JLE: Tell us a little about yourself and
your farming operation: how many acres do you farm, what do
you produce, what area of the country are you in, how long has this
land been in your family?
 DG: My name is Dennis Gengenbach and I am
54 years old. I have a wife who is a dietician working at a
hospital and nursing homes and her income and support allows me to
farm. My son Nathan is a bank officer in a town 70 miles
away, and his wife Nikki is a teacher at Grand Island High School.
They have a 2-year-old son named Micah. My daughter Darcy is
a veterinarian who lives in Gering, Nebraska. Her husband
George is a teacher and they have a little girl, Mary, who is a
 We live in southwest Nebraska in a town called Smithfield, a
town of 60 people. It's basically a farming area--agriculture
is the main occupation. We are lucky enough to be situated
over the Ogalala Aquifer. The Ogalala Aquifer is an underground
pond located underneath four states, and it gives us our
irrigation. I farm about 1,500 acres and rotate between corn
and soybeans with a little wheat on dry land areas. I've got a
cow/calf operation and presently have about 800 acres of pasture
and run about 120 cow/calf pairs. We used to have a
farrow-to-finish hog operation but low prices in 1998 and a knee
replacement in 1999 gave me a good reason to get rid of hogs.
I have one full-time person hired to help me and during harvest and
planting and I have a 72 year old neighbor that provides help. My
kids and their spouses come back and help when they can.
 My father started the operation in the early 40s and retired
about 15 years ago. I have expanded probably half again from
what he had. He was at 800 acres, and I'm about double that
 JLE: What are some of the challenges you
are facing in your business? (economically, socially,
 DG: Our biggest problem is we have no
control over prices of things we produce or of things we need to
buy for the operation. We're last on the food chain. Prices
are pretty good right now, with record high cattle prices and
fairly high bean prices. What people don't realize is that we are
paying highest prices ever for the natural gas used for irrigation
wells and drying, and for fertilizer. This year in our area
with irrigation and miracles of good weather we produced the
largest amount of corn per acre we have ever produced in history,
but with cost of production so high, I'll be very lucky to break
 I'm a firm believer that I need to be involved in the things
that affect me. Right now I'm president of Nebraska Corn
Growers Association. I am on the rural ministry committee of
Nebraska Synod because I think the rural message needs to get
out. Agriculture and rural areas are getting close to a point
of crisis. This last Sunday evening was also my first meeting
of another term as a member of campus ministry committee for
 Let me illustrate the economic challenge. The USDA
just published a report that gave the average income of farmers
(defining a farmer as someone who sells more than $1000 worth of
produce) as about 63,500. Now that doesn't sound bad.
In reality, 94% of income comes from off-farm income. The
income that the farmer makes off the farm is under $4,000. My
wife is a dietician. Even though I farm so many acres, and I
gross between 350-400,000, if it wasn't for her job, I wouldn't be
here. Where does the money go? My equipment is
relatively old. A combine costs between $250,000 and
$300,000, a tractor $200,000 to $250,000. The mechanics who
fix them get $60/hour.
 JLE: Why do you farm despite the
 DG: God called me to do it. I love
it, and I think I am helping feed the world. But unless some
changes are made I am going to be forced out. Farmers in the
U.S. have competition from other countries with different
rules. The regulations I have to abide by, and the paper work
I have to fill out has tied my hands behind my back. There
are EPA regulations about chemical we cannot use but which our
competitors from overseas can use. Every year we are
importing more food even though we can produce it ourselves, but we
just can't compete. If things continue as they are now, we
will be as dependent on imported food as imported oil.
 JLE: How has farming changed in the past
20 years? What technological breakthroughs have occurred, and
what have been their up sides and their down sides?
 DG: There's been a tremendous
change. Twenty years ago my father, if he wanted more money,
just had to work harder, put in more hours, and he would have more
income. Now that's the worst thing you could do.
Technology is changing so fast. Twenty years ago the average
size of farm machinery spanned four rows. Now we have 24-row
equipment available. Farmers can buy tractors armed with
GPS. All you need is someone to turn it around at the end of
the row, and the tractor will steer itself to within a few
inches. Twenty years ago, we harvested 120 bushels of corn an
acre. This year with technology and GMOs, we harvest 240
bushels an acre. But the price of corn per bushel now is
probably less than it was 20 years ago.
 Prices can't match the increase in production costs that we
are experiencing. Twenty years ago at planting time a farmer went
to his bin and took seed out. Right now our costs for a bag
of seed corn, if you pay the technology fees, are up to around $200
per bag. Costs have skyrocketed to pay for technologies, but
prices per bushel are the same.
 Consumers in the U.S. have a sort of Walmart
mentality. Walmart says what we are doing is negotiating with
suppliers and passing savings on to you. What they don't say is
that very few of their products are made in the US, but are made in
countries with much less stringent labor requirements.
The American consumer hasn't thought past his nose about what
happens when we don't produce anything in our economy.
 JLE: Why do you choose to be a farmer?
Do you think that working on the land gives you a different view of
creation than, for example, someone who lives in an apartment
building in a city? Is there something special about
producing food that someone who works in another profession might
 I guess the thing I love about farming is that I am taking
the talents that I have and doing the best job I can, but in the
final analysis I have no control. We are dependent on what
God gives us. You marvel anytime you have a calf born, the
instinct that means that a calf gets up and nurses. I see new
life every year. Put a seed in the ground and it's dead, and
yet it can still germinate and grow into a strong plant. I do the
best I can, taking care of what God has given me. I see something
new every day. I work with livestock that appreciate
me. I appreciate them and try to understand them, realizing
God gave them to us as food. The toughest thing I had to do
was to take my first calf and kill it. As I bring my grandkids out
and show them the love of land or excitement of babies born, you
know there's a God. I see God every day.
