by Debbie Pearson
It had been drizzling rain for hours on the morning of March 21st before I headed out Stephens Land & Cattle to meet with Bryce Stephens, an advocate for family farmers and VP of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, and to learn about the methods they use to farm. OSGATA is a seed grower’s trade association. They promote seed companies and seed growers to make available a huge variety of bio-diverse heirloom seeds and hybrid seeds.
I ran across Bryce Stephen’s name in an article about a recent lawsuit in NYC (He had, for the last few months, been involved in the “Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association et al vs. Monsanto” lawsuit. The lawsuit is a request by OSGATA asking that Monsanto not sue family farmers for inadvertent trace contamination, as Monsanto had stated they would not do on their website. The lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Naomi Buchwald in February of this year, but OGSATA is not giving up that easy. A Notice of Appeal has been filed on March 28th). The Stephens’ farm is surrounded by non-organic GMO cornfields, and for this particular reason, they have refrained from growing corn.
While doing research for my Editorial, I realized that he only lives 30 miles away from me in NW Kansas. So I called him and he invited me to his farm for an interview.
After growing up on the pavements of Queens, New York for all of my formative years, it’s been a life-long dream of mine to have a place of my own – you know, 10 to 20 acres, some goats, chickens, and a huge garden that I could harvest and “put up” for the winter months. I felt an urgent need to connect to the earth. Treading asphalt just didn’t feel natural to me. I never did feel at home there. I needed to be surrounded by nature. My goal was always to be completely self-sufficient, off-the-grid, live simply, and be happy. I’ve been doing a lot of research on the subject, so when the time arises I will know how to control crop-devouring pests and weeds without the use of chemicals.
After enduring the potentially dangerous muddy slopes, swerving to avoid irrigation ditches in my Jeep Cherokee, it appeared that Mother Nature might have her way with my vehicle. Apparently, I took a wrong turn and found myself slipping and sliding in the middle of someone’s alfalfa (or was it wheat?) field. I pressed the accelerator, and the tires spun out, spraying the whole side of my jeep with mud, slowly sliding sideways further towards a steep ditch. I finally put the shifter into neutral, and pulled up the 4WD handle, and popped the shifter back into first gear. I eased on the accelerator again, spun the tires out one more time, still at odds with the stubborn terrain which had the consistency of mucky motor oil. After a few lurches in the very slick mud, we made it safely back onto the main road. I realized that I’d just have to go with the flow – things don’t always go as planned out here.
When I finally found my way to his place, I pulled onto the property, and was immediately greeted by 7 cattle dogs, a dozen chickens of various breeds, and a few ducks. I found a place to park on the side of the house, and saw a man standing there behind the open gate that led to the front yard. He was peering out from under a ball-cap, hands in his pockets, looking leery and not sure what to think. Stepping out of my Jeep, I realized it was covered with at least an inch of mud. I carefully stepped through the gate, and scraped my boots on the boot scraper outside the front door. I can’t say that I blame him for being leery. Monsanto plants have infiltrated his place in the past, under the guise of being journalists, just to snoop around.
This would be the first of two visits to Stephens Land & Cattle. Judging from the piles of books stacked “yay high” when I stepped into his office, I knew this would be an educational experience. His office was in the front part of a 100 year-old building whose windows still hold the original glass. And certificates for all of his numerous college degrees, tacked up on the wall.
Not only is the Stephens’ farm OCIA certified and is certified to several kinds of certifications, which requires stringent record-keeping, they are also are bio-dynamic practitioners. Bio-dynamics is sometimes referred to as the “Rolls-Royce of organics”.
His detail in explaining the bio-dynamic methods of re-building soil sounded like something out of ancient, mystical folklore: “In bio-dynamic , you have to, this gets weird, you have to take cow horns and you have to bury manure 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, 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 it all over your farm, and what you’re doing is putting bacteria back into the soil, and bacteria is the life of the soil.” And bringing life back into the soil is the main goal of bio-dynamic farmers. There are other field preparations which were developed as part of an experiment when bio-dynamic agriculture was first invented in the 1920’s.
