An Interview with Dennis Gengenbach

[1] JLE: Tell us a little about yourself and your farming operation: how many acres do you farm, what do you produce, what area of the country are you in, how long has this land been in your family?

[2] DG: My name is Dennis Gengenbach and I am 54 years old. I have a wife who is a dietician working at a hospital and nursing homes and her income and support allows me to farm. My son Nathan is a bank officer in a town 70 miles away, and his wife Nikki is a teacher at Grand Island High School. They have a 2-year-old son named Micah. My daughter Darcy is a veterinarian who lives in Gering, Nebraska. Her husband George is a teacher and they have a little girl, Mary, who is a year old.

[3] We live in southwest Nebraska in a town called Smithfield, a town of 60 people. It’s basically a farming area–agriculture is the main occupation. We are lucky enough to be situated over the Ogalala Aquifer. The Ogalala Aquifer is an underground pond located underneath four states, and it gives us our irrigation. I farm about 1,500 acres and rotate between corn and soybeans with a little wheat on dry land areas. I’ve got a cow/calf operation and presently have about 800 acres of pasture and run about 120 cow/calf pairs. We used to have a farrow-to-finish hog operation but low prices in 1998 and a knee replacement in 1999 gave me a good reason to get rid of hogs. I have one full-time person hired to help me and during harvest and planting and I have a 72 year old neighbor that provides help. My kids and their spouses come back and help when they can.

[4] My father started the operation in the early 40s and retired about 15 years ago. I have expanded probably half again from what he had. He was at 800 acres, and I’m about double that now.

[5] JLE: What are some of the challenges you are facing in your business? (economically, socially, environmentally)

[6] DG: Our biggest problem is we have no control over prices of things we produce or of things we need to buy for the operation. We’re last on the food chain. Prices are pretty good right now, with record high cattle prices and fairly high bean prices. What people don’t realize is that we are paying highest prices ever for the natural gas used for irrigation wells and drying, and for fertilizer. This year in our area with irrigation and miracles of good weather we produced the largest amount of corn per acre we have ever produced in history, but with cost of production so high, I’ll be very lucky to break even.

[7] I’m a firm believer that I need to be involved in the things that affect me. Right now I’m president of Nebraska Corn Growers Association. I am on the rural ministry committee of Nebraska Synod because I think the rural message needs to get out. Agriculture and rural areas are getting close to a point of crisis. This last Sunday evening was also my first meeting of another term as a member of campus ministry committee for Nebraska Synod.

[8] Let me illustrate the economic challenge. The USDA just published a report that gave the average income of farmers (defining a farmer as someone who sells more than $1000 worth of produce) as about 63,500. Now that doesn’t sound bad. In reality, 94% of income comes from off-farm income. The income that the farmer makes off the farm is under $4,000. My wife is a dietician. Even though I farm so many acres, and I gross between 350-400,000, if it wasn’t for her job, I wouldn’t be here. Where does the money go? My equipment is relatively old. A combine costs between $250,000 and $300,000, a tractor $200,000 to $250,000. The mechanics who fix them get $60/hour.

[9] JLE: Why do you farm despite the challenges?

[10] DG: God called me to do it. I love it, and I think I am helping feed the world. But unless some changes are made I am going to be forced out. Farmers in the U.S. have competition from other countries with different rules. The regulations I have to abide by, and the paper work I have to fill out has tied my hands behind my back. There are EPA regulations about chemical we cannot use but which our competitors from overseas can use. Every year we are importing more food even though we can produce it ourselves, but we just can’t compete. If things continue as they are now, we will be as dependent on imported food as imported oil.

[11] JLE: How has farming changed in the past 20 years? What technological breakthroughs have occurred, and what have been their up sides and their down sides?

[12] DG: There’s been a tremendous change. Twenty years ago my father, if he wanted more money, just had to work harder, put in more hours, and he would have more income. Now that’s the worst thing you could do. Technology is changing so fast. Twenty years ago the average size of farm machinery spanned four rows. Now we have 24-row equipment available. Farmers can buy tractors armed with GPS. All you need is someone to turn it around at the end of the row, and the tractor will steer itself to within a few inches.[13] Twenty years ago, we harvested 120 bushels of corn an acre. This year with technology and GMOs, we harvest 240 bushels an acre. But the price of corn per bushel now is probably less than it was 20 years ago.

[14] Prices can’t match the increase in production costs that we are experiencing. Twenty years ago at planting time a farmer went to his bin and took seed out. Right now our costs for a bag of seed corn, if you pay the technology fees, are up to around $200 per bag. Costs have skyrocketed to pay for technologies, but prices per bushel are the same.

[15] Consumers in the U.S. have a sort of Walmart mentality. Walmart says what we are doing is negotiating with suppliers and passing savings on to you. What they don’t say is that very few of their products are made in the US, but are made in countries with much less stringent labor requirements. The American consumer hasn’t thought past his nose about what happens when we don’t produce anything in our economy.

[16] JLE: Why do you choose to be a farmer? Do you think that working on the land gives you a different view of creation than, for example, someone who lives in an apartment building in a city? Is there something special about producing food that someone who works in another profession might not understand?

