Cream of the Crop
Written by Robyn O’Brien for the AllergyKids Foundation after visiting farmers in Iowa in August 2010
Had someone told me four years ago that I’d be standing tractor-side, appealing to farmers who grow genetically modified corn and soybeans for their support on the cornfields of Iowa, I’d have thought they were nuts. But there I stood in August in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, for the launch of the AllergyKids Foundation’s first Tractor Ride for Tots.
The event had been the brainchild of a big-hearted farmer named Scott McAllister, who had been sued by Monsanto over a contract dispute relating to technology and trait fees that Monsanto is owed by farmers who utilize the patented technology now found in their corn and soybean seeds.
Scott, a fourth generation farmer, had a problem with cost structure that had suddenly been imposed on the purchase of corn and soybeans since the introduction of the patented operating system that Monsanto had introduced into seed supply in the 1990s. In his opinion (which is shared by others), it disrupted farming, indebting farmers to the agrichemical seed company, Monsanto, in ways that could cause harm to the diversity of agriculture and enable predatory pricing in farming. But when Scott lost his lawsuit against Monsanto in 2006, he didn’t lose his passion. And when he learned about the advocacy work of the AllergyKids Foundation after reading The Unhealthy Truth, he’d suggested that we work together on an event in Iowa, a Tractor Ride for Tots.
So there we stood on a humid August day – Scott, farmers and tractors- ready to kick off our 50 mile tractor ride across the small towns of Iowa, and I had no idea what to expect. As Scott introduced me to the farmers, they smiled in amusement eager to get out on their toys (reminding me more of my boys on their bikes than the agricultural giants I’d been a bit fearful of meeting). And as I spoke about how 1 in 3 children now has autism, ADHD, allergies or asthma, they nodded in agreement as they’d seen the TV commercials on their local stations that spoke of how pervasive autism had become in military families, now affecting 1 in 88 children and knew what was happening to their grandchildren. They then introduced themselves and we set out on our tractor ride.
As the day wore on, so did the stories. A man named Mark shared tales about his high school reunion, while “Pa” shared stories about his grandson. And one they called “Beauford” spoke of their stewardship of the land learned at their grandfathers’ knees, record harvests and record rainfalls (and told a funny tale about how his wife moved out on him). They shared stories about lost crops, lost livestock and lost loved ones. They were sincere and authentic, proud and humble, and dedicated to their trade in ways seldom seen in today’s culture. As fourth and fifth generation farmers, their legacies were deep and their commitment strong.
Yet at the same time, as they spoke about the recent changes in agriculture and its new costs structures, there was an ambiguity. With trait fees, licensing fees and technology fees now required of farmers, this wasn’t the same business model that their grandfathers had built, and they knew it, with numbered lot signs and logos down the sides of their fields. As we discussed the privatization and patenting of agriculture and the impact it was having on their business, one of them shared, “The toes they step on today will be the tush they’ll be kissing tomorrow.” As they had witnessed firsthand the impact that this new cost structure had on debt loads and declining income levels and spoke candidly about monopolistic practices and predatory pricing.
And as we road from town to town, they laughed about their lives and livelihoods being in the hands of Mother Nature, saying “It either makes you religious or alcoholic” as all of them chuckled. And having seen billboards juxtaposed against each other on the side of the Iowa highway, one stating “Jesus” while another said, “Play Around,” highlighting a local casino, I couldn’t help but nod.
I asked about their friend, Tom Vilsack, who now serves as the Secretary for the United States Department of Agriculture, and they shared stories about how he’d lived in their friend, Jimmy’s, childhood home, as well as his unusual political beginnings, quickly rising to Mayor, when a gunman shot and killed Mt. Pleasant’s mayor. And I listened as they shared their stories, shared their lives and shared their passion for farming.
And as the day came to a close, a farmer named John asked, “Did you see that lady with the white hair back there?”
“Yes. She smiled and waved and was so pretty,” I said.
“Well you see, you see…..that…well….she’s my wife. And, and, and…..” And as I looked into the face of this farmer, his eyes welled with tears, and my heart ached, and I asked, “Is she sick?” And he nodded. Cancer. Twice.
And as the tractors were put away, we said our good-byes, reflecting on new dialogues, new knowledge and new friendships. And we knew that we were all in this together.
And while none of us could do everything, we also knew that all of us could do one thing. And sometimes that one thing is simply taking the time to listen. Really listen. Because if you do, you may realize that there is far more that unites us than divides us, as our hearts beat in unison for the love of our families.
Learn how you can become part of the AllergyKids Foundation’s important mission to to restore the health of our children and the integrity of our food supply by clicking here