 I earned a doctorate from Cornell in physiology and did
research for a few years. My wife and I made the decision
that the best place to raise kids and teach them responsibility and
love of the land was farming. Initially my goal was to go
back to research, but it's tough to leave. One advantage I
have is that I missed very few things my kids did in school.
I am my own boss. I took time to go to their events, I just
had to get up a couple of hours earlier and get that work done.
 It's so much easier to teach morals and beliefs if you can
work with your kids. When we need help, the kids come and
help. It's hard work, but I don't know what I'd do if I
didn't farm. I wouldn't trade that with anyone.
 JLE: Sometimes when people discuss using
genetically modified crops, they worry that we are "playing
God." Do you agree with them? How your experience guide
you as you make judgments about technology-is the present
technology simply a faster form of selective breeding, or is it
 DG: I view genetic engineering as a gift
from God. If it works so that I can do a better and more
efficient job, then I will use it. I don't use biotechnology
simply because it is available. There's a reason why I
utilize it. There's a lot to be said about being
 As far as playing God, God has allowed us to develop these
techniques. Being a researcher and farmer, everything I do
has been developed through logic and research. I try not to
let emotion come to my decisions, and it's not just
economics. I try to do what's right for the land. I
plan on being here in 20 years. Not only will I hurt myself
if I do something bad, I won't be able to make a living. I
see myself as the keeper of what God has given me to work with.
 Our ancestors and American Indians did selective breeding
by picking biggest ear of corn. If technology is bad, we'd
have to go from a computer to a typewriter or pen and paper. I have
to make the decision that's right environmentally. And
 I'll give you an example with corn. If you go to the
supermarket to pick corn out and there's a worm in one and not in
another, which ear will you buy? In order to get the product
that people want we have to control worms. Right now we have
2 options for getting rid of worms. I can spray with a
chemical that kills every insect that's in the field. There's
a balance of nature, and there are beneficial insects. If
there are too many worms in a year, we'll have more aphids.
In order to sell a product, I have to meet lot of environmental
specifications, so I need to control the insects.
 But corn gives me a different kind of option because it
will selectively control corn bore. It won't hurt ladybugs or
beneficial aphids. I no longer have to go in and
indiscriminately spray everything. That choice is a
no-brainer. I am getting a better product, saving good bugs,
and not disrupting balance of nature.
 I was on the ELCA's rural desk advisory committee and in
the first meeting, on the agenda the ELCA was going to vote about
having non-GMO wine. If you know something about genetic
engineering, that's a scary proposition. You cannot drink
wine or eat cheese that hasn't been genetically engineered. We tend
to base everything on emotion, and we don't look at the
evidence. Every time a new technology comes out, I evaluate
it: does it do what it's supposed to, and what are side
 Anything I am allowed to plant has been approved by the
FDA, EPA, and USDA. If you know the history of food safety in
the US, you know they do their job. Being a farmer I have to
base my choices upon experiments. What does science tell me
is going to happen here? Emotion clouds reason.
 Genetic engineering a tool God has given us. It
speeds up natural selection. Eventually we'd be able to
develop a corn resistant to cornbore without genetic engineering,
but not in my lifetime.
 JLE: How do you think genetically modified
foods should be labeled? Are there risks that people with
allergies should know about?
 DG: The government has shown that
genetically modified products, corn in particular, are safe.
Recently a study was done at the University of Nebraska by feeding
corn to cattle. The results were identical to regular
corn. As far as allergies, nothing has been shown.
There are things in nature that people are allergic to.
People die from bee stings, but we don't kill all the bees.
We have to use logic and reason. There are people allergic to
everything. We are never going to find a perfect
product. To my knowledge reactions to genetically modified
materials haven't been demonstrated yet. If they have been,
we need to do something about it.
 JLE: What social challenges (ie, feeding
the hungry, environmental pollution, and others you can think of)
do you think this technology can help address? What social
challenges do you think this technology will not address, and
 DG: As far as social challenges,
environmental organizations have put so much emotion into
everything, they have lost logic. My concern as a farmer
whose job it is to feed the world is the number of people in Africa
whom environmental organizations have convinced not to use these
products. We have people dying because they're afraid to use
these products. I don't know how the people who spread that
information can sleep at night.
 We have the technology to feed the world, but because of
the control exerted by multinationals corporations and control by
environmental groups, it's difficult for farmers to do what we were
asked to do by God.
 I've traveled to Japan and South Korea and seen the damage
wrought by BSE (mad cow disease) that we don't have. I'm
proud to be part of food-growing system that is so safe, but I'm
concerned that I won't be able to do my job. Last year, our
town lost four to five farmers under the age of 40. There's a
day of reckoning coming. I hope it's not too late to
 I'm invested in ethanol, a corn product that replaces
oil. It's possible that it could replace imported oil.
The frustrating thing is that we are having trouble getting an
environmentally friendly bill passed in Congress because of oil
interests. I find it interesting the oil companies claim we
get tax advantages for ethanol but I believe that we would not have
invaded Iraq if not for oil. When you talk about how much oil
costs, where do you put the cost of a life? We haven't lost
one farmer guarding our cornfields.