[17] DG: I guess the thing I love about farming is that I am taking the talents that I have and doing the best job I can, but in the final analysis I have no control. We are dependent on what God gives us. You marvel anytime you have a calf born, the instinct that means that a calf gets up and nurses. I see new life every year. Put a seed in the ground and it’s dead, and yet it can still germinate and grow into a strong plant. I do the best I can, taking care of what God has given me. I see something new every day. I work with livestock that appreciate me. I appreciate them and try to understand them, realizing God gave them to us as food. The toughest thing I had to do was to take my first calf and kill it. As I bring my grandkids out and show them the love of land or excitement of babies born, you know there’s a God. I see God every day.

[18] I earned a doctorate from Cornell in physiology and did research for a few years. My wife and I made the decision that the best place to raise kids and teach them responsibility and love of the land was farming. Initially my goal was to go back to research, but it’s tough to leave. One advantage I have is that I missed very few things my kids did in school. I am my own boss. I took time to go to their events, I just had to get up a couple of hours earlier and get that work done.

[19] It’s so much easier to teach morals and beliefs if you can work with your kids. When we need help, the kids come and help. It’s hard work, but I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t farm. I wouldn’t trade that with anyone.

[20] JLE: Sometimes when people discuss using genetically modified crops, they worry that we are “playing God.” Do you agree with them? How your experience guide you as you make judgments about technology-is the present technology simply a faster form of selective breeding, or is it something different?

[21] DG: I view genetic engineering as a gift from God. If it works so that I can do a better and more efficient job, then I will use it. I don’t use biotechnology simply because it is available. There’s a reason why I utilize it. There’s a lot to be said about being environmentally friendly.

[22] As far as playing God, God has allowed us to develop these techniques. Being a researcher and farmer, everything I do has been developed through logic and research. I try not to let emotion come to my decisions, and it’s not just economics. I try to do what’s right for the land. I plan on being here in 20 years. Not only will I hurt myself if I do something bad, I won’t be able to make a living. I see myself as the keeper of what God has given me to work with.

[23] Our ancestors and American Indians did selective breeding by picking biggest ear of corn. If technology is bad, we’d have to go from a computer to a typewriter or pen and paper. I have to make the decision that’s right environmentally. And financially.

[24] I’ll give you an example with corn. If you go to the supermarket to pick corn out and there’s a worm in one and not in another, which ear will you buy? In order to get the product that people want we have to control worms. Right now we have 2 options for getting rid of worms. I can spray with a chemical that kills every insect that’s in the field. There’s a balance of nature, and there are beneficial insects. If there are too many worms in a year, we’ll have more aphids. In order to sell a product, I have to meet lot of environmental specifications, so I need to control the insects.

[25] But corn gives me a different kind of option because it will selectively control corn bore. It won’t hurt ladybugs or beneficial aphids. I no longer have to go in and indiscriminately spray everything. That choice is a no-brainer. I am getting a better product, saving good bugs, and not disrupting balance of nature.

[26] I was on the ELCA’s rural desk advisory committee and in the first meeting, on the agenda the ELCA was going to vote about having non-GMO wine. If you know something about genetic engineering, that’s a scary proposition. You cannot drink wine or eat cheese that hasn’t been genetically engineered. We tend to base everything on emotion, and we don’t look at the evidence. Every time a new technology comes out, I evaluate it: does it do what it’s supposed to, and what are side effects?

[27] Anything I am allowed to plant has been approved by the FDA, EPA, and USDA. If you know the history of food safety in the US, you know they do their job. Being a farmer I have to base my choices upon experiments. What does science tell me is going to happen here? Emotion clouds reason.

[28] Genetic engineering a tool God has given us. It speeds up natural selection. Eventually we’d be able to develop a corn resistant to cornbore without genetic engineering, but not in my lifetime.

[29] JLE: How do you think genetically modified foods should be labeled? Are there risks that people with allergies should know about?

[30] DG: The government has shown that genetically modified products, corn in particular, are safe. Recently a study was done at the University of Nebraska by feeding corn to cattle. The results were identical to regular corn. As far as allergies, nothing has been shown. There are things in nature that people are allergic to. People die from bee stings, but we don’t kill all the bees. We have to use logic and reason. There are people allergic to everything. We are never going to find a perfect product. To my knowledge reactions to genetically modified materials haven’t been demonstrated yet. If they have been, we need to do something about it.

[31] JLE: What social challenges (ie, feeding the hungry, environmental pollution, and others you can think of) do you think this technology can help address? What social challenges do you think this technology will not address, and why?

[32] DG: As far as social challenges, environmental organizations have put so much emotion into everything, they have lost logic. My concern as a farmer whose job it is to feed the world is the number of people in Africa whom environmental organizations have convinced not to use these products. We have people dying because they’re afraid to use these products. I don’t know how the people who spread that information can sleep at night.

[33] We have the technology to feed the world, but because of the control exerted by multinationals corporations and control by environmental groups, it’s difficult for farmers to do what we were asked to do by God.

[34] I’ve traveled to Japan and South Korea and seen the damage wrought by BSE (mad cow disease) that we don’t have. I’m proud to be part of food-growing system that is so safe, but I’m concerned that I won’t be able to do my job. Last year, our town lost four to five farmers under the age of 40. There’s a day of reckoning coming. I hope it’s not too late to rectify.

[35] I’m invested in ethanol, a corn product that replaces oil. It’s possible that it could replace imported oil. The frustrating thing is that we are having trouble getting an environmentally friendly bill passed in Congress because of oil interests. I find it interesting the oil companies claim we get tax advantages for ethanol but I believe that we would not have invaded Iraq if not for oil. When you talk about how much oil costs, where do you put the cost of a life? We haven’t lost one farmer guarding our cornfields.

Kaari Reierson

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.