Oct 1, 2014
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Agriculture's Edge

RSS By: Chris Bennett, Farm Journal

Covering all things agriculture; high-brow, low-brow and all points in between.

Farmland and cults a nasty mix

Jul 08, 2014

Cults love farmland. Stick a cult leader with a pained look, greasy beard, saffron robe, and 10 pounds of beads in an apartment complex – and he and his 10 followers will be given a paddy wagon escort to the nuthouse within weeks. It’ll be a life sentence of Nurse Ratched and saltpeter. But stick him on farmland and his dour expression will disappear. He’ll be wearing a Cheshire grin and draped in even heavier beads; declaring free love; keeping an army of crackpots hanging on every cosmic pronouncement; and hauling in enough cash to choke a dozen donkeys.

Case in point: In 1981, in one of the most bizarre episodes in U.S. history, the Rajneeshee cult bought 64,000 acres of farm and ranch land, and hatched an unparalleled scheme of bioterror, assassination and voter fraud.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh built up a solid cult following in India during the 1970s by promoting the sensual over the ascetic. (Sort of a more sex, less meditation approach. It made all the other cult leaders wonder why they hadn’t thought of it first.) When he decided to go big-time, his main lackey, Ma Anand Sheela, found 64,000 pristine acres in Wasco County, Ore., where Rajneesh could feed his ambition, erect a city and house thousands of disciples: buy it, build it, bask in utopia.

Life on the "farm" was good for Rajneesh. He set up shop on the spread, serenely surrounding himself with a Peace Force brigade that patrolled "Rajneeshpuram" with Uzis and a mounted .30-cal. machine gun. He also enjoyed a few toys – 93 Rolls Royces were kept in waiting. (Nothing like a little opulence to break up the toil of meditation and blessing the masses.)

From Slate: "Some 7,000 followers moved onto the ranch, where they all wore red, worked on the communal farms and helped build the community. Rajneeshpuram grew to include a 4,200-foot airstrip, a fire department, restaurants, a public transport system using buses, and a sewage reclamation plant. It even had its own zip code: 97741."

 

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But karma can be a stubborn beast. When toady Sheela bought the land, she didn’t reckon on government regulations and building codes. Rajneeshpuram could only grow so big – no permits, no shining city.

What to do? From Les Zaitz’ excellent account in The Oregonian: "The Rajneeshees found that the law did allow some new homes, but only for farmworkers and their families. Sheela homed in on that exemption when she met with Wasco County planners in summer 1981 … They told the assembled officials they planned to operate a farm commune. Workers would be brought in to restore abused rangeland. They needed dwellings to house the workers."

The city planners weren’t buying the story and when they asked if the Rajneeshees were religious, Sheela threw out the old fail-safe line, taking cover in agriculture, "We are simple farmers." (Ich ben ein farmer.) When the farming ploy was rejected, Sheela unleashed what many consider the wildest attack on local elections in U.S. history – sort of a Sherman’s March on Wasco County government. They would try to gain control of the board of commissioners by rigging the vote and electing one of their own through Salmonella politics.

From The Atlantic: "They hatched a two-pronged plan. First, the Rajneeshees would try to depress turnout among regular voters by poisoning thousands of residents with Salmonella, thus incapacitating them on Election Day. Second, the group would round up thousands of homeless people from nearby cities, entice them with promises of food and shelter, and register them to vote."

Their first option was poisoning the county water supply, but they weren’t sure of the logistics. (Sheela had built a makeshift lab in Rajneeshpuram to concoct viruses, bacteria and toxins.) They also considered flying an airplane (with a full load of bombs) into the county courthouse. Instead, the Rajneeshees chose a hands-on method in September 1984. From The Atlantic: "… teams of two left the compound, traveled to nearby restaurants … and, when nobody was looking, poured Salmonella-tainted liquid on items in the salad bar. The Rajneeshees hit a total of 10 restaurants, as well as a handful of other public areas. Within hours, emergency rooms were flooded with sick patients. A total of 751 people were stricken with Salmonella poisoning in what is still the largest bioterrorism attack in American history. Miraculously, no one died."

They kicked off the second part the plan by chartering buses in cities across the U.S. and bringing in several thousand homeless men with promises of beer and plenty to eat. The homeless scheme imploded when the Rajneeshees discovered "many of the homeless had serious mental problems." (Pot, meet kettle.) According to Zaitz, the Rajneeshees were reduced to adding tranquilizers to beer served to their homeless guests in an effort to maintain order.

