Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Farm: A Beautiful Tragedy Unfolding
Linda J. Pfeiffer

 If one sits on the front porch at dusk on any day in early July in Barre Milles Wisconsin, you cannot help but be mesmerized by the slow parade of fireflies drifting over the tips of the ‘knee high’ emerald corn stalks. It is warm. Usually the light is a dusty rose color, the grays of evening slowly advancing from the east as the sun slides over the rolling hills, into a red and yellow wash of reflecting light.  This time of year is normally quiet, with only the lowing of the cows, calling the calves to them in the fields behind the neighbors red barns. If it has just rained, and the cows are still, you can hear the faint squeaking of the corn as it grows, pushing itself a little taller, hoping to catch more of the sun the next day 

As the sun falls behind the ridge, and the last rays of color fade, seemingly armies of tadpoles begin their chorus of peeping sounds. They continue into the night, quitting sometime during sleeping hours, so that the only sound you hear in the early morning may be the owl as it calls to its partner far in the distance. When I wake on nights like these I wonder how anyone can live in the hustle-bustle of town?
            But then there are other days; days the neighbor has hired the co-operative to come by with the ‘applicator’. The operator drives a machine with long spider-like arms that descend over the plants dispensing a grayish mist. The air becomes filled with the sickly acrid smell of synthetic chemicals. They hang like fog in the air, permeating everything they touch. My nose will be the first to tell me which days they are spraying on, until it becomes coated with the greasy acrid film that seems hang in every room of the house. The heavy odor creeps through closed windows causing my eyes to sting. Every fiber of my being screams to get away from that smell. But, I close the windows and stay. ‘It can’t be that bad or they wouldn’t sell it’. That was the story I told myself then.
Looking back, years later, I know now, that my body was trying to tell me something, all those years ago. I was raised to be compliant, to not cause trouble, and not ‘rock the boat’. It is what women were trained to do. But, I am older now. The experiences I’ve had have taught me to question what the dominant culture tells us we ‘should’ do.  So now I listen to my body. I read the research. I question the science. It is not enough.
The creatures and people around us are becoming ill at alarming and unnatural rates: people in far away lands, and people who are near, people who love the land, people who have done the things expected of them, and people who trusted that someone was watching out for them, like I did. 
Is someone watching out for us? The answer is complicated. There are people working hard for the environment, and for our health. Their voices are small. Powerful groups are descending on the policy makers in Washington in an effort to advocate for corporate profit over precaution with public health. In the cold statistical world of cost-benefit analysis, profit is easy to calculate, public health is complex.
The fate of toxins, and all of the persistent organic pesticides being debated in Washington, and around the world in Stockholm, is a story that lays out the struggle between those who value public health and those who value corporate profit. Yes, ultimately it is that simple- profit for the few over health for the many. The question will be who will tell the story that will move the policy makers?

Next:  The Unfolding Journey of Organochlorides

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Grandpa William, A Farmer's Story

           By the time I remember my grandparents, they had moved off of the farm and into town. My earliest memories were of my grandmother’s house, the warm aromas of chocolate chip cookies, or the spicy scents of ginger snaps fresh and warm from the oven. In a way, grandma had brought the farm with her. Her garden took up the entire backyard. The basement was filled with colorful jars of canned pickles, golden yellow pears, or reddish beats, all of which reflected the light streaming in from the oversize window wells. I remember the fruity smell of ripe purple concord grapes, and the excitement of the pumpkin patch in autumn. There were so many heart-warming memories at grandma’s house. But there were heart-breaking memories as well.
           In a different way, my grandfather had also brought the farm with him. My grandfather was once a strong farmer raising both animals and crops. The pictures I saw of him show a smiling tanned young man in the heart of youth. He appears a warm and inviting personality.  In one photo he stands next to my mother holding a baby, his smile radiates enough warmth to light up the whole black and white picture. Much like my aunts and uncles, I imagine him kind and clever. But it is only through the reflection of these personality traits in his children that I have gotten glimpses of the man that I really never came to know.
            By the time I was old enough to remember my grandfather, his face drooped, he sometimes drooled, and his hands were always too shaky for him to feed himself.  I remember grandma standing in the kitchen at the Osterizer and blending his food into a mushy puree. At each meal she would bring a plate full of multicolored mush piles and sit down to spoon feed him.  Most of the time he said nothing. The hearty farmer  who had been my grandfather, and looked so inviting in the pictures, was now deep in the throws of Parkinson’s disease.
             Parkinson’s is a disease four times more likely to occur in farmers exposed to pesticides and insecticides. Certainly my grandfather worked with pesticides. On the nights I was awoken by the sounds of screaming and moaning coming from the downstairs bedroom, grandma would tell me that the doctor thought that the Parkinson’s had spread to his brain. Insecticides, which are designed to target  and disrupt the nervous system of pests, have been found to have neurotoxic effects on humans as well. A recent  review of research (2008) on the neurotoxicity of pesticides found that pesticides may contribute to a range of neurodegenerative disorders, most notably Parkinson’s disease. The man who screamed in the night frightened me. He did not look like the pictures I saw or the stories I had heard about the gentle farmer tending to the draft horses and the cattle.
             Another study done specifically on  animal farmers like my grandfather, found a significant association between occupational exposure to herbicides and insecticides and the development of Parkinson’s disease, (Neurology, 1998). Two specific insecticide classes, organochlorines and organophosphorus compounds, have been significantly associated with Parkinson’s disease. Other risks of chronic exposure to pesticides include cancers, reproductive problems, and potential birth defects.
Of my six aunts and uncles raised on the farm, three have died of complications of cancer and one uncle had developed prostate cancer, but is a survivor. More than fifty percent of my grandmother’s children have developed some type of cancer but none have developed Parkinson’s disease. Nor have any of the grandchildren developed any form of Parkinson’s disease. Research indicates that, of the one million individuals living in America with Parkinson’s disease, only about five percent have an inherited form of the disease. Other forms are linked to environmental causes like pesticides. 
I would have liked to get to know my grandfather. I can not help but wonder what my grandfather would have been like had he not been a farmer? Would he have developed Parkinson’s disease? Could I and all of my cousins had the opportunity to spend time with the man with the welcoming smile in the photos?
And I wonder, why would they sell such lethal chemicals back when he was a farmer? Equally important for all of the children and grandchildren of  all of the farmers is the question, ‘Why do they continue to sell such lethal chemicals?”

