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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Times were Simple

Our family lived on a small mixed farm at Sandy Hook in the Interlake region of Manitoba when I was a child. By “small mixed farm” I mean we had 40 acres in which to produce enough vegetables, grain and hay to feed the family of nine, to feed about 20 head of cattle and to feed 20 chickens plus several dogs and cats.

My father was self-sufficient, in that he grew hay and grain crops. He always saved some seed for the next season’s crop. Some of the wheat we ground into flour at a mill in the nearby township of Teulon, some was ground up for cattle feed, and some was sold to the grain elevator in Winnipeg Beach to pay for our family’s living expenses.

We also grew alfalfa and other hay crops to feed the cattle. My dad liked to harvest alfalfa just at the time when it was in the flowering stage—the stage when alfalfa was its most nutritious, he figured. We were able to harvest two crops of alfalfa a year that way. We filled our barn attic with the newly dried alfalfa and it would last all season until the next harvest.

Additionally, our family grew an organic vegetable garden which barely cost anything. Seeds were pennies a package, in those days. We germinated the seeds well ahead of time so that when the ground was warm enough, usually past the first full moon after the spring equinox, we planted the tiny shoots and nurtured them to fruition.

I never knew another way to farm. It was a day when there was no such thing as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Everything was natural. We had no credit cards and no debts.

Years later, I lived in Saskatoon and did “temp” work to supplement my family’s income. I was called to the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool to type and file. Because of my background in farming, both the employment agency and the Wheat Pool felt I was an ideal candidate for the job. I picked up several binders filled to bursting. My assignment was to convert these into files. Upon opening the binders, I discovered that there was a new way to farm — by Monsanto’s permission. Who the heck was Monsanto, anyway? I had a lot of time to think as I was creating new files for all these contracts. It puzzled me greatly why farmers would desire this way of conducting business; after all, how could a self-sustaining system such as my father’s be improved?

It wasn’t until I got to binder number two that a clear picture began to emerge. That binder was filled with lawsuits against independent farmers.

Monsanto was gaining an edge on the farmers by claiming to “invent” seeds. One might say seeds are natural and cannot be invented. But, what Monsanto was doing in their labs was quietly re-inventing seeds breeding them to resist bugs and disease. Monsanto then applied for a Patent. Via lobbying dollars, a great deal of secrecy and other monetary exchange with government agricultural entities, they were successful in obtaining patents on their magic seeds. All in the name of progressive farming and agriculture.

Initially, farmers might have thought bug- and blight-resistance were desirable qualities in seeds, and I supposed that was Monsanto’s “hook.” Indeed, the way Monsanto presented the concept to the farmers, these qualities were pleasing — no more fear of bug-eaten crops, no more fear of blight and mold. Ah, a savior in the farmers' midst. Yes, Monsanto presented themselves as the savior of farmers. At this point I wondered why the farmers felt they needed to be saved. After all, they had a good thing going, didn’t they?

And another thing puzzled me. Would not these new seeds make "crop insurance" redundant? If so, why were the farmers still obligated to spend money on crop insurance? It was a question for which I had no answer.

In real life, bees, butterflies, flies, bugs and a multitude of other natural winged creatures were beneficial to the crops. As children, we used to play in the hay crops. I loved roaming, jumping and hiding in the sweet-smelling alfalfa growing in our field. I loved chasing butterflies. Once I even stumbled upon a killdeer’s nest near the edge of our field. We marked it and guarded it so as to keep it safe through the early harvest. I observed with great curiosity the honey bees that drifted in from the nearby bee-keeper where we used to buy cheap honey. As the bee-keeper always told us in this Norwegian accent and with such fondness in his voice, “Ah, how can I charge you big money when you let my bees pollinate your crops and make me this bee-ootiful honey…?” Ah, unadulterated, unpasteurized, sweet honey. My dad always slipped him a few extra dollars along with a bottle of home-brew. Indeed, what we had was a self-sustaining community of cooperation and respect.

Somehow, unknown to the small farmers, a corporate entity known as Monsanto was growing into a monster and attacking the independent farmers. “How could a corporation grow into such an ogre?” I asked myself while typing new file labels. Again, because I spent my days looking over the information as I was creating those files, a picture began to form.

It’s all in the presentation, I realized. The farmers who were looking for an easier lifestyle heard the words “bug-resistant” and “blight-resistant” without thinking what the newly patented seeds would do to the winged creatures performing the pollination. Some farmers bought the Monsanto story. This accounted for the contracts.

