Hay growers can grow organic, conventional and Roundup Ready alfalfa in co-existence without fear of contamination, says Don Cameron, who manages Terranova Ranch, Helm, CA.

He’s successfully produced organic and biotech alfalfa for hay within 100-200 yards of each other and marketed them to happy, aware customers. Just after the first deregulation of Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2005, Cameron planted about 250 acres of the crop to sell to dairies.

“We’re careful about how we farm, and we knew that the issue could become a problem. But we were on a 30-day cutting schedule. We never had a problem. Our buyers of conventional hay actually requested the Roundup Ready hay because it was a lot cleaner,” he adds.

Cameron manages 7,000 acres of up to 26 crops, some organic, some conventional and some biotech. He grows organic and biotech cotton as well as lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, corn, vegetable seeds, grains and nuts, to name a few.

“Farmers with modern practices – if they cut on normal schedules – I just don’t see it as being any real risk of any contamination from a Roundup Ready alfalfa to an organic field.

“Whatever happened to organic production being about not using pesticides? That message has been lost. It’s all about GMOs (genetically modified organisms),” he comments.

Co-existence isn’t new; growers have always had to practice it to maintain crop purity, he adds.

“We grow crops, conventional and organic, that require separation. We grow quite a few seed crops and know which ones need to have separation and which ones can be grown side by side. We grow probably 15 different varieties of lettuce for seed – organic and conventional – and can plant them side by side with no problem.

“Other plants that we grow need maybe a mile or two miles of separation, and that’s been going on long before we had biotech crops,” Cameron stresses.

Growers know the biology of the crops they raise and are accountable to government requirements and certifying agencies, he points out.

“We deal with seed companies and with different buyers, and they have different specifications for different crops that we grow. For organic production, we have to be able to show the separation that we give the crops is adequate for the crop we’re growing.”

Being conscientious when identifying crops, cleaning equipment and maintaining good records is essential.

“We typically bale our conventional hay in large bales and our organics in small bales for identity purposes. We have a custom operator bale for us, and he has cleaning procedures that he has to go through.

“We have a chain of traceability back to the field level that we follow, and we’re real strict about that – not only with the alfalfa, but with the other crops that we grow, conventional and organic. As long as you can prove to your buyer that you’re diligent in your recordkeeping and how you farm, I think that you shouldn’t have a problem.”

Cameron, who plans to add Roundup Ready alfalfa back into his rotation this fall, used it six years ago to avoid the use of residual herbicides.

“We grow a lot of vegetable crops, and the herbicides that were available for conventional alfalfa left a residue and were really too restrictive to use on alfalfa. With Roundup Ready alfalfa, we could use Roundup and there were no residual effects.

“The first cutting was spotlessly clean. Beautiful. Then, in subsequent years, we could keep the field clean without the more powerful or persistent herbicides that were available. It was a good fit for us,” he says.

A lawsuit filed this March against USDA by the Center for Food Safety and others claims that it will be impossible for organic hay growers to continue to produce organic alfalfa now that Roundup Ready alfalfa has been deregulated.

USDA, in a court-mandated environmental impact statement, found that the transgenic alfalfa was environmentally safe. The new lawsuit alleges that USDA’s unrestricted approval of the crop was unlawful.