Organic Broadcaster

Genetically engineered corn creates tipping point for family to go organic

By Demetria Stephens

The Driscoll family works together to harvest crops on their 1,500-acres organic farm in Iowa.
Photo submitted.

Farmers, like professional gamblers, are used to taking risks. The weather typically is the biggest risk factor in farm­ing. When genetically engi­neered crops entered the game, though, some farmers found the risks too great.

Genetically engineered corn is what convinced Elliott Driscoll, 67, to go organic on his family farm in Williamsburg, Iowa. In the spring of 1996, the year that Monsanto took over the DEKALB seed company, a seed seller offered to give him this “new thing” (Roundup Ready corn seed) if he would plant it. The seller explained that he could spray Roundup on the field and it would kill the weeds but not the crop.

Elliott said he remembered thinking, “Man, this is a good way to get rid of Canadian thistle and quack grass.” So he planted a 50-acre field that had been used for pasture. When the weeds popped up, he knocked them back with Roundup, and the corn was unaffected.

Elliott and his four sons chopped about 400 acres of corn silage for their cattle that year. They started with the Roundup Ready corn, which meant it was put in the bunker silo first. That winter, they fed their herd corn silage mixed with hay. It was business as usual until Elliott went out to feed his purebred Black Angus cattle one mid-February morning and saw six aborted calves.

“I took notice really quick,” he said.

His feed mix had some oatlage, so his first thought was nitrates were the cause. But, then he realized they had fed just straight corn silage that day. They found 14 more aborted calves the next morning. They called a veterinarian. While they tried to come up with the cause, the abor­tions continued, and they kept feeding only corn silage.

A team of veterinarians from Iowa State Uni­versity ran tests all day on the fifth day of the abortions, but stood in Elliott’s shop at the end of the day without a cause. One asked if the corn silage was Bt corn (corn genetically engineered from Bacillus thuringiensis to target corn bor­ers). But, Elliot hadn’t grown Bt corn.

After the team left, Elliott thought about his feed source and realized it was from the back of the bunker—it was the Roundup Ready corn. When he told the team of veterinarians, one said that the Roundup Ready corn wouldn’t make a difference. The team never came up with the cause, but Elliott quit feeding that corn and the abortions stopped. The six-generation farm lost just short of 50 calves that spring.

“I decided then, that’s enough of that,” he said.

He joined the Iowa Chapter #3 of the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) that year—1997—and applied to have 40 acres cer­tified to the OCIA International Certification Standards. Over the course of 10 years, Elliot and his family transitioned 1,500 acres on their 104-year-old farm. They transitioned fields as they went through the farm’s crop rotation, which includes sod, corn, soybeans, a small grain like oats or some rye, clover, alfalfa and pasture.

OCIA is both a certification agency and a membership organization. The membership meets periodically in chapters as well as at an annual general meeting. Don Huber, pro­fessor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University, spoke at OCIA’s 2013 annual meet­ing, which Elliot attended. Don’s topic was the environmental and health impacts of glyphosate (Roundup’s active ingredient) and genetically engineered crops. Elliott said Don’s talk sup­ported his own theory on what caused all those abortions years before.

“After all these years,” Elliott said, “Don Huber is the one who’s come across pretty much proof of what I’ve suspected all along.”

These days, Elliot and his family finish 30 to 40 head of cattle organically each year, but they can’t market them as organic because they can’t find a certi­fied meat processor. Their farm also is home to the oldest pure­bred Hampshire hogs still in existence in the United States. They haven’t had an issue with abortions since they stopped growing Roundup Ready corn.

Besides better health for their livestock, the Driscolls have found other reasons to appreciate organic certification.

“I’ll never forget the first year I did have a certified crop,” he said. He remembered pull­ing out of the field with his tractor and cultivator, shutting it off and closing the gate. It was the first time he had con­tracted acres—40 acres of corn for $3.65 a bushel, while the non-organic price was $1.80 a bushel. He recalled thinking he should look over his shoulder for a sheriff because the price differ­ence was almost like stealing. Now he sells 100 percent of his corn and about 60 or 70 percent of his soybeans to several large Amish settlements that have a lot of livestock.

He has been fortunate with yields, he said. His best year of corn was 186 bushels an acre. In 2013, that weather factor came into play and his corn made 110 bushels an acre. It was wet in the spring and then the water “just got shut off,” he said.

They also are fortunate to have neighbors who won’t plant genetically engineered crops next to their fields. This helps protect their crops from cross-pollination, he said.

Elliott and his wife, Rita, 67, have eight grown children. Their second oldest son, Joe, works on the farm full time. Their oldest son, John, runs a hardware store. Jim and Jerry are the younger sons. Jim runs a welding business and Jerry teaches high school and community college vocational agriculture. Jerry promotes organic to his students and several are in the process of convincing their parents to try organic production. Of their four daughters (Veronica, Theresa, Mary Ann, and Eileen), only Veronica still lives on a farm—just four miles from home. She married a non-organic farmer who farms with his brothers.

Demetria Stephens is on the board of OCIA Interna­tional. She lives in Kansas. This is an edited version of her story from the OCIA Family Spotlight series on OCIA members in celebration of the International Year of Family Farming.

From the September | October 2014

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