The philosophy of Bio-dynamic farming and gardening, I learned, was first founded by Rudolf Steiner in 1924 in Germany, as a response to farmers who noticed an overall deterioration in the health and quality of their soil, crops and livestock because of the use of chemical fertilizers. A research team, made up of farmers from six countries, began to develop experimental farming methods without the use of chemicals. The group was later dissolved by the Nazi’s in 1941. The foundation for bio-dynamics can be found in Steiner’s book called, “Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture”.
Steiner came up with several preparations that helped in the fertilization process. For example, there were Field preparations, numerous types of compost preparations (that incorporate herbs used in medicinal remedies – yarrow blossoms, chamomile blossoms, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion flowers, valerian flowers, and horsetail), and the use of the astronomical planting calendar which is about the rhythms of the cosmic solar and lunar/moon rhythms and earth rhythms and determines what phases of these rhythms are appropriate for planting, cultivating and harvesting different crops.
Through these methods, it’s obvious that it fosters a special connection to the earth. “The earth goes through cycles, just like people – for a while there, for about two years, I stopped using a watch or calendars, and just went by cycles”. The Farmer’s Almanac uses cycles to let people know when they can plant. They go by planetary cycles in the universe.
“This morning, before you came by, we heard someone honking their horn. We looked out the window, and there was one of our bison standing on the side of the road, grazing. Now obviously, there was some sort of cycle going on where she saw the green grass, and needed to eat it, so she jumped the fence. And then you have to stop what you’re doing, and get her”.
I learned that he occasionally takes on the task of mentoring those who are either new to farming, or those who want to transition to certified organic methods. The patience it must take to explain all of this information is seemingly of huge proportions. The effort and paperwork that goes into getting certified for all the different seals and labeling requirements is mind-boggling. You’d have to have a college degree just to figure it all out. And to prove it, he pulled out the Audit Trail, to show me just how much meticulous record-keeping is involved. He is frustrated about government regulations. The USDA, the OCIA are only two of the agencies that require all of this paperwork. “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”. Even worms and bees are considered livestock, and must be USDA certified organic.
After listening to all of these requirements that farmers have to go through to become certified organic, it occurred to me that the USDA clearly has some double standards when it comes to labeling requirements. For instance, Monsanto is not required to label their products, informing people that they are buying and consuming food that has been contaminated with genetically engineered organisms, allowing them to force-feed the public with products that they call food.
Three weeks after that interview, I got a phone call from Al, an old friend who told me that he was currently shopping for some land – 40 acres – to farm on. He was interested in organic farming and wanted to learn more. So I gave Bryce Stephens a call, told him about my friends interest in organic farming, and he said “Come on over”.
We planned for the next day. It was pouring rain.
“You need to come out here more often. We need more rain”, Bryce said as we sloshed through the gate in the mud (The Stephens’ farm dry-land, which means they do not use irrigation. They just take what Mother Nature gives them, which means, you don’t always get what you plan for. “But that’s how you have to do business out here.”).
We went inside and sat down. The kids insisted on playing outside with the dogs and the chickens. By this time, the rain had subsided. And knowing how my kids love to play in the mud, I let them. After all, it’s good, clean mud. And I was grateful that my kids had the opportunity to do that. (I read an article once that children with ADHD seem much calmer after being in a natural setting, as opposed to an urban setting. I suppose that’s true for everybody). “Bison 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”.
Al and Bryce discussed what would be involved for the start-up process of initially getting certified organic: “When you become certified organic, you have to know what therequirements 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.”
Bryce’s wife, Linda, was in the kitchen preparing a dish here and there, for us to eat. Organic apples, Chinese soup (pot-stickers), and asparagus. Then she offered me some tea. “This is called Navajo Indian tea (even though the Navajo are not from this area). It’s made from Slender Green Thread – ‘weeds’ from the pasture. It’s used for stomach ailments.” I took a sip, and was surprised at how tea made from weeds could taste so good. The “weeds” are actually tiny sunflowers used by the Cheyenne Indians which they called “stomach tea”.
