An Interview with organic farmer Bryce Stephens by Debbie Pearson
I ran across Bryce Stephens’ name while doing some research for an editorial assignment on Roundup and its effects on soil. I realized he lives 30 miles from me. He is Vice President of OSGATA (Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association), and manages to remain organically certified in the midst of a techno-farming community. I wondered what it means to be “organic”, and what measures does one utilize in dealing with this difficult position? So I gave Mr. Stephens a call, asked him if I could interview him, and gave a little background about the purpose of the interview. He was very cordial, but I could sense a bit of leariness (for which I can’t blame him one bit, considering the fact that he’s had Monsanto spies infiltrate his place, under the guise of being journalists, just to snoop around). But I think that for the sake of informing people, he went ahead and did the interview and was very gracious about it. The information he provided in this interview was extremely detailed, to say the least. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
PEARSON: So what do you raise here on your farm?
STEPHENS: Turkey Red Wheat is one of my crops. I can’t even name them all: hard red winter wheat, hard white winter wheat, fallow land, pasture, alfalfa hay, alfalfa seed, yellow clover hay, yellow clover seed, early sumac, sorghum cane, beef cattle breeding stock, beef cattle slaughter stock, bison breeding stock, bison slaughter stock. Not certified but organically managed are horses, dogs, cats, wild crafted herbs, poultry and garden—winter onions, garlic, mulberries, sandhill, red plums, goji berries, juniper berries, hops, strawberries, parsnips, horseradish, rhubarb, chokecherries, sage, rosemary, thyme, spearmint, chives, and oregano.
Turkey Red is an heirloom crop. I’m certified organic to several kinds of certifications. To the National Organic Program standards (NOP), it’s the final rule, that’s USDA. The OCIA Standard is the Organic Crop Improvement Association. It’s a private certifier. It’s an organic certifier. It’s International. It’s been around before the NOP. I’ve been there over 15 years. I’m the chapter administrator. I got the gold star award for being an administrator.
PEARSON: How do you deal with the FDA and USDA, when they are virtually being run by people who have worked for Monsanto?
STEPHENS: Well, it’s a national organic program, that’s under the agricultural marketing service which doesn’t only deal with organic, it deals with certified angus beef, farmers markets, poultry, Local Food marketing, International marketing exports. And all kinds of things, these are marketing things. This is what the NOP is. It’s a marketing thing for labeling organic seals. USDA has a seal too.
In addition to being OCIA certified, we are Bio-dynamic practitioners. If you want to know some funny stuff…look at those things up there: next to those vases, that is horsetail from some of our horses, its red, black, yellow, and white horsetail. The stalk there is a mammoth sunflower that comes from Russia, that’s the handle. In bio-dynamic , you have to ,this gets weird, you have to take cow horns and you have to bury manure inside the horns for winter season, two foot in the ground, and then it comes up and it’s just dirt, and then you have to stir to the left and right in water, going through all the seasons, invoking all the stars and to the depths of the earth in geology and you have to sing, while you stir like “ommmmm” (laughs), like this for the 12 months that it’s gonna be, and then you sprinkle water all over your farm, , and what you’re doing is putting bacteria back into the soil, and bacteria is the life of the soil. What I do is, I have a spraying machine, it’s got 60 ft. booms, and this is an area where, when it gets hot and dry, it’s called evapo- transpiration, it just wicks the moisture out of the soil, so the bacteria when you sprinkle it on the ground, and if you do that during the evapotranspiration times, they’ll go dormant ‘cuz there’s no water. So I’ve been doing what’s called knifing, I have an old anhydrous ammonia applicator which is like a chisel that goes into the ground 6 inches and I pump the water that carries the bacteria right into the soil, so that it if it lays on top, it’ll dry out and go dormant. What I want to do is keep it in the moist area so it lives and proliferates there. Does that sound weird?
PEARSON: No, not at all.