When the Rajneeshees tried to assassinate the U.S. attorney for Oregon and the state attorney general, the legal noose finally tightened. Sheela was later collared and sentenced to 20 years – serving two.

Rajneesh threw Sheela under the bus, essentially claimed to be an enlightened dupe, and got off with deportation. He’d been too busy enjoying the latitude of free love, motoring in his fleet of Rolls, and of course – being a "simple farmer."


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Prince Charles hates GM crops, loves coffee enemas

Jul 01, 2014

The man who would be king hates GM crops.

Prince Charles has been waiting in the weeds to become king longer than any other prince in history. OK, not true, but it sure seems like it, and when your mother is 88 and can lick you in a sprint, you’re probably gonna be waiting a whole lot longer. Piling on, his grandma lived to be 101.

Safe money says Charles has a lot of time on his hands – enough to confuse scientific expertise with an accident of birth.

The latest news headlines are filled with stories of Charles pushing his anti-GM and climate change views through government channels and attempting to influence UK officials. No big surprise; he rolled out his view on GM crops and science long ago. His 2010 book "Harmony" was aimed at "the great juggernaut of industrialization" and he picked and chose his science at a rate befitting a royal trapped in a gilded echo chamber.

Whenever Charles speaks about science, he leaves a not-so-subtle scent of burning martyr hanging in the air, and seems to believe his view of science and "Harmony" are messianic fulfillments: "My entire reason for writing this book is that I feel I would be failing in my duty to future generations and to the Earth itself if I did not attempt to point this out and indicate possible ways we can heal the world."

 

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In 2008, acting as a self-appointed green prince, he accused agriculture corporations of a "gigantic experiment I think with nature and the whole of humanity which has gone seriously wrong."

He wants to go back to a world of traditional farming and traditional breeds – and he equates any GM deviation with the road to hell. "And if they think it's somehow going to work because they are going to have one form of clever genetic engineering after another then again count me out, because that will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time."

Spouting rantings that only a royal could get away with, he once attributed Indian farmer suicides to "the failure of many GM crop varieties," despite studies and stubborn facts to the contrary. Rarely does Charles miss an opportunity to hammer climate-change deniers and bash any dissent as medieval, yet finds no incongruity with his own stance on genetically modified crops.

But then again, this is the same Charles that recommended coffee enemas as a cancer remedy. (But don’t forget the enemas must be chased with 13 shots of fruit juice per day and vitamin injections every week.) Fair to say that if Charles gets seriously ill, he probably won’t be calling for his footmen to come running with a can of Folgers and an enema bulb.

 

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An epic survival tale you’ve never heard

Jun 26, 2014

When a helicopter pilot spotted a series of furrows in a clearing halfway up a mountainside in the depths of Siberia, he lifted the veil on one of the most astonishing tales of isolation and survival in history.

Agriculture, no matter how primitive, is the telltale mark of human presence, especially in Siberia’s 5-million square mile blanket of emptiness, and when the Russian helicopter crew (on an iron ore scouting run in 1978) reported the sighting, they were met with disbelief. The clearing, 150 miles from any settlement, was off the grid — truly in the back of beyond — and entirely unknown to any Russian authority.

A team of four geologists, camped roughly 10 miles away, were given the location of the clearing and set off on foot to find out exactly what the pilot had glimpsed. What they found was a scene locked in a 44-year freeze — a family tucked away and hidden from the world and forgotten by time.

Smithsonian relates testimony from one of the geologists, Galina Pismenskaya, as the team first walked up on a decrepit hovel beside a stream: "… the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish — bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it … Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see. The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard."

 

For the Smithsonian article written by Mike Dash, see For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II

 

The man, Karp Lykov, had been concealed in absolute isolation in the wilds of Siberia for 42 years — and he wasn’t alone. Pismenskaya continues: "The silence was suddenly broken by sobs and lamentations. Only then did we see the silhouettes of two women. One was in hysterics, praying: ‘This is for our sins, our sins.’ The other, keeping behind a post … sank slowly to the floor. The light from the little window fell on her wide, terrified eyes … "

The geologists had found a family of five nearing starvation: Karp, sons Savvin, 45, and Dmitry, 36; and daughters Natalya, 42, and Agafya, 34. Karp’s wife had died 17 years earlier in 1961.
The Lykovs were members of the "Old Believers," a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, and Karp led his family (wife and only two children at the time) into Siberia in 1936 after communist soldiers murdered his brother just outside the family village. Karp grabbed what belongings he could, gathered up his family and kept going deeper and deeper into the wilderness — the realm of Gulags and merciless terrain. The communists didn’t follow and the Lykov family was forgotten, almost hermetically sealed from any outside contact.

