Small family farm fights big agribusiness corporation

by Gregg Marchese


In mid-February, residents of Singing Bird Family Farm west of Grants Pass discovered an adjacent 35 acre field had been planted with genetically engineered sugar beets. Syngenta is a multi-national chemical corporation overseeing the growing of genetically engineered sugar beets for seed in both Jackson and Josephine Counties. Singing Bird residents Ted Talk and Lynn Colley-Talk have been on their family farm raising bees and selling honey and other bee products for 6 years, and the property has been in the family for 28 years. Ted was born and raised in the area, a resident for 50 years.

The incident started when Ted and Lynn noticed busloads of workers driving through the right-of-way to the neighboring field. This 35 acre field is up against the Applegate River, upstream from the confluence with the Rogue. It is owned by a neighboring family. The land is leased to Syngenta to grow genetically engineered sugar beets for seed, and another operator was hired to do the actual on-the-ground work. The workers were coming in to tend the field.

Ted explains that his discovery of such a nearby Syngenta field alarmed him. Singing Bird sells honey and other bee products professionally, and has seen the decline of its beehives in recent years. He has had to move hives to more remote locations to protect them from the impacts of chemical agriculture nearby. Despite claims by Syngenta, genetically engineered crops are thought to use more herbicides such as the glyphosate-based Roundup, which can harm bees. Growing evidence shows Roundup and genetically engineered foods such as beet-based sugar can harm human health as well. Ted and Lynn are concerned about chemicals escaping from the neighboring field and impacting their health and livelihood.

Ted and Lynn reported rude threatening gestures from the farm workers on the buses when Singing Bird and its supporters gathered in the rain to display signs and express their concern. One worker was seen entering the garage of a neighbor’s house. Some of Singing Bird’s supporters observed members of the Josephine County Sheriff’s department monitoring the field for the first night, but thereafter a private security firm was seen to be monitoring the field. No trespass or harm ever occurred on the genetically engineered field.

Days later, farm workers removed the sugar beets by truck, but it emerges that this is a standard agricultural practice of Syngenta. The beets are taken to a facility where they are sprayed with more chemicals, a fungicide, then returned to fields for further growing for seed production. Ted’s research reveals that only select conditions are ideal for the growing of these GE sugar beets, and the Applegate riverside soil next door is an uncommonly large area that qualifies. The seed from these corporate operations could be worth millions of dollars, so the gathering of around 20 concerned citizens with signs is not likely to deter Syngenta. It is reported that the GE field was sprayed with herbicide on the same day Singing Bird residents and their supporters gathered. One sign read ‘Syngenta Go Home’. Syngenta is based in Switzerland, where the growing of genetically engineered crops is banned.

Heavy applications of herbicide can flush into the Applegate river and contaminate water quality, fish, irrigation of other crops and livestock, and the ecosystem. Ted has swam, fished and rafted in the Applegate since he was a child, and is deeply concerned for how this chemical trespass will affect his hometown area. He has seen Syngenta purchase and lease land cheaply since the economic recession and drop in land values hit in ’08, allowing this toxic and harmful form of agriculture to expand in the area and region. But the economic gains have been relatively small compared to the potential for the local economy to thrive with non-genetically engineered seed, produce, honey and other small family farm products. Syngenta’s profits leave the area and go to a multi-national corporation, while sales of locally grown and raised farm products such as Singing Bird honey circulate many times within the community, magnifying their effect. Tax revenues increase, property values increase, and the safety and livelihoods of long-time locals and conscientious newcomers alike are protected without the operations of chemically-based and genetically engineered agriculture like Syngenta’s.

Josephine County has qualified an initiative on the May ballot, #17-58, that would protect residents and small family farms like Singing Bird from the economic and toxic effects of genetically engineered agribusiness. A Yes vote on the measure would exclude the growing of gmo crops in the county, with no added costs to county administration. A similar measure, 15-119, is on the Jackson County ballot.