STEPHENS: That’s for the soil. Now for the plants you do a 4 layer foliar spray and use granite dust and you use that on the plants, and it’s like little mirrors that sparkle. What do plants do? Photosynthesis. It’s like putting mirrors on the plants and they get photosynthesis. Isn’t that weird? It’s been around since the 1920’s.
PEARSON: This is really interesting.
STEPHENS: It gets boring here, so this is excitement and creativity to become certified organic. There’s a challenge. To be organic - take OCIA for example. There’s a set of standards. There’s things you have to do. It requires very extensive record keeping. And that’s just one. I have a whole rack of 3 ring binders over there that details the management and the practices that are required, that are in the standards, how we execute that management plan, and then there’s a 3rd party independent inspection, that verifies and reviews, so there’s extensive oversight, and I’ve been involved with OCIA, and various levels on committees, such as I’ve chaired the internal review committee, the inspector accreditation committee and the accreditation and government relations committee on OCIA, it’s a big corporation. I decided never to run for the board, but she did (points to his daughter, Demetria, who is a farm hand and no more than 25 years old) and she’s on the board of directors.
STEPHENS: My wife recently went to China to deliver a paper on Indigenous Knowledge and Sustainable Development. We link with indigenous people, and the people that used to live here – the Kiowa, the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Apache, probably some Comanches, you can’t forget the Lakota, the Masikota, that’s another story.
I’m diverging, but look at that picture behind you – we raise bison - that’s a picture of one of our bison, Bad Boy, and what he’s doing, is he’s kicking around, it’s called buffalo wallow. They roll over and kick around and scratch themselves that way all the time. It’s like what chickens do, take a dirt bath. That’s their natural behavior. Humans should do it too, lie on the ground, roll around, scratch, it’s a healthy thing to let your bare feet touch the earth – it’s healing.
PEARSON: What is organic farming?
STEPHENS: Organic farming was really the original conventional farming. And this other stuff that they call conventional is radical. Revolutionary farming, transgenics, chemical. Is that the conventional in human history? – NO! The conventional was working with nature and using technology, not avoiding technology like some of these religious groups do, where they still ride horses. I’m not gonna go back to farming with horses. Some people say we organic farmers should go that route, well, gimme a set of draft horses and I’ll go farm my 880 acres with draft horses. They never were able to farm 880 acres with a set of draft horses. The most they could farm was about 20 acres. Go back to feeding the world with a set of draft horses?? I think appropriate use of technology such as those tractors I have out there, big diesel, that’s what America did after WWII they came up with powerful engines to till the soil. That’s what my grandfather did, he farmed with horses and then he bought a John Deere D, and it did what about a horse could do, so later on they came up with more powerful tractors, the ones I have out there are about 100 horse. In think my brother has a 250 horse tractor that could just tear things up. It’s got power. There are even more powerful tractors, because they farm big acres. I don’t farm 19,000 acres even though that’s a small farm. This farm here, we do 440 pasture and 440 crop. So that’s a balance and it’s a diverse thing. Biodiversity is important. Raising many kinds of crops and many kinds of livestock. Because there are a lot of farmers who are certified organic who do just one thing, they’re just repeating the mistakes of the conventional. It’s the obsolete farming as far as I’m concerned, because it’s not sustainable. There have been many boom and bust cycles here in this area. And one of the things that first happened when it was first occupied by Europeans, was that there was a huge population down here and it’s been declining ever since because the US census shows that, and it’s still declining.
PEARSON: Why do you think that is?
STEPHENS: Because the carrying capacity of this eco-region will not carry a large human population. The indigenous people knew that. They had at one time had huge populations out here, it did the same thing, it curved out. They had to go elsewhere, because we don’t have all the kinds of natural resources we don’t have all the things that you need for huge populations. We have lots of good fertile soil, but we don’t have rainfall. One of the legs we can’t stand on, we live in a semi-arid region, and everywhere on earth, where there is a semi-arid region, they do not have large populations. Anybody that thinks they can settle the land, and bring in the people, you just can’t make a living here. So to make a living here requires a pretty tough person. And you can’t live in cities out here. Cities are unsustainable.