 

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There are many survival/isolation tales that astound: the 1972 Andes plane crash survivors; Ernest Shackleton’s two-year Antarctic odyssey; the 1819 whaleship Essex disaster; Victor Aveyron’s feral childhood in the 18th century; Alexander Selkirk’s solitude on Juan Fernandez; and scores of other stunners. Yet outside of the Lykov family, no account features the mix of a 40-year duration, primal existence and religious fervor.

The shocking degree of seclusion and removal from basic societal awareness was immediately evident when Pimenskaya asked the Lykovs if they had ever eaten bread. Karp answered, "I have, but they have not. They have never seen it."

Their existence was dependent on extreme subsistence farming with a diet based on "potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds." (Their clothing was made from garden hemp production.) With no firearms or bows, game was difficult to catch and the Lykovs repeatedly came to close to starvation. Karp’s wife, Akulina, died from malnutrition in 1961, and the rest of the family only survived when "… a single grain of rye sprouted in their pea patch. The Lykovs put up a fence around the shoot and guarded it zealously night and day to keep off mice and squirrels. At harvest time, the solitary spike yielded 18 grains, and from this they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop."

Even after discovery, the Lykovs refused to return to their old village or let go of the past. In 1981, Savvin, Natalya and Dmitry died in succession; followed by Karp in 1988.

Agafya, born in unexplored Siberia, is still living there — alone — roughly 70 years old. Even for her, the isolation takes a harsh toll and in a recent letter she has called on the Russian government to send someone to live with her — yet she won’t leave. From her letter, excerpted in The Siberian Times: "We prayed together, and only went out to do outside works after prayers. And whatever else others were doing, one of us was forever inside, to keep reading our prayers. We prayed together during holidays. And now everything is on me, both the prayers and the household."

Agafya will keep her "Old Believer" vigil to her dying breath. After 70 years in Siberia, the last of the Lykovs is going nowhere.

 

For more on Agafya, see Can anyone help the woman who time forgot?

 

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Where's your pain relief medicine grown?

Jun 24, 2014

The next time you reach for a painkiller, the pill you pop probably came from a farmer’s field filled with pink and white flowers on the other side of the world.

The poppy fields of Tasmania provide the opiates for almost half the global supply of pain relief drugs. Whether codeine or cough syrup, the arsenal in your medicine cabinet likely is derived from 62,000 acres of Tasmanian poppies. (Tasmanian poppy acreage is dwarfed by Afghanistan’s 500,000 acres and Burma’s 100,000 acres, but that harvest feeds the opium and heroin trade.)

Opiate paste is obtained from a poppy’s capsule and a few inches of the upper stem. The dried paste and poppy material essentially goes into the manufacture of morphine, codeine and thebaine — vital to the medical industry. Worth over $100 million to Tasmanian agriculture, poppies are only grown by farmers with special government licenses and manufacturer contracts. Each year, roughly 800 producers farm Tasmania’s heavily regulated 62,000 poppy acres — with yield averaging about 1 ton per acre, according to the Poppy Advisory and Control Board.

 

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Poppy farming is a cash cow the Tasmanian agriculture industry wants to keep inside the paddock for as long as possible, but mainland Australia wants a piece of the profit, and acreage expansion to other states would spread risk in case of a lost season or natural disaster. It would also break Tasmania’s Australian monopoly.

Tasmanian farmers like Cliff Hingston are digging in. "Everyone that I know is dead against it going outside of Tasmania. It makes you nervous about future investments," he told The Examiner. "If we can't supply it, I wouldn't have a problem with it, but at the moment I think we can. I don't think they have explored the option of storage enough. It's a bit like setting yourself up for a drought; you fill your barns with hay and your silos with grains and they can do it too. All it needs is federal legislation to allow them to store in addition to what they do now.''

Trial plantings are currently underway in Victoria, but the Tasmanian government is calling for a five-year moratorium on interstate expansion. From AM: "Opium is the key ingredient for pain relief drugs such as codeine and morphine. Demand is growing as populations in the developed world age and developing nations get richer. Tasmanian farmers have been growing poppies since the 1960s but the industry is outgrowing the island state and looking to the mainland … There are 13 trial sites across Victoria, involving three companies. One company has also run trials in the Northern Territory. It has Tasmanian growers concerned that their share of the industry is about to shrink."

