Arizona Agriculture Meets the Organic Farmer Who Loves GMOs

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: Farm Bureau member and certifying for USDA Organics, this up-and-coming farmer is also an advocate for biotechnology in agriculture. Her reasons for support make sense. 

Part of ongoing conversations Arizona Farm Bureau has with experts in their chosen fields. 

 

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Arizona Agriculture


A frequent shopper at area farmers’ markets, third-generation Phoenix native Janna Anderson saw there was a large demand for urban farmers on a small scale even before the locally-grown movement became trendy. Because of this recognition, Pinnacle Farms was launched on a tiny plot behind the Scottsdale Community College in 2000. This all began to unfold at a time when Anderson was just a semester shy of obtaining her nursing degree. Instead, she dropped out of college, decided to follow her heart, and applied herself to filling this niche food market.

The small plot behind the college served Anderson well for a short time until she realized that the need for local produce was so great she had to look elsewhere to grow produce to supply the demand.

Arizona Farm Bureau member, farmer Anderson is an advocate for agriculture technology that reduces pesticide use and also improves yields.

 

Never one to rest on her laurels or get comfortable with the current market, Anderson ventured into grains and with a leap of faith began growing an heirloom variety of wheat that hadn’t been popular until recently, especially as the GMO debate raged on. The last few years, she’s enjoyed fulfilling a niche for ancient grains and will continue to grow heritage varieties as the market evolves. 

Self-financed, Anderson grows naturally at her West Valley farm and every stage in her farming operation is carefully planned out. Not yet USDA Certified Organic, she plans to apply for certification at her fruit orchard farm in Laveen. Paperwork required to get to that stage isn’t her favorite, she admits.

She also grew sorghum for a dairy in Buckeye this summer. And, in fact, has moved away from growing produce for the farmers’ markets. Supporting the farmers’ market niche, she explains, is an extreme amount of work. She highlights how farmers are driving into town to set up all their produce as early as 3:00 a.m. on market day, which has been harvested, cleaned and prepared the day before and now must be out and on display for the 7:00 in the morning opening. Five to six hours later, they’re tearing everything down and packing up in 110 degree weather during an Arizona summer (or the freezing cold or rain and mud) just to begin all over again a few days later. Anderson describes customers practically knocking down the tents at 6:30 a.m. wanting to buy produce and “we would have to put up barricades just to get set up in time.”

And, in the thick of all this she’s an advocate for biotechnology in agriculture. But why? Arizona Agriculture was very curious and we spent some time on her farm to get the skinny on this young farmer’s philosophy. This organic farmer, whose maiden name is McDonald, sees the irony in all sorts of things, including farming.

Arizona Agriculture: Why are you Pro-GMO?

Anderson: Because I do market to the organic customer, unfortunately they just don’t have all the right information; they have bits and pieces of stuff. Often, they buy into the negative and don’t have the positive to fall back on. Anyone who views food issues as black and white are decidedly seeing only one side of the story. Most of the information out there has some truth to it, but it is in shades of gray. There are some serious caveats to either side of the GMO issue.

And, the reality is that there are several advantages to GMOs.

While I don’t grow them myself, biotech crops hold a big advantage for larger farms. People who don’t farm don’t understand these advantages. They just hear the negative and repeat it without really studying the science. As a society, it’s become easy for us to buy into the fear-mongering.

If you understand how conventional farmers have to farm, biotech crops become a big advantage to everyone including the consumer. GMOs can reduce airborne pesticides, water pollution from run-off, increase yields, and generate drought resistant plants for the future and so much more. Additionally, GMOs can be very cost effective way to go and can target very specific pests rather than killing everything it touches like an aerial spray. Additionally, some GMO corn products utilize genetic engineering to insert BT, which is actually a product that is allowed in Certified Organic growing techniques.

People think conventional farmers are just spraying like crazy to grow their crops. The uninformed don’t realize it’s too expensive and that farmers are always looking for ways to reduce our costs to improve our bottom line. Again, it’s a common sense issue but with so much fear-mongering going on it’s hard to imagine that our modern-day farmers approach their farming with a rational business mind.

