As an invulnerable tween, Chris Huegerich, the child of a prosperous farming family, wiped out on his motorcycle in tiny Breda, Iowa. Forty years on, folks still call Huegerich “Crash.” And though he eventually went down a conventional path (married, divorced) and bought out his parents’ farm, Huegerich has recently reverted to his daredevil ways — at least when it comes to choosing what kind of corn to plant.
It’s late November, and Huegerich’s 2,800 acres in central Iowa have been neatly shorn to sepia-and-umber stubble. His enormous combines and cultivators have been precision parked — wheel nut to headlight — inside his equipment sheds. But in Huegerich’s office, between the fields and the sheds, chaos reigns. A dozen dog-eared seed catalogs litter a table, along with marked-up spreadsheets and soil maps. For farmers choosing next year’s crop, this is decision time.
Buying seeds used to be a fairly simple matter. Farmers picked four or five varieties offered by a regional dealer, and that was that. But in the mid-1990s, biotech companies started producing seeds genetically modified with traits from other organisms. One trait made soybeans resistant to the herbicide glyphosate; another, using a protein from the soil bacterium Bt, helped corn fend off the insects rootworm and European corn borer.
Huegerich’s father eagerly embraced the new genetically modified (GMO) seeds. They cost more, but he could save money on herbicides and pesticides. His yields and profits went up, helped in part by good weather and favorable market conditions. But as revenue rose and the years passed, trouble was looming.