Letter From Langdon: Talking Seeds and Freedom at Mark Twain State Park
"We gave them a monopoly and they are making billions," said a retired ag professor from the University of Missouri.
Mark Twain State Park was the location of a “Taking It Back” meeting held on July 12th, sponsored by Organization for Competitive Markets, American Corn Growers, and Missouri Farmers Union. The purpose of the gathering was to learn more about how we in Missouri and across America have lost the right to plant our own seeds.
What we saw during the day was a very clear picture of power granted to corporations, especially Monsanto, through genetic patents of plants.
The meeting attracted quite a collection of organizations and people. The Missouri Rural Crisis Center was represented, as were the National Family Farm Coalition, Organic Seed Alliance, and the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association. Seed companies in attendance included Burrus Seed Farms, Arenzville, IL; Niemeyer’s RTN, Bowling Green, MO; and Monsanto.
Huck Hall, a popular shelter at the park, was packed to overflowing with both farmers and legislators. Political leaders present were Missouri Representatives Judy Baker, Rachel Bringer, Belinda Harris, Paul Quinn, Tom Shively, and Terry Witte, as well as former Speaker of the House and Congressional candidate Steve Gaw, former Senator Ken Jacob, and Mississippi Representative Joe Gardner.
State Senator Wes Shoemeyer chaired the event and talked about his own efforts to regain for Missouri farmers the freedom to plant their own seeds. Other speakers included Dr William Heffernan, Professor Emeritus, University Missouri-Columbia; James Robertson, former Mississippi judge; Indiana farmer Troy Roush; and Indiana seed cleaner Moe Parr.
Rounding out an informative program as the closing speaker was long time Missouri broadcaster and radio commentator Derry Brownfield.
OCM circulated a petition supporting Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon’s efforts in the Monsanto antitrust investigation his office is pursuing. The petition was signed by many, and has been presented to Attorney General Nixon.
“We gave them a monopoly and they are making billions,” Bill Heffernan said. He pointed out what he called a “land grab” by big corporations to gain control of whatever natural resources they can, including mines, water, and minerals, especially those used as fertilizer. “Today there are basically only four fertilizer firms left in the world,” he said.
Heffernan emphasized the plight of family farmers under the current corporate monopolies: “At one time small farmers could survive, now they can’t do that.”
James Robertson encouraged his audience to read Lords of the Harvest, a book that chronicles the corporate takeover of our seed industry. With $300 per bag seed corn predicted, Robertson said that Monsanto would have to explain why such corporate domination was in our best interest.
Unfortunately there are no laws requiring firms to justify higher prices.
“For us to succeed, the farmers have got to be our best friends,” Judge Robertson said. But farmers can’t bargain with Monsanto on what the company charges, he added. Even though the first farmer to adopt new technology may gain somewhat marginally, the cost of that technology quickly eats away profits when more farmers begin to use it.
Missouri State Sen. Wes Shoemeyer of Clarence, one of several elected officials to talk about seed ownership.
Photo: Richard Oswald
Using seed with patented traits is a little like not being able to trade in a used car on a new one, Robertson said. You only get to use the seed once, even though you paid for it. “They (Monsanto) are obsessed with wiping out farmer saved seed,” Robertson said. “It’s the biggest monopoly in the country.”
Helping to drive home points made by Judge Robertson was farmer Troy Roush, who detailed the problems he encountered when Monsanto targeted his farming operation.
It seems that Monsanto may choose to intimidate farmers by hiring detectives to gather “evidence” of illegal seed use even if no such real evidence exists. Many assume that seed spying is used as a deterrent to farmers who might consider saving seed from their own fields, though farmers like Roush have really done nothing wrong. Because Monsanto routinely attempts to use intimidation through threats of legal action, most farmers find it difficult or impossible to fight their claims.
Roush turned out to be the exception. He fought back after the company accused him of reusing seed.
“Our attorney bills totaled $20,000 to $30,000 per month,” Troy said of his legal encounter with the company. “We were put in the position of having to prove our innocence.” Ultimately, Monsanto’s claim that Roush had planted fields with seeds he saved from patented stock cost him and his family about $400,000 to defend. Throughout the proceedings it became apparent that Monsanto had not only used an inaccurate test to determine genetic makeup of the soybean plants in question but had even taken samples from outside the Roush farming operation, Roush said. “One field they tested turned out to be our neighbor's,” he said.
Roush eventually chose to settle rather than pay for more litigation.
Troy encouraged farmers to vote with their pocketbooks by buying from Monsanto’s competitors, companies like Pioneer Hi-Bred and Syngenta, which have more farmer-friendly reputations.
Moe Parr discussed the legal difficulties he had with Monsanto when the company attempted to access his business records. He said that Monsanto’s tactics have broken the trust between farmers in his community.
Broadcaster Derry Brownfield told the Taking It Back crowd that he is still on the air after broadcasting his radio talk show that took on Monsanto’s business practices. When Derry interviewed Michael Stumo and Fred Stokes of OCM about seed monopolies and Monsanto enforcement tactics, he assumed he was simply honoring a commitment to fair reporting of the facts. But when Monsanto threatened to take away advertising revenue, Learfield Communications removed Brownfield from the air, even though he was one of the company’s two original founders.
Thanks to the internet, (http://www.derrybrownfield.com/listeners.html ) Derry continues to broadcast. According to Brownfield, “I tell it like it is. I’ll be on the air until bury Derry day”¦.. Now (thanks to internet podcasting) I can talk about Monsanto every day!”
Brownfield says that too many farm magazines are totally silenced by advertising dollars when they should be reporting on the controversy. He says people in foreign countries are better informed of happenings in America than Americans themselves. When it comes to American corporate monopolies, Derry says, “Americans have no idea” about lax enforcement of our antitrust laws. “Where is Congress?” he asked.
Sen. Shoemeyer adjourned the meeting just as the skies cleared following yet another rain on soggy eastern Missouri fields. Parting storm clouds and a fresh northerly breeze symbolized both the sharing of information that took place at Huck Hall as well as the belief that if enough of us are armed with the facts we will be able to take back the right to grow food and feed from our own seeds on Missouri’s family farms.