People don’t realize the word organic is something you have to pay for. Make no mistake, it too is big business.

Arizona Agriculture: In the 14 years you’ve been in farming, what changes have you seen?  

Anderson: When I first started farming, organic certification had just been created and the consumer demand for that product was naively pursued by people who thought that they understood that the word organic meant no pesticides in their food. While in the background, commercial agriculture wanted in on the big money that organics seemed to demand, especially as it becomes more of a mainstream market.

Sadly, I have also seen the debate raging against GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and the fear mongering attacks from the organic side that leads people to believe that the conventional foods are not safe to raise their families on. It is disturbing the amount of misinformation that people absorb from these sources. 


Arizona Agriculture: Why did you choose to go into agriculture?

Anderson: When I grew up, it was silly to think that a person would want to go into the agriculture field and I remember taking one of those aptitude tests designed to help a person figure out what careers to pursue. I laughed at one of the choices and remember saying “Farmer?! Who wants to grow up to be a farmer? That shouldn't even be an option. I'm going into nursing where I can make a real living.”

Quite a few years later, I was one semester short of becoming a registered nurse when I saw a need in the community farmers’ markets that I was able to fulfill and worked toward that goal until I realized this was something that could be a real career. It’s a very funny story to me now when I look back and realize the aptitude test had it right all along. I sincerely enjoy learning to grow new things and it didn't hurt when I enjoyed a kind of rock star admiration from people who would buy my produce.

Anderson jokes that she knows more about tractors than any woman should. 

 


Arizona Agriculture: Will anyone in your family - younger generation - pursue farming?  

Anderson: People always ask about the family aspect of my farming operation and for many in agriculture it is what they do because their family did it before them. People generally raise their eyebrows when I say my husband has a real job and I am the farmer. I am lucky that he has been as supportive in reaching my goals as if they were his own. I know he still wishes I was a nurse though, especially when I want to buy some really expensive piece of equipment.

Arizona Agriculture: Why have you so quickly changed your farm model, in fact, often?   

Anderson: I have changed and adapted to the needs of my market base for years. I have always been willing to try new growing techniques and listen to how farmers of old do it too. As my farm grows, I am still a very small farm in terms of the typical farmer, but 46 acres requires a different type of technique than a farm of 5 or 5,000 acres will.

The needs of the consumer have changed too. When I first started growing for the [retail] market, the customers were mostly older women, looking for pesticide-free produce for their vegan lifestyle and the occasional conspiracy theorist. Now, the word organic has become a buzzword in what consumers are looking for, and markets are bustling with young women with babies and food connoisseurs searching for that farm-to-table connection.

Agriculture keeps me challenged and always learning too. I know more about farm machinery than any real girl should. I actually enjoy doing routine maintenance and working with tractors and implements and getting a little dirty. I figure if the Queen of England can repair trucks during the war, there's no reason I can't change my own oil and wrench a few nuts and bolts.

Additionally, while I always say I am not too creative, I think my business does require a little creativity. Thinking outside the box to be able to fulfill the demand and make money doing it is not always easy, and doing it on a small scale is challenging too. I enjoy listening and learning from other farmers who have done this the same way with excellent results for years and I take that information and learn how to apply it to my operation.

 

Arizona Agriculture: Beginner farmers’ main complaint is they can’t obtain land to farm. How have you obtained it?

Anderson: It’s true. There is huge demand in the farmers’ market but land availability is beginner farmers’ biggest constraint. I got very lucky in getting the particular parcel I farm on right now. None of the other farmers around here really wanted it because a.) It was too small – 40 acres is a small farm for most of the other larger farms around here, and b.) the neighborhood gets the primary water – irrigation – so if you’re farming sorghum like I am right now we only get two or three days to water and sometimes it takes four or five to complete the irrigation. We get pushed off even though the neighbors may be simply flood irrigating their yards. The neighborhood has been here a lot longer and numbers count. I routinely get calls from neighbors who tell me what I need to do, including maintaining the ditches.

Arizona Agriculture: You appear to have a real sense for current market needs.

