May 2014 Primary
8:28 am
Tue May 13, 2014

GMO Battle Divides Jackson County Farmers

Jim and Marilyn Frink farm 500 acres in the Sams Valley area in Jackson County.
Credit Liam Moriarty / JPR

The people with perhaps the most direct economic stake in the fate of Jackson County’s proposed ban on growing genetically modified crops are the county’s farmers. Jefferson Public Radio’s Liam Moriarty visited Rogue Valley farmers who stand on opposite sides of Measure 15-119 to find out how they see it.

Jim Frink: “Hi, my name is Jim Frink.
Marilyn Frink: “Yes, I’m Marilyn Frink.
Jim Frink: “We have approximately 500 acres of cultivated ground that we grow genetically-modified alfalfa, and wheat and barley and we have several head of cattle. And that’s how we make our living.”

Standing on a rise on his Sams Valley farm, Jim Frink explains why he’s been growing the Monsanto corporation’s alfalfa variety that’s been genetically engineered to resist the weedkiller named Roundup.
Jim Frink: “The Roundup-ready alfalfa will double the production on this dry land over conventional alfalfa.”

Frink says he saves money in reduced labor and herbicide costs, too.
Jim Frink: “The thing with GMO alfalfa is you use one chemical, that is Roundup. It’s completely safe. With conventional alfalfa we have to use three different chemicals to control the weeds and we still can’t get all the weeds killed.”

Given the benefits he sees to growing GMOs, Frink seems perplexed as to why anyone would want to ban them. He notes he and many of his neighbors have been farming in Jackson County for generations.
Jim Frink: “Why all of a sudden do we have these people moving in here that are trying to tell us how to manage our farming operations and tell us what we can and cannot grow?”

Marilyn Frink says what gets her dander up is what she sees as Measure 15-119’s assault on her and Jim’s property rights.

Marilyn Frink: “This is our property. We pay the taxes on it, we own it. I don’t believe anybody else should have the right to tell us what we can plant or what we can’t plant.”

Jared Watters farms over 1,100 acres in plots across Rogue Valley.
Credit Liam Moriarty / JPR

About 20 miles to the south, as the crow flies, a farmer with a different perspective looks over one of his fields.
Jared Watters: “My name is Jared Watters, and I manage one of the largest farms in Jackson County. This is Molly … She’s a boxer.”

Watters oversees more than 1,100 acres scattered across the Rogue Valley. He says his family has farmed the region for six generations.
Jared Watters: “We’re sitting in the middle of 350 acres here inside Medford city limits, that we farm. We’ve got grass hay. We had alfalfa hay and we have lots of grain, also.”

Like Jim and Marilyn Frink, Watters grows Roundup Ready alfalfa. But not for much longer.
Jared Watters: “You’re supposed to be able to sustain higher yield with the lower input cost, creating greater profit margin and we did not see that.”

Aside from being disappointed with the GMO crop’s performance, Watters says, he sees growing customer resistance to those products.
Jared Watters: “We are moving away from GMOs because that’s what the markets, not just here domestically in the US but globally, are saying that they want, is GMO-free.”

Waters points to an incident last year where stray genetically-modified wheat was found in an Eastern Oregon field. Export markets in Asia and Europe responded by suspending shipments, and wheat prices fell sharply. By the time the export markets re-opened, Watters says …
Jared Watters: “We were stuck with a bunch of wheat that we couldn’t combine and that affected us greatly. I was forced to lay off three employees that I would have kept on through the winter.”

But aside from those business calculations, Watters says, since the Measure 15-119 campaign began, he’s become aware of the threat GMOs can pose to farmers growing organic or other crops they need to keep GMO-free. Wind or insects such as bees can carry pollen from those crops for miles and cross-pollenate with non-GMO plants. For farmers with customers who want to avoid GMOs, Watters says, that’s a problem.
Jared Watters: “Once they have that contamination with that genetically-modified pollen, the vendors that they sell to, they do not want to purchase those crops, because they can’t sell them.”

Watters says in the end, he’s getting out of GMOs as a matter of principal.
Jared Watters: “I don’t want to have to affect my neighbor. To me, contaminating or harming my neighbor’s crop? That’s not a good neighbor.”

Back in Sams Valley, Jim Frink contemplates the impact the passage of Measure 15-119 would have on his farm.
Jim Frink: “If we have to go back to conventional alfalfa, I’ll probably retire from farming, because it’s not cost effective. We have to have GMO crops in order to survive.”

Marilyn Frink blames the measure’s proponents for causing division and resentment among farmers. She says it didn’t used to be like that.
Marilyn Frink: “Farmers got along. If you were going to plant something that might contaminate somebody’s you backed off, you had a buffer zone. People got along. Now, it doesn’t seem we can do that. They will not … They will not get along with their neighbor.”

The battle over Measure 15-119 has revealed deep fault lines in the agricultural community in Jackson County, and around the state. People on both sides feel their livelihoods are being threatened, and the arguments have gotten deeply personal. Whichever way the vote goes on May 20th, the hard feelings the campaign has raised may linger for some time to come.

Copyright 2014 Jefferson Public Radio