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Cultural divide deepens in Oregon as GMO bans signal Portlandia-fication of farming

| May 30, 2014

Violet alfalfa flowers dance in the afternoon wind in golden Sams Valley in southern Oregon, where Bruce Schulz’s family has farmed for four generations. Schulz, 51, stands on the family’s 250-acre farm, in front of the white house his mom has lived in for 56 years. He points to a white and green house across the road, where his father grew up, and his house a quarter-mile west behind a patch of trees.

Now things are changing. Within the next year, Schulz said, he’ll have to destroy the alfalfa because it’s genetically altered and won’t be allowed in Jackson County under a measure passed in last week’s election. “It’ll break me,” said Schulz, figuring he’ll lose 30 percent of his gross income after plowing under crops he was counting on for five to eight more years. “That means we don’t have enough money to pay all the bills.”

The county’s new ban on most GMO crops, approved 2-to-1 despite nearly $1 million spent by opponents, has deepened a cultural chasm in the greater Rogue Valley, exposing fundamental divisions about where Oregon agriculture should head.

Opponents say their livelihoods are under threat. They openly resent the growing influence of organic farmers, many of whom they say are recent California transplants who brought their liberal political activism with them. Supporters hail the measure as a victory for small, independent farmers and say it will be an economic boon for the county’s economy. They also say it’s important to keep GMO crops from contaminating neighboring organic farms.

Under Jackson County’s ban, farmers can harvest this year’s crops. But they can’t replant and must destroy GMO crops within 12 months – or face possible lawsuits or having their crops pulled by county officials. Opponents see the whole thing as the Portlandia-fication of Oregon agriculture. Or, Schulz said with a scoff, “it’s called Ashland.”

Organic crops sell for about 50 percent more than conventionally raised crops, farmers said. But organic farming is more labor-intensive and usually involves fewer acres. Opponents of the ban said larger farms with hundreds of acres of alfalfa or grain can’t easily convert into organic farms that grow vegetables, fruits and herbs.

Ron Bjork, president of the Jackson County Farm Bureau, has no crops but raises about 50 Hereford beef cattle. He said some GMO farmers might not destroy hundreds of thousands of dollars in crops without law enforcement intervention. “It could get violent. It could get very confrontational,” Bjork said. “These guys are getting up there in age, and some of them, well, I wouldn’t want to be the guy going out there to tell them to take it out.”

“Do you want to be the one who goes over there and tells them that?” he asked a reporter. “You’d probably have better luck than other guys. They wouldn’t shoot you.”

The bigger debate may be on the future of farming.

“Maybe this is a microcosm and more people globally are gravitating toward organic,” said Anna Boesch, 29, who grows organic fruits and vegetables on 50 acres near Gold Hill. She and her husband, Jeff, are in the process of obtaining their organic certification after moving from Santa Cruz, Calif., two years ago. Boesch doesn’t understand the opposition to farmers “trying to be healthy and conscious.”

“It baffles me. I went door-to-door canvassing for this measure,” she said. “There are some Republicans who are such sticklers for the government not being involved in their life. They’re so set on that that they don’t see the greater picture.”

Jim Frink, 72, disagrees. A farmer since age 12 when he leased 10 acres from his father, Frink now tends about 900 acres, including 150 of GMO alfalfa near Sams Valley. Instead of taking the financial hit, he said he’ll probably retire, sell the farm and move with his wife to Colorado, where his son lives. “Why are all the activists moving in here trying to divide us?” Frink said as he sat in the grease-stained bed of his Ford F-250 pickup. “Why are they after us? We used to have a really close-knit farming community. It’s being ripped apart by these new activists moving into the Rogue River Valley.”

Read the full, original article: GMO ban: Jackson County’s new law exposes cultural rift on the future of farming

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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