A day in the life of a Boulder County GMO farmer

Roundup Ready sugar beet farmer talks about his trade in Longmont

Photo by Stephanie Riesco

Paul Schlagel’s business purchases usually consist of irrigation piping or seeds, so it’s understandable that the farmer is eager to show off his new toy: a GPS-guided John Deere tractor. Though he technically bought it used, the gleaming green piece of equipment is his first new tractor since 1990. With a navigation screen that tracks the tractor’s progress, it doesn’t need to be steered; in fact, if you try to steer it, it shuts off. Schlagel loves operating it, but he says the tool’s fine-tuned precision is important to a job where efficiency is paramount.

“It’s pretty cool, I think,” Schlagel says, sitting in the machine’s driver seat as it rumbles toward the edge of his property. “Especially for the stuff we do, it’s smart enough so that you don’t over-spray. It’s really a money saver. When you talk about being green, you do this stuff because it’s economical, but it makes you feel better because it is saving fuel.”

For the Longmont farmer, being green is something he can’t help but feel slightly defensive about. Schlagel farms genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Boulder County, a place that prides itself on eco-friendly practices and organic living. Schlagel is part of The Western Sugar Cooperative and raises Roundup Ready sugar beets. Sugar beets have a long history in Colorado, especially in Longmont, where they once were considered “white gold.” After growing up on his father’s farm and managing it for more than 35 years, Schlagel has had more than enough experience combating weeds in sugar beets.

“If there was ever a crop for Roundup Ready, it’s sugar beets because we struggled so drastically with our weeds. Our ditches were full of weeds and were miles and miles long,” he says. “But with Roundup Ready, it’s perfect. There are issues, I’m not going to say there aren’t, but we grew up struggling to keep sugar beets clean.”

Since their introduction in 2008, environmental groups and food safety groups have criticized Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets, citing unintended threats to human health and the possibility of cross-pollination with non-GMO plants. However, the USDA has determined that the weed-resistant crop is unlikely to pose these risks and officially approved it for use in 2010.

For Schlagel, whose farm is his business, his planting decisions are based on what is best for production. After years of trying a variety of different herbicides, many of which he says were like “chemotherapy” for his crop, he planted Roundup Ready sugar beets. The difference has been game-changing. Schlagel’s team, which currently consists of him, two farmhands and his son, used to devote significant manpower to weeding the fields.

Using genetically modified sugar beets has reduced his labor needs, he says, in addition to increasing his yield enough to surpass his co-op quota for sugar. Farmers in The Western Sugar Cooperative have to produce one acre for every share they purchase, but since Schlagel started using Roundup Ready sugar beets, he produces more sugar than his processing plant can handle. He’s scaled back to compensate, and for every 100 acres he used to use, he now only uses 85. With less acreage allocated for sugar beets, Schlagel’s been able to sell corn that he otherwise couldn’t have grown.

Even if he didn’t find the advantages of genetic modification so beneficial, Schlagel says, the small market for organic products would still be a deterrent. He says he may make the switch one day if the demand increases, but going organic isn’t a financially viable option for him yet.

“I consider [switching to organic] all the time, but it’s not logical right now, there are no markets for it,” Schlagel says. “If you farm a garden somewhere and go to the farmers’ market and sell your produce, that’s one thing, and there is a market for organic wheat. But man, the cost of doing it and the difference in the price really doesn’t work.”

Driving down the road in his white pick-up truck, Schlagel points out the still-brown fields where he grows his GMO sugar beets and corn, conventional alfalfa and conventional barley that he sells to MillerCoors in Golden. His work is spread out over his father’s farm, which he lives on, a City of Longmont Open Space farm, a Boulder County Open Space farm, Pleasant View Farm, a privately owned farm with a conservation easement, and Nelson Farm, which is located east of I-25. While these five properties may sound like they would draw in substantial revenue, Schlagel says that much of their money goes straight back into running the farms.

“Once upon a time we might have been looked upon as large-scale agriculture, but we’ve been passed up,” Schlagel says. “It takes a large scale to pay for stuff anymore, everything is getting so expensive. Fuel and fertilizer have gone up. But the price of commodities has been pretty decent in the past few years, and it’s given us the opportunity to do [a few] projects.”

During the off-season this year, the big project has been replacing irrigation ditches with underground pipelines to ensure the crops are watered evenly. Watering in Colorado is already a challenge, but Schlagel has the added difficulty of a hilly landscape. In addition to contending with erosion issues, his fields were cut into irregular shapes to accommodate the natural water flow down ditches. This has made upgrading to a sprinkler system that can reach their entire field an especially costly endeavor. Just last year, they made the decision to invest in one with a swing arm and a computerized memory to track the edge of the farm.

Schlagel is used to dealing with the notoriously dry conditions, but the below-average snowpack has introduced a huge element of uncertainty to this year’s planting season. His team is still waiting for word from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, a federal water diversion initiative. However, Schlagel estimates they’ll only issue about 50 percent to 60 percent of their reserve in case drought strikes again next season. Even more important to his crop is the excess water that the City of Longmont usually releases to agriculture, and the farmer is certain his farm won’t see any of that water this year. Still, he’s trying to stay optimistic.

“We’ve grown to depend on that water [from the City of Longmont],” Schlagel says. “We just won’t plant as much. I’d rather something sit idle and not plant it than give it half the water that it needs. We still plan on planting 100 percent today, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

As his truck bounces and wobbles up the road that skirts his father’s farm, he passes by his two farmhands working in the field. He enthusiastically notes that the dirt road could really use another grading, and that there’s a combine that needs to be set up to process small grain. Schlagel is always looking for ways to keep the men busy during the off-season, and the farm usually presents them with plenty of jobs to do. But if Schlagel falls on hard times, he’s concerned with the tough decisions he may have to make.

“I worry about these guys that work for me probably too much. I’m just struggling with what to do, but we’re going to keep going on until we have to make a change,” Schlagel says. “But once irrigating season starts, everybody has a job and you don’t have to wonder what that is every day.”

The men are busy planting before they manage their own farms during irrigating season, which begins in mid- May. They also run a trucking business on the side, to transport barley for MillerCoors after the crop has been harvested. But in early spring, Schlagel’s 27-year-old son, Scott, uses the trailers to haul barley screenings (impure pieces of barley and substances collected during the barley cleaning process) that they receive from MillerCoors.

Schlagel says he’s been thrilled to have his son working for him for the past two years and, despite the various stressful aspects of his job, he says that this kind of family life is one of his favorite aspects of being a farmer.

“The best part of it is that your kids grow up to be better kids, just growing up and learning the work ethic,” Schlagel says. “Like just like this morning, Scott knows he needs to load the screenings and he shows up and he’s gone and he never whines about anything. He knows how important it all is.”

Though Schlagel knows that his practices as a GMO farmer are not popular in Boulder County, even conceding that genetic modification serves the farmer more than the consumer, he has to consider the finances first in an unpredictable industry. He says he hopes other farmers can understand and accept his choices.

“In my book, everybody has a place. You do what you do best and hope to do well,” Schlagel says. “It’s easy to coexist — I think it is.”

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