The Times West Virginian

April 13, 2014

W.Va. grower promotes unmodified feed corn

By Bryan Clark
Spirit Of Jefferson And Farmer’s Advocate

KEARNEYSVILLE — Lyle Tabb is hoping that his non-genetically modified corn will take off with farmers who can charge top dollar for “all natural” eggs.

Genetically modified or GMO corn has greatly simplified the process of getting rid of weeds, but has also substantially increased the amount of a chemical call glyphosate.

The vast majority of corn grown in the United States has been genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready,” meaning that it is resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide that will kill most plants have not been subject to genetic modification. That resistance allows farmers to use Roundup liberally to kill off weeds that compete with their crops, but some consumers worry about the effects of the chemical.

“There are a lot of consumers who don’t have enough information on genetically modified foods to decide for themselves that it is totally safe to eat,” Tabb said. “And I can understand some of those perspectives.”

Tabb, who grows Roundup Ready corn as well, says he didn’t find raising the older non-GMO variety much harder to grow. He said the yield from his non-GMO fields were the same as those from his GMO fields, and that his costs were the same.

“We’ve been growing GMO corn varieties for about 15 years,” he said. “Prior to that everything we got was a hybrid just like it’s been for decades, without any genetic modification.”

Tabb says he got a little lucky this year because he didn’t face any major weed problems.

“I didn’t have to spray this year,” he said. “I think probably three years out of five, you would have to spray.”

Raising non-GMO corn does require more vigilance, he said.

“You have to scout the fields more often for specific types of weeds, specific types of pests and decide whether you are going to spray or not, and, if you are, what you are going to use to target those specific things,” he said.

Tabb sold his corn to Culpeper Farmers Cooperative, a grain supply company that was looking to roll out a non-GMO chicken feed under the brand name “Virginia Natural,” and he got a slightly better price because of the increasing demand.

“The price is enough to cover my added costs in freight,” he said. “For me, it was worthwhile to take a chance on.”

“It spreads out my risk, because it gives me one more place to market grain to, whereas right now I am pretty limited as far as where I buy grain,” he added. “I hope I can grow all the non-GMO corn they want.”

Michael Swisher, spokesperson for the cooperative, says it is too early to say how big demand for the Virginia Natural feed will be — they just began producing it — but it was something that has been regularly requested by smaller livestock raisers.

“Primarily the interest has been from the poultry segment of the market, and a lot from the backyard, small flock grower looking for a natural feed source,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to fill a niche market request, and it’s something to differentiate our feed mill from the competition.”

Tabb also sold some of his non-GMO corn to Bill Grantham, an eighth-generation Jefferson County Farmer who won the state’s Conservation Farm of the Year award in 2013. Grantham said the demand for non-GMO eggs is extremely high, even at higher prices than eggs from chickens who have been fed GMO corn.

“There’s huge demand,” he said. “Believe me: there is no problem selling them. There is only a problem getting enough of them.”

Grantham said had had recently sold out of the non-GMO eggs — at $5 a dozen.

“We had both types at market in Shepherdstown,” he said. “I had 50-dozen non-GMO eggs. I had 25-dozen GMO eggs. I came home with 15-dozen GMO eggs and zero GMO non-GMO eggs.”

“We do have to charge more for them for the simple reason that the feed is just about double (the cost) of GMO feed,” he added.

Grantham said he thinks Tabb is taking a path that will be followed by more area farmers in coming years.

“Lyle is one terrific farmer,” Grantham said. “He knows what he’s doing, and I think you are going to see a lot of people come around to doing it this way.”