STEPHENS: If we had 40 inches of rainfall out here, just think of the kind of crops we could grow. And that’s like these guys that irrigate. Right here we don’t have the water table to be sucking 3,000 gallons a minute out of the aquifer, which there are some irrigation circles out here, but they’re just run minimally. Because they’ll eventually suck all the water out, and it has to flow back in. I farm dry land, and you just have to take whatever nature gives you. Recently we went through a 6 year drought. We keep rainfall tables, on the calendar we mark how much it rains. If you don’t get timely rainfalls, your stuff just goes dormant, and don’t expect a crop you can plant. It just doesn’t happen, and you just have to do business that way.
PEARSON: Tell me about OSGATA.
STEPHENS: It’s a seed grower’s trade association. We promote seed companies and seed growers to make available a huge variety of bio-diverse heirloom seeds and hybrid seeds. But that’s mostly through the organic seed alliance. The OSA had a spinoff and it was the Organic Seed and Trade Association, so the Organic Seed Alliance was made up of academics who do seed breeding.
PEARSON: Going back to the lawsuit in NYC, with Monsanto, the judge dismissed the lawsuit. Will there be an appeal?
STEPHENS: That decision hasn’t been taken yet, officially. We’d be remiss if we did not consider that. So were in the process right now, and I’m kind of instrumental in that, as far as assisting in trying make sure all the plaintiffs sign on. We may decide not to, we may decide to do it. There are good reasons to do it, and not very good reasons not to (Not long after this interview, the Appeal was filed on March 29, 2012). (http://www.osgata.org/)
PEARSON: So basically, Monsanto was coming to people’s farms, and suing them for patent infringement if they found engineered seed in non-GMO fields.
STEPHENS: Well, not exactly. In the US, you have a right to patent life forms. We’re not arguing that. We’re are complaining that the patents are not valid, number 2, there not enforceable, #3 they can’t be infringed, and #4 it has to do with remedies. Monsanto made a promise on their website, that they would never sue for inadvertent trace contamination. We want a contract, we want a covenant not to sue. And that’s what we asked for. We said we’ll drop the lawsuit if you just sign an agreement not to sue. And they refused, and so we went ahead with the complaint, and then they asked for it to be dismissed. And they went through all the reasons why is should be dismissed, and we responded to that with a counter claim to their dismissal request and we had an amicus curie brief which means “friends of the court”, from a whole bunch of other organizations that said we are “friends of the court” in support of us, the 83 plaintiffs. If you read the Motion to Dismiss, the judge picked on all of the individual plaintiffs, and basically said that we were unreasonable, and should have relied on Monsanto’s promise. You can read the Motion to Dismiss on the OSGATA website (www.osgata.org/).
STEPHENS: Oh, I was gonna show you this audit trail - I don’t even know where to start. I’ll just show things. We have to keep apps, documents, inspection affidavits, I WANT to show you what the certificates look like. we have to keep inventory. (He proceeds to show me massive amounts of papers – a mind-boggling amount of records that organically certified farmers are required to keep). There – this is the OCIA certificate. This is the US National Organic NOP, and this is the product list, and then, what does that say, I don’t have my glasses on.
PEARSON: “Producer Product Listing Addendum”: Hard red winter wheat, hard white winter wheat, fallow, alfalfa, clover, pasture beef calves, layer chickens, swine slaughter, bison breeding, bison slaughter……wow.
STEPHENS: That was last year.
PEARSON: With all of the stringent record-keeping that's required, and all of the trouble you have to go through with the GMO pollen and seeds being blown into your fields, what keeps you from throwing in the towel, and giving up organic farming?
