As I drove up to the Country Café in Scribner, I could see Ruth Ready standing in the gravel parking lot ready to greet me. I was prepared for an informative conversation about farming and plant genetics. We definitely covered those topics, but I also walked away with a reminder for how difficult the life of a farmer can be and a new respect for those that work hard to produce our food every day.
Ruth and her husband, Sid farm near Scribner, NE. They grow corn, soybeans and alfalfa. In addition to working on the farm, they are also involved in multiple activities and jobs outside of farming. Ruth’s husband teaches advanced biology at the high school and Ruth volunteers at the church, helps run the drama department at the high school, works at the local hardware store and has been a volunteer for CommonGround Nebraska the last 2 years.
Ruth is the youngest of 6 kids and was born and raised near Scribner. Her father was a farmer that was active on the farm his whole life, so farming and working hard run in the family. Like her other brothers and sisters, Ruth attended college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she met Sid. When Ruth told me she graduated from UNL with a degree in agronomy and range management, I had to stop and ask her what “range management” was. She smiled and said that it was basically learning everything there is to know about grasses and pastures and environmental impact. We discussed everything from biotech to Pokémon and how technology is changing the way farmers today can produce more with less.
Plant breeding is something that Ruth knows and understands a lot about, so I wanted to pick her brain about this issue and share with her questions I’ve received about GMOs. Below is a graphic showing the amount of research and time is required to get a GMO seed approved for market.
Here is my brief Q & A with her about this subject:
Ruth, in layman’s terms, what is the difference between conventional plant breeding and genetic engineering?
“Well, we’ve been breeding plants for years. And everything is genetically modified in some sense. Genetic engineering is just a more precise method. Also, I don’t think people have realized how much plants have changed over time.”
Why do you think people are scared of genetic engineering?
“Well, agriculture is a science and people fear what they can’t understand.”
I know several folks who are concerned about using genes from outside species to produce GMOs. Do you think that’s a valid concern?
“Genes are made of proteins. At the end of the day, those proteins are still ATCG, which are the nucleotides that build DNA. The method to get the product is different but we’re still using the same exact building blocks.”
She used playing with Legos as an example. “You can build with different Legos and make different structures, but you’re not changing the Legos themselves. It’s the same with proteins. Those proteins are used to build DNA, so it doesn’t really matter if they came from an outside species.”
What about pesticides? Do you think they’re overused?
“There are always going to be bad actors. But the majority of farmers would never, ever overuse or douse their fields with pesticides.”
“Because they are really expensive for one, and secondly, you certainly don’t have to use that much to get the results you need. For example, we practice no till farming. No till is another production method that helps reduce water use, it’s better for the environment, it can increase yield and it helps saves money. But no till requires the use of a herbicide. How that herbicide is used and applied is very specific and we follow the usage instructions very carefully.”
Ruth gave me a wonderful tour of her farm and also shared with me about the personal struggles her family has endured the last few years. In addition to dealing with the everyday struggles on the farm, Ruth lost two of her daughters in a car accident back in 2007. Shortly after the car accident, their house also burned down. The loss of her daughters was incredibly difficult, but members of the community really supported them after the accident and through the loss and rebuilding of their home. Despite the hard work and heartache that Ruth and her husband have faced the last few years, they understand their business and how technology improves what they do.
Today we may use more advanced breeding methods and modern farming practices, but it doesn’t change the fact that we still need smart, hard-working farmers to overcome the challenges and demands of farm life.
Special thanks to Ruth Ready and CommonGround Nebraska for coordinating this interview.