When I moved from D.C. back to central Pennsylvania, I had to relearn the questions for family reunions. In deer season: "Did you get your buck?" In the spring: "Got your corn planted yet?" And all summer long, especially after a rain: "Did you get your hay in?"
Recently, though, I ventured a new question to my Uncle Sheldon, a dairy farmer with some of the most productive fields in the valley. The USDA had just deregulated "Roundup Ready" alfalfa, and I wondered: Would he plant the controversial crop? "I won't use it," he said. "I don't see the need for it."
Here in Pennsylvania, alfalfa is one of few perennial crops that farmers grow in the tried-and-true rotation of corn, soybeans, grain, and hay. It fixes nitrogen, prevents soil erosion, and -- as long as you cut, dry, and bale it before the rain -- makes nutrient-dense hay to nourish your cows all winter long. Another benefit: Alfalfa naturally chokes out weeds. Currently, only 7 percent of the country's 22 million alfalfa acres ever sees herbicide at all.
Enter Roundup Ready alfalfa, genetically engineered by Monsanto to survive weed-killing doses of the herbicide glyphosate. Even farmers smitten with alfalfa’s Roundup Ready cousins -- soybeans, corn, canola, sugar beets, and cotton -- aren't necessarily embracing the new addition. My uncle, for instance, doesn't want to kill the grass he sows with his alfalfa. The diversity, he explains, keeps the soil from washing away when the alfalfa thins out; plus, it's better for the cows.