Mutant Hay

Back in the day, I baled a lot of hay. It was something every rural Wisconsin kid of a certain age did for extra money in the summertime. I must’ve handled thousands of rectangular bales during those years, and I was disappointed to discover that they had been replaced by huge round bales that couldn’t be moved without a tractor. So now there’s one less way for teenage boys to earn money and stay out of trouble.

We have great farms in Wisconsin because we have great hay. It’s what we feed to the cows that make the milk that makes the cheese we all love so much. We also feed it to our horses, goats, sheep, and any other animal that likes to munch on leafy greens. Our ample summer rain and rich soil assure Wisconsin farmers that they can grow hay in abundance with minimal effort.

Before I lived outside the state, I never knew that hay could be anything other than alfalfa. I thought “alfalfa” was just a fancy word for “hay”. Outside of hay fields, alfalfa grows wild all over the place and puts out clusters of bright purple flowers. Children would grow up teaching each other how to nibble on the sweet parts of the petals. Bees love it, and alfalfa honey is some of the tastiest honey you can get.

When I was young, a typical dairy farm was not much different from the organic dairy farms we know today. Farmers grow and store their own feed, milk the cows twice each day, and sell the milk to the processor in town who would bottle and distribute it or turn it into cheese, ice cream and other treats. Chemicals for the plants and drugs for the cows were not part of the picture.

Under today’s corporate regime, most small-town dairy processors have disappeared and been replaced by mega-distributors like Foremost and Dean Foods. Fields, herds and machinery have gotten bigger, windbreaks have been replaced by more rows, small farms have been absorbed by their larger neighbors, and our soil has been transformed into a delivery medium for a strange brew of substances with unpronounceable names. Corners are cut and quality is sacrificed in the effort to satisfy the low-cost demands of the corporate paymasters.

The only farmers who get a decent payment for their product are the organic farmers. They farm in a way that’s not that different from the way my grandfather farmed. Soil, plants and livestock aren’t aggressively pushed into producing a lot of food, but they are nurtured to provide enough quality food. A well-managed organic farm will keep producing forever without the need for any deliveries of foreign substances from outside the farm.

One of the biggest threats to organic farming these days is genetic engineering, or what I like to call designer mutations. Designer mutations are everywhere in the corporate food cycle, and the food giants are determined to keep us from knowing what mutant food we’re eating. The only way we can be sure that we’re not eating mutant food is to eat organic.

Under the organic rules, mutant food is not organic food. Organic milk comes from cows that eat organic food, so if a cow eats mutant food, then her milk is no longer organic. This brings me back to hay. Cows eat a lot of hay, and this year the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) “de-regulated” (i.e. approved) genetically modified alfalfa: mutant hay.

Why is this a big deal? In short, because alfalfa is a perennial.. once it’s planted, it comes back year after year. Corn, soy, canola, and the other mutant crops are a big enough problem for the organic world. Pollen can drift from a mutant field into an organic field, contaminating the organic crop with mutant seed. But at least those plants are gone once they are harvested. A mutant alfalfa plant will keep coming back year after year, spreading its mutant pollen and scattering its mutant seed until there is no organic hay left to feed to organic cows that give us organic milk.

Proponents of mutant food say that this technology can be used to create more nutritious food, or to reduce the need for pesticides. The opposite has turned out to be true. Most mutant food has been designed to be immune to Round-up, a pesticide marketed by Monsanto – the same corporation that sells the mutant seeds. So the plan is to plant the mutant seeds, then spray the field with a chemical that kills everything else.

This is not farming, and what it produces is not food. It is a chemical-intensive industrial process that produces something resembling food, but devoid of the flavor and nutrition that our ancestors took for granted. We must all reject mutant food in our diets, demand that it be labelled as such, and press our governments to put the evil “genie” of mutant hay and other mutant food back into the “bottle.”

We look forward to seeing all of our friends in the organic farming world at the upcoming MOSES Organic Farming Conference, where I’m sure mutant hay will be a hot topic of discussion.

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