John Jemison

Winter 2007-2008

John Jemison says that his relationship to food changed dramatically during a sabbatical spent in Italy. He works to get more local, healthful food on more Mainers’ tables, and encourages people to slow down and enjoy their food.
The GE-Bt Issue

by Rhonda Tate

“What are we going to do when Wal-Mart doesn’t exist anymore?”

I think about the question that John Jemison posed from his Orono office, overlooking the Stillwater River. He’s talking about the ability of companies such as Wal-Mart to exist because our government subsidizes fuel costs for transporting products and consumers to big box stores, and such companies don’t pay for the negative externalities caused by burning fossil fuels.  Without such subsidies, “I am sure Wal-Mart could not stay in business,” says Jemison.  (See, for example,

“People are just going to have to spend more money on food or grow their own,” Jemison answers simply.

Spend more on food? Grow my own? I’m not a farmer … and where does Jemison get these crazy ideas?

Apparently a trip to Italy and a lifetime of learning have convinced the water quality and soil specialist from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension that nearly everyone can garden, and that those who can’t can be helped by those who can. Oh – and spending 25% of family income on food, rather than on big houses and big cars, might be the hard answer to the simple question of what we do when the Wal-Marts of the world are gone.

According to the USDA, Americans spent 9.9% of their disposable personal income on food in 2005.  The figure has declined almost steadily from 23.4% in 1929.   About 40% of our food dollars are now spent at restaurants and other eating places.  (For comparison, while 6.1% of our disposable income is spent on food at home, figures are 8.3% for the United Kingdom, 10.9% for Germany, 13.4% for Japan, 13.6% for France, 28.3% for China and 36.7% for Russia.  Note, however, that U.S. disposable income may be greater than that in some countries listed, so we may be paying a greater total amount for food, but a lower percentage.)

Easiest of Times, but not Best of Times

“We’re going to look back and think that this was the easiest time,” but not necessarily the best time, Jemison muses. The university professor has long been known in the world of Maine agriculture but recently has made a reputation by speaking out about the need for sustainability. A sabbatical to Italy in 2003 convinced him that we can live sustainably, and that sustainability means a lot more than recycling our cans and bottles.

“I was in Italy during the hottest summer in European history, and there was no air conditioning in the car on our way to the farm,” says Jemison. For that matter, no car was driven to the farm unless all seats were occupied. According to Jemison, the Italians he worked with approached energy conservation, and life in general, in a completely different way. A town of 800 people supported a butcher, a baker, a fruit and vegetable seller and a store for sundries. “I’d visit Yolanda for my fruit and Linda for my sundries,” said Jemison. “You actually knew these people.”

Then he came home and realized a key component of life was missing here. “There needs to be a connection of people and food.”

Does Maine’s low population density (37 people per square mile, vs. 501 for Italy) hinder public transportation and supporting local enterprises? “Many people,” says Jemison, “argue that the dense population and short travel distances in countries like France and Italy allow effective, efficient public transportation. I think that has to be a reality.” He continues, however: “It is interesting … we are (in theory) the government. We can subsidize what we value. We could subsidize more local foods production, public transportation, but in reality government is wealth and the wealthy run government. Therefore we see what we have.  The government is forever trying to kill Amtrak, and we subsidize air traffic because wealthy people generally don’t tend to be drawn to public transportation.”

Back to the Table

Italians’ connection to food spills over from their family dinner table to their communities. “Most Italian families sit down to a homemade meal once a day.  How many Americans do this?”  Jemison asks. “We’re not sitting down as a family and celebrating food.” About 75% of French families regularly sit down together for a meal, for example, while about one-third of U.S. families do.

Celebrate food? That’s difficult with sterilized food poured from a cardboard box and served limp from the microwave, but it’s far more likely when we know who cooked the meal, or, better yet, who grew it. “My trip to Italy completely changed my relationship with food,” says Jemison. “Now I go to the market [Orono Farmer’s Market] and Mark [Guzzi, of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont] says, ‘Hey John, how’s it going?’” Jemison knows where his food comes from, and he wants everyone else to have this same knowledge.

Educating about Sustainability and Community

Upon returning from Italy, he offered an educational program on sustainability through Cooperative Extension.  First offered in 2004, the class addressed sustainability, climate change, healthy local food systems and simple living. After four sessions and nearly 100 students, the 25-hour course is on a hiatus. “I think I bit off a little more than I could chew,” laughs Jemison.

While he and his colleagues at Cooperative Extension are revisiting the course, a legacy carries on from his past courses as a small, community garden in Orono. The sustainability course, modeled after the Master Gardener program, requires community service. The downtown Orono garden, located behind the senior center, grew from this requirement. With Jemison spearheading the effort, past students maintain the garden on land given to the project by the town, and they donate all produce to seniors in the community. Small grants from the Maine Community Foundation, the Harvest Fund and, most recently, Bridge Builders (a family foundation), as well as lots of volunteer labor, have kept the garden growing. Now this community-wide effort has other farmers kicking in extra produce to provide 5 to 8 pounds of fruits and veggies to over 50 seniors each week. Jemison himself donates extra produce from his university research plots.  The garden continues to attract new volunteers and master gardeners. “We taught people how to garden organically,” explains Jemison, “and now we’ve created a community around food.”