Next post: Organoclorines-why?     

References for this article:

Laura Marsh, M.D., is a geriatric psychiatrist, an
Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and
director of the Clinical Research Program of the
Johns Hopkins Morris K. Udall Parkinson’s Disease
Research Center of Excellence.

Neurotoxicity of pesticides: a brief review
Costa, LG | Giordano, G | Guizzetti, M | Vitalone, A
Frontiers in Bioscience. Vol. 13, pp. 1240-1249. 2008

Pesticide exposure and risk of Parkinson's disease:
A family-based case-control study
Dana B Hancock1 , Eden R Martin3 , Gregory M Mayhew3 , Jeffrey M Stajich1 , Rita
Jewett3 , Mark A Stacy2 , Burton L Scott2 , Jeffery M Vance3  and William K Scott3
BMC Neurology 2008, 8:6 doi:10.1186/1471-2377-8-6

Monday, September 20, 2010

Farmers Stories-Our Story?

            The stories we hear, and those we should…but don’t.

            In farming you live many stories, some short, and some unfolding over an entire lifetime and weaving their threads into future generations. What follows is the beginning of the stories that touched the life of one farmer and his family in one rural Wisconsin county not so long ago…

Bessy at Morning Milking    photo by LJ Pfeiffer 2010

William, and the stories we hear…

The sun was barely up when William glided through the morning chores, he walked with each step measured, not slow, but not quickly either. His pace reflected a time weathered routine designed to conserving energy for the prolonged series of tasks he had mastered in his sixty-some years of practice. Glancing out of their windows in the early morning fog, the neighbors always knew when William was in the barn because they could watch the sun reflecting off the red-brown coats of his Jersey’s as they paraded in long lines across the misty fields, moving steadily towards their morning ration of grain.
Animal and man had worked easily together. William knew each of his cows by name. Habit told him which one needed a little extra prodding, and who was moving just a little different than usual. So many hours spent together each and every day, for both the morning and the evening milking, allowed for an uncommon familiarity between them.  They had forged a routine together which was comforting to both the cows and the man. This is the story we know of farming and of farmers. It is a simple story of an old fashioned farmer who took care of the animals and the crops. Everyone had his or her role on the family farm.
            William’s role was to tend to the animals and the crops. His wife’s role was to fix the meals and tend to the household chores. And, as a result, he rarely set foot inside the local Piggly Wiggly.  But, if one could imagine William  wandering the grocery store in his same even pace, one wonders what he would think as he strolled through the aisles? Would he stop by the dairy aisle to admire the quintessential black and white Holstein dairy cow recently popular on cartons of milk? The picture is of an ice blue sky punctuated with billowy cumulus clouds providing a perfect contrast for emerald green pastures where a large red barn fades off into the horizon. This is the image that the marketers like for us to call to mind each time we approach the dairy section of our local grocery. Even better, we can take a gallon of this wholesome goodness home with us and absorb its milky white, emerald- blueness right on top of our whole-wheat corn flakes each morning.  One can imagine that this picturesque story is the one that William lived, and the one we can absorb into our busy modern lives and take with us, even if only one sip at a time.

