Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Washington's Initiative 522: A Tale Of Two Northwest Farms

The state of Washington grows about 300 types of crops -- from the lush valleys north of Seattle, to the orchards of the Columbia Basin, to the rolling fields between Spokane and Walla Walla. And if you ask any of those farmers about Washington’s Initiative 522 and you’ll get every kind of answer.

If passed this November, it would require labeling of genetically modified foods. The initiative would not ban GMOs, as they’re known. But it could have a big impact on Washington agriculture.

Monteillet Fromagerie, a sheep and goat cheese farm, sits near Near Waitsburg, Wash. The house and milking barn sit in a little valley, hugged by steep rolling hills. In the farmhouse husband and wife Pierre-Louis and Joan Monteillet are setting the table. Their cluttered kitchen is filled with the smell of their-own freshly-butchered, free-range chicken roasting in the oven. Four friends have just dropped-in for a late lunch.

And soon the conversation turns to Initative 522.

“For myself, I want labeling," says Joan Monteillet. “I want people to know they are getting a product off our farm they can totally trust. We’re not using anything, any sprays, we’re digging weeds. We’re through. We did farming for 20 years, we did all the chemical use we could do. We’re fed up with that.”

Joan’s husband, Pierre-Louis says, sure scientists have studied GMO crops and not found any ill effects on humans, but he says, "who knows what’s going to happen we have no idea of long-term effects on this. So if the producer or GMO products are so sure than they are safe, then label. If there is nothing to hide then label.”

Joan and Pierre-Louis agree with experts who say labeling for GMO foods would likely cost more – and be passed on to the consumer. But Joan is OK with that.

“I think the more the consumer wakes up and sees that the choices are there, you might have to pay a little higher price to make sure that you’re eating better, but what’s wrong with that too?”

About 90 miles away, wheat stubble and newly planted fields roll in every direction. A father and son are re-working a seeding machine in a farm yard near Ritzville.

Eric Maier’s family has farmed wheat in this same place for five generations and the farm has grown to 7,000 acres. None of Maier’s crops are genetically modified at this point. But he doesn’t want to eliminate that option for the future. He thinks GMO labeling could put Washington farm products at a disadvantage.

“I produce on the world stage. I’ve got to be competitive globally," says Maier. "Wheat is a global commodity. If someone else is able to grow it cheaper, and the market is going to go down, I have to be able to compete globally. This is another tool to get me there, if I have a home for that product.”

GMO wheat isn’t in supermarkets now. But for farm products, perception is everything.

“This initiative the way that it would be is like a warning label on a product," Maier says. "And why are we warning people when we’ve got a food in there that’s safe? It makes no sense to me.”

Like many Washington voters --- a lot of farmers are still undecided about Initiative 522. Most I’ve spoken to say they’ll wait and watch.

But these two families have one thing in common -- they are less worried about the November election, than they are about the nearing spring.

On the Web:

Initiative 522 - Washington Secretary of State
No on 522 - campaign site
Yes on 522 - campaign site

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.