Will grow in Bootheel: Farmer defends Ventria pharma-rice

When he agreed to be first, David Herbst had no clue he'd ushered a storm into the Bootheel's rice country. His decision to grow 150 acres of genetically modified rice for Ventria Bioscience seemed a no-brainer — something other farmers would see the value-added benefit of. Even today, after months of accusations and derision, the man who runs Tierney Farms in Chaffee, Mo., is perplexed at fellow farmers' reactions.

“It surprised me,” he said. “When someone uses fear as a deterrent, that's something I can't address scientifically. If someone said, ‘I'm worried about pollen,’ I can point them to studies and science (showing Ventria's rice won't cause problems). However, it's very difficult to address fear.”

Fear and education

And there's plenty of fear among his fellow rice growers: mostly fear that with pharmaceutical rice in the neighborhood, markets will be lost. Herbst isn't deaf to the charge and said it's a legitimate one.

“But we all need to educate the buyers instead of scaring them. And we can educate these markets! Let's make sure the buyers know there's going to be a 7-mile buffer area, that there will be a 50-foot fallow area, and that there will be three full-time Ventria employees caring for these 150 acres. The buyers need to know the rice will be worked on by dedicated equipment, that it'll be milled where it's grown and won't be in a truck running up and down the roads.

“And let's let everyone know: if you want specialty rice grown, the Missouri Bootheel should be the first place you look at. Let's do that rather than go out there scaring the hell out of them saying, ‘GM rice! GM rice!’

“I'm just a catalyst. Farmers have talked about value-added crops forever. This is an opportunity to work with the epitome of value-added.”

In late March, Riceland Foods and Anheuser Busch both released letters against Ventria's move to the Bootheel. Herbst said the companies — especially Riceland — have a role to play in helping markets overcome jitters.

“Who has the contacts and financial reserves they have to get the word out? And if (Ventria's rice acreage expands), who better than Riceland to build a mini mill and participate in the project and marketing? This doesn't have to be an antagonistic relationship between Ventria (or other GM companies) and Riceland. This shouldn't be looked at as competition, but as an opportunity for farmers to exploit.”

On Herbst's farm, Ventria plans to grow rice containing human proteins that occur in saliva, mother's milk and tears. Whenever the rice is cooked, the protein breaks down. So, unless one is eating raw rice, “you couldn't ingest that protein anyway. And even if you did eat the protein, it's completely safe.”

Among other potential benefits, cancer researchers are currently looking at the efficacy of lactoferrin — one of the proteins in Ventria's rice.

“Someone may ask why, if this protein is already available, do you need to get it from Ventria's rice? Well, the biggest reason is economics. We can grow lactoferrin for a mere fraction of what it costs to obtain it by other means.”

Herbst is well-spoken and well-informed. He knows the minutiae of Ventria's fledgling Bootheel plans and talks of them energetically.

First, though, he wants it known that he has every incentive to do no harm.

Raised in Columbia, Mo., Herbst spent childhood summers on the farm. His grandfather owned the place and the plan was always for Herbst to take over some day. That day came in 1990, when his grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“When I got the call, I was at Baylor University ready to begin my junior year. He said, ‘They tell me I've got a year to live. If you want to farm, we've got a year to get your feet on the ground. It will be hard and furious, but we can get you ready.’”

Herbst came back to the farm and sat at his grandfather's knee learning the operation. Unfortunately, the doctors' were correct: his grandfather died the same month they'd predicted a year earlier.

With such a history, he said, “I love this farm. I wouldn't do anything to hurt it.”

Herbst insists he's a good neighbor. “Ventria's goal isn't to hurt anyone. If this project is unequivocally going to hurt markets — if there's proof that said, ‘Ventria rice being grown in Missouri will have a negative effect on rice markets’ — then we've got to back up and look at this thing all over again.”

Currently, Herbst farms about 3,500 acres. “We've been producing Asgrow seed for about 10 years now. My employees and I are very comfortable with identity preserved crops.”

Ventria's rice will be grown just behind Herbst's headquarters. Such close proximity will add to security, he said.

Will there be spotlights and cameras on the field? “We'll have lots of different things. I won't go on record with specifics because we don't want people to know all our lines of defense.” The field is currently being precision leveled and, if USDA permitting allows, should be planted soon.

Herbst said the permitting process contains a safety element. “A lot of people think this is Pandora's box — if it's opened, there's no stopping it. But Ventria's USDA permit has to be applied for every year. Even if FDA approves this rice as a food-grade crop — which I think they will, the rice will still be considered pharmaceutical.

“So, if there's a problem in the future — whether markets, containment or some other discrepancy — this crop can be stopped through the permitting process.”

