From Mica: I discovered my colleague, Ed Umbaugh, through Twitter a few months ago. His Twitter bio intrigued me: “Ed Umbaugh lives on a very small farm where we raise grass fed lamb. I am a Tech at a Monsanto soybean seed plant.” I asked him if he’d be willing to share insight into his experiences with us. Here are his thoughts.
By Ed Umbaugh
I’ve been asked if there is some contradiction in raising grass-fed lamb and working for Monsanto producing transgenic (GMO) soybean seed—both of which I do.
My decision to raise lamb as opposed to some other livestock was based on two major factors: What is the most expensive meat product in the grocery store? This offers me the best chance to have a product that will provide some income to my family. The second factor in this choice was the limitations of my property and my ability to manage livestock. Sheep are relatively easy to handle when compared to beef or hogs and the required equipment is less expensive. As for the grass-fed part of the equation, our farm is very small–about 25 acres of pasture. The income potential is very limited. As a result, we need to limit the cost of inputs. In agriculture, as in any other business, the cost of production must be less the gross revenues or what you have is a hobby, not a business. Grass is free and it happens to be that sheep on grass require less management then on feed. This lowers my cost and risk because I have less invested in my product.
My point in sharing how we made the choices we did for our farm is that they are business choices. They were shaped by the realities of trying to make a piece of land productive. These are the same choices that “big” farms, farm managers, and family farms make. We are reacting to the demands of our customers, and working within the limitations of the market for our product.
When I read about how transgenic seed just made it easier for farmers and didn’t really improve yield or productivity, I know the writer places little value on the farmers’ time and effort. What if the writer was to give up the computer that makes writing and publishing just easier not really better? The yield on the farm does not stop at the bushels per acre. The improved yield is the college education for the children, the vacation during the summer. This is the improved yield that not just transgenic seed but all of modern agriculture has given the American farmer.
Question broadened: Am I using one method of producing food in one paradigm and working in an opposing paradigm?
Restated: Does the predominate form of agriculture exist in opposition to a superior form that has been neglected or repressed by capitalist interest?
Answer: I have been able to make the choice of raising lamb by a slower method because Monsanto (read industrial agriculture) has produce a rich enough society that I don’t have to be a subsistence farmer. Our current model of food production has focused on producing more food with reduced input of human labor. My grass-fed lambs require very little labor; that is one of the qualities we have developed in our unique variety of sheep. Industrial agriculture has over centuries produced breeds of sheep that produce meat and fiber faster with different inputs then I use.
If you look at the goals of farmers in the 1860s to the present, you will see the goal of “modernizing” food production—just as the production of all goods—was to move it from the home to an industrial setting. The motivation was to improve home life by making it separate from work life. Subsistence farming and home production of goods lacked a balance of work and family life. This is the reality that the romanticized view of organic farming and returning to the slow way of food production forgets or ignores.
Edward Umbaugh is a seed technician for Monsanto. In his role, he inspects seed production fields for seed purity, operates and maintains seed cleaning equipment, performs quality control tests during production and trains forklift operators.
Edward has a BS in Fine Art from Illinois State University. He and his wife live on a very small farm in southern Illinois where they raise grass-fed lambs for meat. They own two dogs, an Irish Terrier, and an American Leopard Dog, Bear. The Umbaughs can much of their own food, and the meat they don’t raise they buy locally directly from the farm.