As I took another sip, Bryce told us a little known fact about ‘bindweed’. “It is a cure for cancer. People don’t know that, but it is.” Well, that was surprising. And he’s right. People don’t know that, because we don’t read about it in newspapers or magazines. And it grows practically everywhere on the Plains. It makes me wonder, how many other ailments we could cure with the “weeds” that we find.
I also found out during our visit, that the alternative to using chemical weed-spray to kill bindweed, Maximillian sunflowers can be planted to get the bindweed to grow away from the crops. Bison and prairie dogs once had a symbiotic relationship that was beneficial to our eco-system. Hogs are beneficial in the same way. In having this knowledge and understanding of how soil, crops and animals all work together as part of a holistic entity that is self-contained, we don’t need chemicals to farm. The use of livestock manure is used to sustain plant growth, maintain and improve the quality of soil, and to keep the crops and animals happy and healthy. Healthy soil produces healthy food, which keeps livestock healthy. Bio-diversity works in this same way – it has the inherent ability to naturally control weeds and insects. This is achieved by utilizing cover crops, manure and crop-rotation. “We raise bison because they are indigenous to the land”.
“Bio-diversity 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”. And that is evident in the many kinds of crops and livestock the Stephens’ have on their farm: Heirloom Turkey Red Wheat, hard red winter wheat, hard white winter wheat, fallow land, pasture, 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, wild crafted herbs, poultry, and in the 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.
Deepak Chopra said that too many people have a dualistic way of thinking, in that they think of themselves as a separate organism from the earth. This way of thinking is incorrect. We and the earth are one interdependent organism. “When we pollute the earth, we pollute ourselves…. The trees are our lungs; the rivers and waters our circulation. The earth is our body. The more we pollute and destroy the environment, the bigger the impact will be on our personal and extended body.”
This brings to mind an experience I had recently at the apartment complex where I live. I was sitting at my desk, which is situated in front of the living room window where I can watch my kids while they play on the playground. The groundskeeper had shown up with a large pesticide canister, spraying all around the play area, as well as the area right outside of my open window. I asked him, through the window “Um, excuse me, but what is that you’re spraying?” He answered “Oh, this is 2-4 D”. I immediately squalked: “That’s Agent Orange”, and slammed my window shut. He laughed and kept right on spraying. I was shocked that he thought absolutely nothing of it – the fact that he was spraying dangerous chemicals in an area where children play and come into contact with the grass, either with their hands or their shoes. It was even more shocking that he had absolutely nothing to protect himself while he was spraying. No gloves, no mask – nothing.
It amazes me that there are still people who have such blind faith, and would never think of questioning what they are told. A mega company comes along and says “These chemicals that kill weeds and insects are safe for humans”.
“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…..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”.
At the same time, it’s reassuring to me, that there’s been a surge of a new generation of farmers who want to do things the right way. They want to do what’s right for the human race, and what’s right for our environment and the earth.
It has been recognized since 2008, that “bio-diversity is vital for human survival and livelihoods”, as stated by James G. Butler, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ Deputy Director-General.
At the moment, the Stephens’ are contemplating to go ahead and plant some organic, non-GMO corn, knowing the contamination risks to prove contamination by testing the corn after it’s been harvested. The corn will be tested for 2-4 D corn genetics, as well as BT corn, Roundup Ready corn, and ethanol GMO corn.
Many people lost their connection to the earth using modern farming methods that are un-natural. Maintaining that connection is the key to our survival. The use of chemicals is un-natural. It deadens our faith in ourselves, that we are capable of surviving without these things on our own. It fosters co-dependency on mega-corps who insist that we need them to survive. That was the plan - and for years, we fell for it. But things are about to change. More research and experimental testing is showing just how detrimental chemical farming is to our environment and our health, and is a threat to the survival of our species.
© Debbie Pearson, 2012