Anderson: I’m still deciding on the variety of ancient grains to grow next year. I will grow whichever varieties have the most popular appeal, and a guaranteed buyer for the end result.  I am also venturing into heirloom beans and corn this year, growing out some very rare varieties for the dried market.

I’m lucky that our lifestyle does not depend on what I do. In a sense, I’ve got a lot more freedom to do what I want to do, so I try new things. I didn’t really ask my husband, and he wasn’t initially very excited about my venture into farming. He was looking forward to a nurse’s income. But, he’s always been supportive.

I always want to do a little better. I always find room for improvement. It keeps me always looking. Talking to the other growers I discover how lacking I am. I have so much more to learn and as a result I’m open to trying other things in farming. The veteran farmers can rattle off so many statistics because they’ve been doing it for so many years. When you talk to them, they know exactly what a certain crop is going to bring and what it takes to bring a new crop on.

Arizona Agriculture: You said, “…46 acres requires a different type of technique than a farm of 5 or 5,000 acres will.” Expound on this point a bit more?

Anderson: For example, if I was a Farmers’ market farmer, 40+plus acres is way too much. There’s no way to push that much produce through there. With the size of acreage I’m leasing right now, it’s one of the reasons I stopped doing the farmers’ market segment. I need to make this particular parcel pay itself back and make a couple of bucks off of it in the end. We needed to grow something else.

Last year I had divided it into thirds. One third was produce for the farmers’ markets and the rest for the ancient grains.

When you think about it, hmm 40 acres. Why am I working 12-hour days especially when I can get a pretty good return off of say sorghum? Why divide it into thirds and go to all that extra trouble, having to be the marketer, accountant, food safety consultant, and personnel babysitter, all in addition to grower. I can focus on growing a better product if I don't have to spend hours dealing with the other aspects of growing for direct market and streamline the business model and reduce paid labor.

 

Yes, the specialty grain market pays a lot better, especially when you break it down by unit cost versus profit. But, the yield is not as strong. And, if you know you can get a specific yield off of a crop that others have done a billion times before, why not study that as an option. Talk to the leaders; people who are making money at farming. Plus, growing sorghum and ancient grains I don’t have to work as hard as growing specialty crops for market which require hand harvesting twice a week-all year round.

 

It’s all about learning a little bit more. It’s about improving your bottom line and doing it easier.

 

Arizona Agriculture: How do we, Farm Bureau, market to this broader consumer base, certainly organics?

Anderson: It’s a difficult situation because I think “Big Ag” got caught unaware and now they’re behind the eight ball and no one realized that the GMO thing would become such a big deal. Fear sells and it sells fast; like wildfire.

Now all of the sudden if Jane Doe consumer doesn’t get all of her babies certified organic baby food and she feeds her kids gluten she’s just a terrible mother.

I think a softer tone might help from the agriculture sector. It’s the most important part of your job, and Farm Bureau’s, otherwise the nonsense will overtake the conversation and in many instances already has drowned out rational conversations.

On the flip side, consumers need to be aware that certified organic does allow pesticides. Most believe if it’s organic they won’t be exposed to pesticides. The difference between pesticides that a conventional farmer uses and pesticides that an organic farmer uses are labeled differently but in reality they’re pretty much the same thing.

Organic farmers’ primary pesticide is pyrethrum and it kills everything in the field. It doesn’t selectively choose one pest over another. Whereas, some of the non-organic pesticides can be specifically targeted and a farmer knows exactly what he’s using it for and can maintain a balance.

Personally, I prefer not to use pesticides at all on my crops. For example, if you want a type of ecosystem in your farming that includes ladybugs, they’ll leave if you don’t have any aphids. To maintain that balance when you’re farming - and this goes back to farming the five acres versus the 50 - let’s say you farm 100 acres of Kale, you can’t afford to let an infestation of aphids have your whole crop.  But as a smaller, organic farmer, every year I’ll let the aphids have my 2 rows of Kale so that the other produce is relatively free of bugs. When the bugs are done with the Kale I’m usually done with the other products in the field. It’s a balance.

It’s a huge difference when you scale. 

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