But where did the lawsuits originate? Sadly, as a direct result of the “resistant” seeds grown by the contracted farmer next door to the independent farmer. Monsanto charged the independent farmers with “contaminating” their contracted farmer’s magic seeds. The “uncooperative” farmers continued to “brown bag” their seeds, remaining independent of Monsanto. Monsanto’s actions had a divisive effect on the neighborhood.

I mulled over Monsanto’s very framing of the natural concept of saving seeds — “brown-bagging.” They made annual natural seed collection for the next year’s crop appear somehow disdainful and undesirable. Monsanto filed lawsuit after lawsuit against the farmers who would not cooperate with their “new improved” way of farming. In other words, if Monsanto could not schmooze the farmers into buying their magic seeds, they would sue to gain control and instill fear. Their lawsuits produced subsequent unsustainability, generally recognized as poverty.

Why do I say magic seeds? The seeds had one other quality to them. Monsanto began producing “terminator” seeds which would in effect “commit suicide” after one harvest and could never be saved for the next season — as the “terminator” seeds would never germinate again. The farmers who were persuaded — via contract — became enslaved to Monsanto and were obligated to buy new seeds each year. The farmers who were coerced by a lawsuit — well, think how it would feel being bullied by a merciless legal corporation enabled by the government.

The contracted farmers were forced to pay Monsanto’s fees along with more “terminator” seeds each year. How could Monsanto lose? Self-sufficiency became a thing of the past, as farmers became slaves to Monsanto’s corporate way of conducting business for dollars. Now it would be all about Monsanto’s bottom line at the expense of the farmers’ independent lifestyle.

My dad retired from farming and was never approached by Monsanto. But, I do know that my father would have been one to have a lawsuit on his hands. He believed in sustainability.

Teulon does not have a mill to produce flour anymore. Winnipeg Beach does not have a grain elevator anymore. Sandy Hook does not have a bee-keeper anymore. The other thing Monsanto never told the farmers was that their “resistant” seeds would interfere with the natural life of the bees and other beneficial insects and winged creatures.  Gone are the days when children could play in a crop of wheat — the field would now be toxic. The children would come home covered in a rash. Or worse, they could suffocate in the field and never arrive home. Birds would fall from the sky and indeed that has already occurred. The reporter read her script declaring the cause of death was unknown. I have my own theory about the rea$on for the media’$ $ilence.

Farmers have to be able to claim back their power and their self-sufficiency. Companies like Monsanto must be given the opportunity to pay back the farmers for their unethical ways of conducting business. The day will come, I believe, that members holding government office will exercise their conscience in an ethical and humane way that will benefit their constituents, instead of bow to the corporate lobbying dollars they receive.

Visit website "Phoenix of Faith" the memoir. Follow on Twitter: _Phoenixoffaith Copyright © 2011.


  1. You are such an idealist with a rich fantasy life. You can never go back, you know.

  2. Fascinating post, Esther. I certainly didn't know about how GMO's are directly related to the demise of the family farm. It's sad how farming is now almost all huge farms that are corporate owned and that corporate clout has put many small operators out of business.

  3. Thanks for your comment, wizardorwords. Corporate entities are generally about greed, unfortunately. Gaia deserves better; when tending the earth she deserves our love, care and respect.

  4. Excellent article; especially pertinent to what is now known in 2013 about Monsanto employees going into US gov't. service with FDA and other agencies that govern our agriculture. There are multitudes of honest people who have worked in various areas where they've personally observed the institution of poor decisions and corruption who could add to your story. Anonymous could gain much from reading The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. It tells how the Corporate railroad and government worked hand in hand to deceive the poorest of the poor into risking all for a piece of worthless land. It still goes on today and will forever continue. My father was a hog rancher who farmed the old fashioned way. And I worked in State Government 36-years where I observed 1st hand how stupid decisions are made routinely that pervert systems that were originally intended for good but then become harmful. I can assure readers yours is not a work of imagination or fantasy.

  5. Good hearing your experiences, Susan. It seems that governments today do not know --- or do not WANT to know --- that Monsanto's way of doing business with farmers is NOT PROGRESSIVE to agriculture. Monsanto's way of conducting business is about GREED. Monsanto's way of doing business is HURTFUL to the farmers' livelihoods and is not for the highest well-being of the general population because Monsanto's food is toxic. Governments and grass-roots groups need to close them down! And we can enable ourselves to do just that!
    Your validation of my experience is appreciated. Thanks for joining the conversation!