Arguably the most unique of specialty crops, one factor is certain for poppy farmers: Demand for pharmaceutical painkillers is going nowhere but up. No poppies; no opiates.

 

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How to kill a country: Take away the farmland

Jun 17, 2014

Wanna wreck an economy or kill a nation? Just toss several thousand farmers off their land and wait a few years for the country to curdle when the inevitable food supply collapse comes. All it takes is a bit of "farmland redistribution" and a nation’s base will go wobbly — sort of like smashing your own ankles with a hammer.

It’s a page pulled straight from Robert Mugabe’s "How To Destroy Your Own Country" playbook. When Mugabe, dictator forever and a day of Zimbabwe, took power as prime minister in 1980, he inherited a thriving economy backed by a treasure trove of natural resources: coal, iron, gold, platinum, diamonds — and rich farmland.

In a few years, certainly by the 1990s, Mugabe had pulled the economic handbrake and Zimbabwe had reversed course in a smoking one-eighty, fueled by massive corruption, bungled leadership and the whims of a tyrant.

When your country is burning, what to do? For Uncle Robert, he threw on more wood and doubled-down in true avuncular fashion, shuffling the agriculture industry in 2000 by seizing white-owned farms in the name of "land reform" and in a racial game of mix-and-match, reallocating the land to black farmers. But despite Mugabe’s posturing, his land grab was not about historical wrongs — it was about Mugabe and his cronies (judges, military leaders, government officials, and loads of Mugabe relatives lining up with open hands) making off with all they could — over 2 million acres of farmland. In short time, most of Zimbabwe’s 4,500 white farmers were forcibly removed by Mugabe’s henchmen and put on the curb with no compensation. Fist in the air, Mugabe assured Zimbabweans that true change was nearing and in one of the rare occasions of his reign, one of his forecasts actually came true.

 

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Just as Mugabe promised, change indeed soon arrived, dragging with it an absolute economic nightmare.

From the New Republic: "Starting in 2000, Mugabe implemented a land reform program in which thousands of commercial farms were confiscated from their traditional (i.e. white) owners and gifted to Mugabe's friends and cronies. Few of the new owners knew how to run a commercial farm, and some simply fired all the employees and sold the equipment for parts. Agricultural exports, the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy, went into free fall … The cratering of the agriculture sector cascaded through the economy."

Mugabe took a sliding economy and kicked it right off the cliff:

  • Per capita GDP of Zimbabwe = $600, third lowest in the world
  • Average monthly wage = $253
  • Unemployment rate = 80 percent
  • "By 2009, the private sector was operating at 10 percent of its former capacity. Other than a trickle of tobacco exports, farms withered back to prairies."

 

Mugabe’s farm snatch has left 2.2 million Zimbabweans currently needing food aid, according to the World Food Programme. Zimbabwe's economy is in shambles, marked by hyper-inflation and a monetary system desperate for cold, hard cash — any currency but its own. The central bank has opened the economy to a jaw-dropping eight currencies: Australian dollar, Botswana pula, British pound, Chinese yuan, Indian rupee, Japanese yen, South African rand, and U.S. dollar.

Once tagged by Christopher Hitchens as "Africa’s Worst Dictator," Mugabe recently turned 90 and paid $5 million to North Korea for two bronze birthday statues; one will beckon to the crowds in the capital city Harare, and the other will feature in his hometown, but neither is supposed to be erected until after he dies. (Zimbabwe may not have money for food, but at least they’re paid up when it comes to buying bronze.)

Even as Mugabe ticks into his nineties, age and ineptitude haven’t weakened his grip on power — despite monthly predictions to the contrary. Western pressure has held little sway with Mugabe and he tends to relish criticism, as he did in 2003 when the British press compared him to Hitler: "I am still the Hitler of the Time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be a Hitler tenfold."

Mugabe has taken a country once described as the "Breadbasket of Africa" and turned it into a state with bare shelves that imports everything. The irony couldn’t be much greater in VOA’s description of Zimbabwe: "Agriculture in the nation, once a major corn exporter in the region, was decimated by violent state-backed land invasions starting in 2000 that dispossessed white commercial farmers of about 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres).

"Ironically, the nation is importing corn which is now being grown in neighboring countries by the same farmers that it dispossessed."

Robert Mugabe — tyrant to the end.

 

For more, see Michael Hobbes’ New Republic article, How Did Zimbabwe Become So Poor — And Yet So Expensive

 

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