Kenny and Karen’s farmstead was the only one we could see in any direction. A big storm was rolling in across the open fields and we weren’t excited about getting caught in the lightning and rain unprotected. So we turned off the road toward the house and sought shelter. Kenny, a lifelong farmer, sat us down and offered us food and drink. Before long he was voicing his concerns about the genetically modified crops he grows just outside the door. He was unaware of our bike trip’s local food mission.
Eighty percent of all corn and ninety percent of soybeans grown in America today are genetically modified (GMO) by Monsanto to be “Roundup Ready”. As Kenny described, this makes farming vast acreages manageable for a lone farmer such as himself. He can simply spray his corn with Monsanto’s famous Roundup herbicide, and nothing but the crop survives. But listening to Kenny describe how the genes of the plant have been altered to make this possible, his uneasiness was palpable. Various human ailments have been linked to GMO seeds and the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. But Kenny’s dour prediction was that it would likely take a public health disaster to shake us from the grip of the current system. Scary as that is, we haven’t always fed ourselves in this dangerous way, and we don’t have to in the future.
When Kenny grew up on that same farm, it barely resembled the one Robert and I saw. His father raised cattle and hogs to complement their various crops (oats, corn, soy, and wheat, if I remember correctly). He spoke pretty fondly of fresh farm eggs, and at the thought of fresh heirloom tomatoes he smiled brightly. “You can’t buy that!” he piped. But before Kenny was even out of high school, things were changing. The animals started getting sold off because they cost more than they produced. Corn slowly became the primary crop. And the chickens and apple orchards are long gone.
In Kenny’s area and across the midwest, farms got bigger too, since farming at the scale of many hundreds of acres is the only way to make a living when the basic inputs of seeds and machinery cost many times more than they did just a few decades ago. With that, the neighboring houses disappeared. You can still see where some stand in dilapidation, but mostly they are gone – razed and planted over with corn.
Kenny spoke of all the shops that used to thrive in the nearest town. Less than an hour before, Robert and I had passed through that town barely noticing it. I think there might have been a gas station, but that was it. The families that made up Kenny’s community have moved out en masse, and those who are left can just as easily drive to the nearest Costco for the things they need. The community Kenny grew up with has eroded away.
Kenny is afraid the food he’s producing is harmful to us, and he longs for the fresh, whole foods that he used to grow and eat. But trapped in the system that has been created around him, it was clear that Kenny felt unable to offer any solutions. Talking to Robert after the rain had died down and we were back on the road, we both expressed our gratitude that there are people out there who are working on solutions – changing the way the land is worked and food is eaten.
In fact, we had just left Spence Farm, where Marty and Kris Travis run a small, diversified, family farm where they grow food naturally, and sell locally. And they are working very hard through The Spence Farm Foundation and through the Stewards of the Land to show people what they are doing and how they are doing it. Like many others we’ve come across on this trip, they are offering solutions.
As a farmer, Kenny had a connection to the land, to his food, and to his community that genetically modified seeds and industrial farming practices have broken. But Spence Farm and places like it act as beacons in an ocean of corn. We’re thankful to have them as guides on our journey.