Photo courtesy of Mike Boyatt for New Holland News Magazine
Pat Trask is a fourth generation rancher following in the inspiring footsteps of his ancestors while also making a name for himself as a father, rancher and activist. A member of Farm Aid-funded group Dakota Rural Action, he's been working to keep genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa from threatening the livelihoods of conventional and organic farmers.
Pat can trace his passion for the land to his great grandfather, a soldier who journeyed to the Black Hills of South Dakota after being discharged from service in the Civil War. There he worked as a surveyor and plotted deeds for the territorial government. His sons, including Pat’s grandfather, worked for one of the first three cattle operations in western South Dakota. Pat’s grandfather went on to found the historic Two Rivers Ranch, raising cattle and alfalfa where the Belle Fourche and Cheyenne rivers meet. The ranching lifestyle was passed along to Pat’s father who then raised Pat in the same tradition.
After receiving his degree in Agriculture Economics from South Dakota State University, Pat continued his family’s work while having a family of his own. His wife, six sons and six daughters have all welcomed ranching into their lives. On the Trasks’ Spanish 5 Ranch in Elm Springs, South Dakota, they raise 650 head of Angus and Black Baldy feeder cattle, alfalfa hay, alfalfa seed and grass seed. Pat’s oldest sons, Nick and Al, have expanded to grow grains and alfalfa on newly purchased land.
As Pat explains, growing alfalfa is as much a part of ranching as raising cattle. His objective is to grow and sell hearty and resilient high-quality alfalfa seeds. Pat’s custom seeds are marketed to farmers throughout the United States and as far as Canada and Italy. Pat wants his product to be known as “the best alfalfa there is.”
“South Dakota is somewhat of a parent state to alfalfa in the US,” says Pat. He goes on to explain that most fields of alfalfa carry the genetics of the oldest varieties that were brought to South Dakota from Europe, with naturally selected common traits that make them extremely winter hearty and very resistant to pests. This seed stock is referred to as South Dakota Common Seed and it is found across the country. Pat’s seeds are well received by farmers and their testimonials proclaim Pat’s alfalfa as the “leafiest, finest stem they had ever grown.”
The Trasks’ Spanish 5 Ranch harvests 2,350 acres of alfalfa annually. Pat’s favorite thing about farming is “living the life of the good shepherd and being able to expose [his] children to that same stewardship lifestyle.” Pat and his family believe in giving back to the community. Each year he hosts more than four hundred community members at his ranch, where they enjoy a picnic and fireworks display. Pat notes that almost everyone in the area is a fourth to sixth generation deed holder and he proudly says, “I think that our community might be one of the best in the world!”
In 2006 when Pat was expanding the marketing side of his seed business, he became acquainted with Phil Geertson, a conventional alfalfa seed grower from Oregon. It was Mr. Geertson who first introduced Pat to the threats of genetically engineered Roundup Ready (GE) alfalfa. By the end of that same year, Pat was geared up to work with his local government to pass ordinances and statutes to prevent the sale of GE alfalfa. Pat’s main aim was to “prevent counties from being contaminated and stop the conventional alfalfa industry from being lost in western South Dakota.” As time went by, Pat and Phil realized they must face the issue at a national level or the whole nation’s alfalfa industry would be at risk of contamination by GE seed.
Pat’s biggest concern regarding GE alfalfa is the permanent loss of both conventional and organic alfalfa seed due to cross-pollination, which would spread GE genes to all varieties of alfalfa. "Superweeds" are another serious concern, since GE crops engineered to resist Roundup Ready herbicide have been found to give rise to herbicide resistant weeds that can choke out a farmer’s fields. Supporters of GE crops say that without them we won’t be able to feed the world, but Pat explains, “That’s flat contrary to independent studies showing that GE crops don’t increase yields, they just increase pesticides.”
Since the USDA again announced deregulation of GE Alfalfa this past January, Pat has renewed his commitment to fighting the technology. He will be a plaintiff in a lawsuit to stop planting. This case is a continuation of an earlier case that successfully kept GE alfalfa off the shelves since 2007, when it was first approved by USDA. According to Pat, “corporate bullies have always drawn me out of the pastures.”
Pat’s advice to others is “lots of activism.” He hopes to see every household actively involved in notifying neighbors of the threats of GE seeds, writing letters to local newspapers and calling their representatives.
As discussed in this month’s Ask Farm Aid column, GE crops have failed to demonstrate increased yield or benefit farmer livelihoods. As Pat puts it, “If the world only has one seed vendor, and one seed, then what will be the cost to farmers?” The permanent loss of seed varieties plus the increased cost to farmers will create an unimaginable loss, one that Pat Trask is unwilling to stand by and allow.
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