Herbst's lack of experience with rice helped him land the Ventria acreage. “I'm not a rice farmer. What Ventria wanted was to move as far as possible away from the bulk of rice acreage. This 150 acres is now 7 miles from the nearest conventional rice field (a farming neighbor once planned to grow rice 4 miles away, but has since moved his rice).

“One mandates Ventria likes to use when growing its rice is not to plant it in a field that was in rice the year before. They want to make sure there's not a red rice problem — not just for red rice outcrosses, but to eliminate any contamination of its product. When it mills this rice, it wants a pharmaceutically pure product.”

Towards that goal, Herbst will not only host Ventria's 150 acres but also the company's Bootheel headquarters. New offices behind Herbst's are now being constructed.

“We'll have dedicated equipment and grain bins surrounded by an acre of concrete. The mill used to crush to the rice will be on-site too.”

Anyone who walks in the Ventria field must undergo several hours of training. The field access will be restricted regardless, “but if you're going to get close, you have to go through the training. When you leave the field, you must know how to check your shoes, your clothes, how to hose down if need be. There are an awful lot of safeguards.”

Common questions

Asked to explain the financial setup between Ventria and participating farmers, Herbst said, “This may have no bearing on the future, but the plan is for them to pay by the acre. Ventria's rice isn't going to yield as well as (food-grade) rice under normal conditions.”

Herbst won't divulge what Ventria is paying him. “What they do with me may be different than what they'll offer other farmers in coming years. Ventria pays an extremely fair price. They do so because, in coming years, they want to attract the best growers to the program.”

Since news of Ventria's plans hit the Bootheel, Herbst has attended a series of producer meetings to address concerns. “I've been at 15 to 25, ranging from three people to 75. A meeting in Dexter a few weeks ago was an open invitation to area farmers. It was a good meeting because we got to answer a bunch of farmer questions.”

A common question: why is Ventria working with rice instead of some other crop? “Basically, rice is self-pollinating and its pollen isn't viable after traveling very short distances. Rice yields are also pretty consistent.”

Yield consistency in Chaffee may be a problem, though. “The variety we're growing is a long-season rice, 150 days. There's no other 150-day rice grown around here. It'll be a few more years before Ventria can get the genetics into varieties typically grown in this area. So, very easily, this could be a bomb as far as production.”

Another concern involves birds or flood dispersing the pharmaceutical rice to neighboring food-grade rice fields.

“The type of rice we're growing has a very weak seed coat.” Herbst said this trait means seeds will break down in birds' guts quickly. “It also doesn't have the ability of dormancy. In other words, if growing conditions are right, it has one chance to sprout. Otherwise, it will rot.”

Herbst, who has yet to “get a dime from Ventria,” scoffs at critics claiming the company moved into Missouri “under the radar.” Despite claims to the contrary, Ventria's approach has been transparent, he said. “If you look at the USDA Web site — because there are other GM crops waiting for permits, too — the other companies list several states and counties as possible locations where they may grow. You don't know where the crops will end up. They may grow in all or just one location.”

Ventria has taken a different approach, he said. “They say, ‘the northern Bootheel is where we'll grow and we're going to make it public. If you want to look at it or talk to us, fine.’ They could have played the game (other companies are playing). But if they'd played that permitting shell game, it would have thrown up a red flag in front of me.”

On Ventria's expansion plans (17,000 to 28,000 acres are numbers most often cited), Herbst admits concern. This isn't because he thinks it can't be done properly, but because he'll be unable to control how the rice is grown once off his property.

If Ventria had wanted to plant 15,000 acres immediately, “I'd be nervous… It'll be a challenge to contain those kind of acres, but we're looking at several years down the road and by then we'll have reviewed containment procedures several times to insure proper safeguards are in place.”

Confident, not cocky

To get the project started on such small acreage, though, Herbst has no misgivings. “I'm extremely confident — but not cocky — that we can keep Ventria's rice right here… I always have concerns. It would be self-serving to say I don't. We must be concerned and being so will make us do a better job.”

Herbst said farmers must consider the benefits of biotech projects, at least on a small scale. “China is doing work with GM rice. It's coming, there's no doubt. What we must decide is whether we want to take advantage of GM rice. We can pass this up and watch a lot of other folks take advantage of the technology. If this opportunity passes, though, I can almost promise you we won't have another come around for a long while.”

Several companies similar to Ventria are looking for locations friendly to their needs, said Herbst. The Bootheel can either establish itself as that place, “or we can bury our heads in the sand and say, ‘It won't work. We're not willing to make it work.’

“Farmers call here a couple times a week and tell me, ‘Don't let this die. If we don't have some value-added opportunities come to our farms soon, we don't know how long we can make it.’”

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