Founding Farmers

Flathead Beacon

by Mike Jopek

More than 200 years ago, the political convictions of our founding politicians were based in agriculture. Not only did former Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all believe that farming was a noble occupation, they were also avid food growers.

The first presidents helped craft a nation of laws but were reportedly happiest thinning carrots and digging potatoes. They were able composters, acknowledging the worth of soil and sustainability.

But that was when 97 percent of the labor force was involved in farming. Today only 2 percent farm, but a growing number of those in middle class homes are gardening. And Americans still want to make food choices, three times a day.

There only a couple of working farmers left in the U.S. Congress Sen. Jon Tester of Big Sandy is the most notable. Tester admits the worth of a day’s work by returning home on weekends to his 1912 farmstead to tend chores. He indicates that farming is his first love and it helps him to maintain his sanity to return from Washington to work for Montanans.

Tester is a well-known food advocate as appreciated in the 2008 Farm Bill. But more prominent is how Tester stood with small farmers in the recent federal food safety overhaul.

Corporate agriculture spent piles of lobbying cash against the grain farmer turned senator, and in the end the consumer won. If not for Tester, small farmers would be lumped in with multinational agricultural corporations when growing food. That would have been the end of local farming as we know it.

During the 2009 Montana Legislature, a lobbyist for the world’s largest multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation treated Senate Agriculture Committee members to a private dinner. The committee was soon to hear a bill protecting traditional farmers from genetically modified (GM) plant-pollen drift. The giant agribusiness never publicly testified but Senate agriculture summarily tabled the bill.

The 2011 Montana Legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 218 by Sen. Don Steinbeisser, R-Sidney, which established a testing protocol for GMO plant-pollen that wind blows onto a neighboring field. SB 218 also established Montana mediation venues to resolve transgenic pollen drift disputes between organic, traditional and GMO farmers.

At a recent farm seminar, Tester said that as a farmer he controls just a few aspects of his business like labor, conservation, farming techniques and seeds. But today, "With GMOs, farmers don't control the seed, multinational agribusiness does," Tester said.

"You and I have heard over and over that our only hope to feed the planet as our population grows is GMOs. Well, I'm here to tell you I don't buy it. What it has done, and what it continues to do, is take away options from family farmers and options away from consumers. Farms won't be able to control seeds, and you won't know what you're eating,” Tester continued.

Corporate consolidation of GMO seeds removes choice in the food supply and poses real problems for family farms. But more insipid is the refusal of Washington, D.C. to require that engineered food be labeled. Labeling GMO foods allows consumers a choice whether to eat engineered salmon or drink milk from cloned cows. GMO food is also routinely sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, a hormone disruptor.

People today, as during our founding days, agree that a thriving agricultural community is essential to a strong middle class economy. And as pointed out by Tester, “If you eat, you are affected by the U.S. food policy.”

“Smart sustainable food policy is common sense, and if you fight for it, you can win,” said Tester. After a lifetime with hands in the soil, the knowledge of a working farmer now crafting national food policy is plainly good for families. And that is the same farm-raised understanding that Tester shares with our founding farmers.