STEPHENS: Reduced input costs. Its dollars per acre not yield that counts. Chemicals and GMO seeds are very costly. No till organic is possible but difficult as it requires expert management. No till chemical farming is costly and requires costly consultants to give advice. I suspect the NOP regulation record keeping requirements were made mandatory by the biotech industry to discourage organic farmers from applying for certification. Record keeping was revenge by the Biotech community done after Sewage Sludge, Biotech and Irradiation were rejected as part of organic standards by the organic community.If I give up certification I will continue to farm organically because it is healthier and makes me more wealthy.
PEARSON: Would you say it would be practical for a 20,000 acre farm to use organic methods?
PEARSON: Would it be cost effective?
STEPHENS: Depends on how good the management of the large farm is. It depends on whether the large farm is not “no-no” cropping. If the large farm can market effectively and not get into the trap of selling volume at low prices thus capturing cost of production plus a reasonable profit then one could have a very large production organic operation in business an a very volatile market. So far I have not seen big Agribusiness farms capable of compliance with Organic production however there are large acre organic farms in compliance with Organic Standards. I can give examples.
PEARSON: Would you say the sustainability promotes bio-diversity?
STEPHENS: Organic is sustainability put into practice even though there is no agreed upon definition of sustainability. The latest attempt to write Sustainability Standards would allow chemical and GMO to be used. Monsanto has declared itself the process owner of Sustainability so I don't put much value in "sustainability". Bio-diversity has always been part of organic standards preceding the National USDA regulations. The NOP regulations vaguely refer to Bio-diversity but do not require compliance with Bio-diversity principles.
Organic farming methods are the result of 10,000 years of plant, animal and human interactions. Chemical, Genetic Manipulation and Industrial Agriculture are recent human interventions in earth ecosystem relationships and the results of that intervention viewed scientifically are disruptive and dysfunctional when compared to bio-ecological farming systems.
PEARSON: If a non-organic farmer wanted to transition to organic farming, what would be involved?
STEPHENS: When you become certified organic, you have to know what the requirements are, and implement them. If you’ve not been farming that way, there’s a three year transition period. And that gives you time to get your audit trail in the state that it needs to be for meeting the requirements because part of organic is record keeping, verification and certification. That takes some time to set up.
PEARSON: And how long does that take?
STEPHENS: If you just went and read it for yourself, it would take a very long time to figure it out how to do it. The best way to do it is mentor with someone who already practicing it. The thing we do with new members, we bring the audit trail and we say this is how you do it.
You’re gonna have to change your mind-set, because if you’ve been living a certain way, sometimes it takes a while to change your behavior.
PEARSON: Learning new habits.
STEPHENS: And these are actually old habits, that people have been told or not, how you’re supposed to be, so it’s a social acceptability thing. I say that chemical farming is socially unacceptable, and that this is a natural system and you just have to live it for a while.
Organic farming takes marketing and planning to do. It used to be that the percent of people on farms was much greater during the Revolutionary War. What percent of the people were agriculturalists, how many were merchandisers in the cities, or craftsmen? The bulk of the people were agriculturalists. Then during WWII, there was a percent. Then after WWII, there was a policy to reduce the number of people engaged in agriculture because of efficiencies and it just became US policy for cheap food. We’ve got the cheap food, we’ve got the reduced numbers, now I think we need to turn that around. I think it’s just happening by nature. People are going back to putting their hands in the dirt, people are getting the seed, people are growing the seed, eating some of it, saving some of it for the next year. It’s a good thing to be involved in.
PEARSON: Mr. Stephens, I thank you so much for inviting me into your home, and giving me this opportunity to interview you. It is much appreciated.
STEPHENS: You’re welcome.
© 2012 Debbie Pearson
Debbie Pearson has made her home in Colorado for the last 20 years, and is currently a Photography major at the Academy of Art University. While taking a required journalism class for the Associates program, she has discovered that she enjoys writing just as much as she does photography.