             But when the ‘typical’ farmer milks old Bessie she may not exactly look like the Holstein on the carton (she may be a Jersey or a Brown Swiss), or have a red barn behind her, or even graze in the grassy green pasture pictured under her feet. More likely than not, if Bessy is from Wisconsin she comes from a heard of 80-100 cows, (in California she has an average of 300 herd mates). Pasture is a luxury for Bessy. She may graze there for a few months to rest between calves, but mostly she lives in a free-stall barn so she doesn’t burn up energy on walking around. Less energy means less milk, not really a desirable trait for a milk cow. So she spends most of her life on a cement slab. Cement is easy to clean with a skid loader, and free-stalls allow enough room to move from stall to parlor without wasting too much energy on walking.
            Still, Bessy has a nutritionist arranging her daily menu of starches and proteins, a veterinarian checking her ovulation cycles and reproductive health, the farmer monitoring daily pounds of milk production, and the milk hauler checking the somatic cell count of the bulk tank. Prior to milking she has each teat washed, rinsed and sterilized. After milking she can return to a bed of sand, have breakfast served in her stall bed, and lounge away the morning chewing her cud and producing more milk. Her neighbors in stalls to her left and right will usually be the same because cows form social groups and like consistency in their buddies.  Relaxed cows let down milk easier than stressed cows so it is wise to keep Bessy relaxed.

            William didn’t relax much, not many farmers do. But when he did rest he liked to read. In the winter he enjoyed going to the library to find a good book to settle in with on a snowy night while he warmed himself by the woodstove.  If William could have gone to the library recently, he would find dozens, if not hundreds of titles about farming. These stories lay out, in page after page, the tale of how farming has changed since the fifties and how ‘industrial farming’ was now crowded out the family farmer. “Big is bad, small is good.” Small often means closer to the land, friendlier farmers, and happier Bessy. Big, on the other hand, is everything you never wanted your food product affiliated with. Big is ‘factory farms’ where the cows are nothing more than replaceable cogs in the milk production machine, and the farm managers are only profit driven. (Do they even have families in our image of corporate farming?).
For William, having started feeding calves as a young boy, farming was his way of life, as natural as breathing. He farmed the way his father and grandfather had farmed, with the few exceptions that progress had allowed.  Technology had made farming easier. Machinery had grown larger, seeds were engineered, and his crops had seen ‘better living through chemistry’ allowing for less pests and fewer weeds stealing nutrients from the harvest. These changes meant that he could finish fieldwork earlier and spend more time with his family. Still, in his lifetime William had seen production go up and real income go down. Economies of scale now dictate that to stay viable farms must become larger. The library books on farming, had William cared to read them, may have been right.
When the time came, William had decided he is too old to expand, his knees too sore, his shoulders too arthritic and the debt load of expansion too great to work off in his remaining days. So, William, in consultation with his wife of forty-two years decided to retire. Many of his neighbors bought each other out and expanded. William heard at church or in his local cafĂ©, the stories of his neighbors. Since William had lived the changes the library books talked about, he didn’t really care to read much about them. When he did read, it was in the morning after milking and after breakfast. Then William would allow himself a cup of coffee and a few moments to enjoy the local newspaper.
It would be here, in the morning paper, that he too often learned of farm accidents in the community. Short of crab fishing in Alaska, farming is the most dangerous occupation in America. The papers ran the stories on farm safety at the same time they would run the obituaries. In one ten-year time span, William had read about a neighbor who got his jacket caught in power-take-off of his Ford tractor and spent two years in rehabilitation just getting back use of his arm and shoulder. He read about the little boy who went to the fields to call his dad in for lunch and was accidentally caught up in the combine. One of the last stories he read was about his neighbor’s teenage son who was helping load corn and fell into the corn trailer and smothered.  Farm accidents are not rare.
Word of mouth travels faster in the country than the papers can report, so by the time William had read the papers it was mostly revisiting the story, hoping that it couldn’t be true, that it had been a mistake, and another of his neighbors really was fine. But, somehow it seemed to make it final to read it in black and white. These periodic events served to renew his respect for the machinery. He was reminded of the dangers from the stories he heard from the neighbors he talked with, and from his own ongoing close calls with the machinery and animals that inhabited his work place. These risks were known and navigated day to day, one chore at a time Maybe because the farmers know these risks, most of the time they overcome them. Although, some times they do not, not completely.  The stories of those few who do not are told in community paper.

Everywhere we look someone is telling some story about American agriculture and the farmers who make it possible. From the grocery store milk carton, to the piles of farming books at the public library and on, to the local papers and even in the obituaries. Each outlet gives us glimpses into the life of the Wisconsin farmer. Each allows us, for small moments to imagine the daily worlds of farmers like William. Maybe that is why we read them.
 But for those of us from rural Wisconsin who knew William, for his neighbors, his friends, or the grand children who never came to know him, there is another story. It is a story that had shaped his life and, I would like to say, hastened his death. But it did not do that.  It is a story he was never aware of. He did not read about it in the papers, or hear it from the neighbors, or learn of it in the grocery store.  And, if it were only his story I would tell it, but not here-not now. His story is bigger than William. It is a story that stretches across the dairy farms and croplands of America and into the bodies of everyone who eats food grown on a farm-and a story of their children. A story the children need to know.

            This introduction ends where the untold farming story begins. I must apologize to you who are reading this, as I know how frustrating unfinished stories can be. I read them each day; I see them on the news each night. The effects of their silence resonate in my mind late into the night, where they have stayed in darkness as I’ve struggled to make sense of their absence. I have not.

            So here, on these pages will be the story fragments that we hear in the news,
and the stories we should hear… but don’t.

Next William's Story
LJ Pfeiffer

Farmers: The Stories you hear, and those that you don't, but should