn, beans, or whatever it is, and I can go from there. We can do that. It's not impossible. It's right in our fingertips to do it. But we have to work with the government to do it. We can't do this privately. It won't work. As much as people don't like the government in the United States, we still have to work through them. We can set that up through them, through advantages.

They've had tax advantages for corporations and all these. This encourages larger corporations. We need to turn around and set that encouragement in private enterprise, like the United States was built. The United States was built on private enterprise. We can do it out here without the big corporations. We can still have private farms, we can have private businesses in town, and set up advantages tax-wise to create that. That's how we're going to get around this. They're worried about the biotech ruining us? Biotech's going to help us in that process. This thing all ties back and makes it better yet.

Has community size in rural America been shrinking?

It's getting smaller and smaller. Our small towns that were big towns are now what they call bedroom communities and retirement areas. I know of rural Minnesota personally, because I live in it, and really, I think the whole United States is that way. We can turn that around and turn back to making these towns viable, because you have suburbia, as you call it, and suburbia's just expanding like crazy. Well, that can happen. We can have the same thing now. With the new technology today--TVs and hand-held computers and everything--you can live out here and do the same thing. Look what happens. We spread the people back out.

We don't do it the way Europe did. We don't pay people to stay in the country. We create the opportunity for them to stay in the country. That's a whole different philosophy that does the same thing. That's why I think we can do it even through the biotech industry. . . . We can turn it around. We can turn it around through opportunity rather than payment, too.

So a bonus of this technology is a tool to privatize rural America?

Yes. What some people call it is IP, that's "identity preserved." What it does is, you will raise this corn for this pig, this corn for turkeys, this corn for an ethanol plant, this corn to make clothes out of. We make clothes today out of cornstarch and cotton that are biodegradable. They don't get thrown in a landfill. We have all that technology. Now we're going to raise it for those things. Maybe this field will be used for that. Maybe that field across there will be used for that. So then we can get down and we can identity-preserve each field for what they're going to use it for. Then we'll put the plant out here in rural America that processes that to move it on. Now look at what we got.

The opportunities are there. We just have to create them. But we have to create them through the government, through tax incentives and through those types of things. That's the clue to this thing that has to tie in with it. They all have to tie together. So I don't envy our congressmen or our senators, because we have to tie those things together. We will get that done, too. As we get this biotech thing cleared up and get it moving ahead, we will get these other things coming. We have all this structure in place. We're just moving it together to get it done. And it's going to happen.

How much easier has BT corn made farming, if it has made farming easier?

There are certain parts of the country that use BT corn more than others, because corn borer moves in certain areas of the country more than other areas. For a certain part of the country, it's very, very important. In other parts, it's not quite as important. So they're saying, "Okay, if it's not important here, let's just not raise corn there." "Well, yes, they're going to raise corn there. Let's use the BT."

If you've ever been around here when you've sprayed an insecticide

. . . we put leather gloves on and coveralls on, so it doesn't get on us. That is not a fun thing. That is not something I even want to dream about. I don't even want the thing in my machine shed with my grandkids around. Those are the type things we don't have to have with this BT corn. And then we don't have to spray over the top. "Oh, am I killing ladybugs? I don't want to do that."

See, that type of thing has made it so much more convenient on BT corn. If I go out and see moth the year before starting to build up, or if I'm worried about European corn borer, I can go out and plant it now. It costs me. It costs me just as much as spraying. But it's so much better for the environment than spraying. Those type things we're going to come up with down the road. . . .

Have you noticed a benefit with BT corn?

I've noticed a benefit. Three out of five years that I've used BT corn, I've noticed a benefit from it. So I've gained from that. The other two years, I didn't gain anything, but it was still a protection. . . . And as we go, we'll find advantages. We will be able to take a stalk of corn and plant it on a hill that produces this amount, or in a valley that produces this amount. We will change our planting as we go across a field. But we have to have the technology before we can do that. That's where we will become very, very efficient out here. That's where the profit comes into the farming, too, when we do those things. So there are ways that the farmer makes profit on this--just not every year. But it's same with every business. You don't make a big profit every year either. . . .

What about your use of the standard chemical type of fertilizer?

We do that. You talk about activists--you might call me an environmentalist, an activist. I am. I live here. I'm going to farm here, and my children are going to farm here, and my grandkids hopefully are going to farm here. So I am an environmentalist. I'm an activist on that, and I'm trying to do the best job we can do to make it possible for them to farm. It's the same as we do with the fertilizer. If we over-fertilize, it costs us money. We don't want to do that. That's number one. Number two is, what happens to fertilizer? Does it stay in the soil? Does it go in the air? Does it get in the groundwater? We don't want that, either.

We do the same thing with our livestock. We have a lot of pigs. We feed the corn to the pigs. We take the waste from the pig, the nutrient from the pig, and put it back on the soil. It's just a cycle. It's a kind of a sustainable cycle. It's not what you call organic farming, because we still use some pesticides on certain conditions when we need them. But it's sustainable agriculture's theory, and it works. That's what we're out here trying to do. That's building our soils, building the organic matter back up to what it was years ago, and using the livestock wastes of the nutrients to do that, and then using the biotech to plant the best crop we can in that system.

It all goes together. I guess I am an environmentalist activist. I fight for that, I guess. I do a lot of very minimum tilling to keep the wind down, to keep the erosion down, and it's one of those things that happen.

On this farm specifically, do you use manures as fertilizer?

Yes. We'd like to use it solely, but it takes a lot of manpower to have that much livestock around. Also, livestock's a seven-day-a-week job. You remember, it's morning and night, seven days a week. If you talk to a lot of people, they'll say, "Wow! You don't get the weekends off?" No. You have to share to get a weekend off. Well, that's a different lifestyle now. So you have to enter into that, too.

But we would like it if we could use all animal waste for our nutrients, because I don't care to pay Kuwait for my nitrogen, or Canada for my potash, or South America for my phosphorus. I'd just as soon have it here and use it right around and turn it around, and use the sun for the energy. We have the things to do it. Now we have to create the opportunity and a possibility for us to do it that way. . . .

What's your opinion of creating organic farms on a large scale?

Oh, I think organic farms have their place. I'm all for organic farming. I'm for it, and if people want to eat food from organic farms, I'm for that too. The only thing is, if everybody was organic farming, your production would be a little lower. We couldn't feed as many people. We couldn't do as much stuff with it. The price would go down anyhow, because everybody's doing the same thing. So that's not the answer to what we're talking about here. But organic farming, I'm all for that. Anybody who wants to do that, I'm with him on that. . . .

I don't think they're out there condemning me for not doing it, because if I did it and so did everybody else, their price would go down. So I don't think they're doing that.

It's another way of farming and it's okay. I don't have any problem with it. But if we're going to move to what I want as a renewable energy source, whether it's energy for food or energy for everything else, we have to move in that direction. Everybody can't organic farm to do that, then. So that's fine. There are all sorts of farming out there. . . .

So it has merit, but it's in the wrong direction?

The merits are good and the direction's correct. . . . I don't think it's the whole answer, though, and that's my point. It's not the answer to everything, and maybe the way I'm doing things isn't the answer to everything. But we join them together and we get the answer to everything. Then I'm happy. Then we can get the job done. If you want to pay more for your food that's organic, that's fine. Go ahead and pay for it. I don't have any problem with that.

I don't worry in the United States about what I eat, because I think it's the safest place in the world to eat anything. It's been proven. We live longer. We enjoy life more. We have the best food, I think, and we're creating better food. I am not one bit afraid of anything. I eat the BT corn, I eat the Roundup Ready soybeans when I'm combining them. They're safe, to me. . . .

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