This success with food and community has inspired Jemison to focus the next round of Cooperative Extension courses on food alone.  He envisions teaching the biology of crop production so that participants understand conversations about organic versus conventional farming and genetically-engineered food crops versus genetically-engineered pharmaceutical crops.

Divergent Roles

Jemison, who comes from Memphis, Tennessee, and received his Ph.D. in agronomy and hydrogeology from Penn State in 1991, moved to Maine when he got the Cooperative Extension position that year. He has worked on water quality and agricultural production issues since then, studying, primarily, nutrient and weed management, always with the goal of saving farmers money and protecting our state’s environment. In his professional roles – as an Extension professor at the University of Maine, member of the Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC) and of MOFGA’s board—Jemison must walk a fine line.

“We have two agricultures in Maine,” he explains. “We have the small, local, organic farm and the big, local, conventional farm.” His jobs require that he work with both. While big farms have driven agricultural policy in the past, organic farms, with the help of organizations such as MOFGA, are increasingly influential, notes Jemison.

“I love doing research at Spencer’s [Spencer Aitel of Two Loons Farm], because we can work with corn seeds and then go eat lunch,” says Jemison. “No protective gloves and masks needed there.” There, he has been comparing yields of open-pollinated with hybrid corn – and finding little difference over four years.

Elsewhere, “I am wrapping up a four-year alternative forage crop system analysis – comparing organic corn yield, forage quality and weed density with a double crop small grain/annual grass system.” The double crop system (fall small grains followed by sorghum-sudangrass) produces equivalent tonnage with about four times fewer weeds, but the overall energy produced is lower than from silage corn.  Dairy farmers feed corn silage primarily for its high energy content, and thus far, that has been the weak link in the system. So he is now trialing winter small grains followed by short-season corn. He is also studying the ability of canola and of high glucosinolate mustard cover crops to reduce soil-borne pathogens in potato fields.

Jemison also sees his responsibility on the BPC and at Cooperative Extension as bringing research-based information to decision making, to help Maine’s farm industry work while doing the least harm.

As a soil and water quality specialist, Jemison often sees Maine’s two agricultures operating in parallel. “You will have larger dairy, potato, blueberry producers, and they will likely be working on reducing costs, but will use traditional, conventional production methods. I see my job as helping those farms remain productive and viable. The other ag seems to me to be a more personal agriculture. It is farmers’ market agriculture, CSA agriculture, and on an even more personal level, gardening to support communities. My goal is to see much greater participation in this agriculture by our population.

“I want to see more open land converted to gardens that can help lower-income populations eat better (similar to our Orono Community Garden Project). Helping people realize that [gardening] is not that hard is part of my job.  Another part is to educate on the importance of food in health, in local economies and in combating sprawl. My vision is that every town would have a community garden. Every town would have a farmers’ market equivalent in quality to the Orono Farmers’ Market. I would like to see agriculture grow in the state. It should; and with climate change, peak oil and these other factors operating, it almost has to.”

Jemison maintains that his commitment is to local, organic farm systems. “Looking toward the future, I think Maine is a really good place to be. There’s a lot of need, and our educational efforts are useful here.” He thinks that quality food and water are two of the most important human needs. “Organic agriculture may be the best way to get people back into the kitchen, bring families around the table, and improve the overall health of Maine citizens,” says Jemison, and he sees his work on MOFGA’s board as helping to elevate organic agriculture. He is encouraging the conversation that is needed to transform Maine agriculture. “If we embrace change,” says Jemison, “I’m confident we can make change happen.”

The GE-Bt Issue

John Jemison found himself in a difficult position this summer, as the scientist on the Maine Board of Pesticides Control (BPC), trying to balance scientific research with the needs of Maine’s diverse agriculture, and as a MOFGA board member.  While he abstained from voting on permitting genetically-engineered Bt corn at a BPC meeting, he did suggest that the product would reduce pesticide use.  “If we have a chance for growers not to use insecticides, if we have a chance to get Lorsban out of production, maybe organic farmers haven’t lost,” Jemison explains.  Lorsban (chlorpyrifos) is a highly toxic organophosphate insecticide.  While many of its uses have been canceled because of its toxicity, it is still registered for insect control (primarily of cutworms) in corn.

Jemison says that USDA food policies that support increased farm size and low-cost food put farmers under constant pressure to produce more at lower costs. He aims his research at helping them do that, but at the same time hopes to encourage strong local food systems with minimal chemical inputs. He notes that the pests that Bt corn combat can be controlled using organic methods, or they can be tolerated. With sweet corn, “most organic growers that I buy from just live with earworms. Some use crop-based oil on the silks with varying levels of success.  As for borers, they use crop rotation.”

To grow field corn, organic growers rotate corn every year, Jemison explains. “This reduces the potential for corn borers to build up. Most conventional growers do not rotate their field corn often.  Some none at all.”

The economics of using GE Bt field corn are complex, says Jemison. A farmer who currently does nothing to control insects and then tries Bt corn will have to see whether yields increase enough to pay for the technology. A grower who is already applying an insecticide to control caterpillar pests will find that the economics are equivalent–and the farmer will not be exposed to the pesticides. (“This is my only argument for the use of Bt field corn,” says Jemison.)

Regarding Bt sweet corn, “Most conventional sweet corn growers spray on a schedule based on insect pressure,” says Jemison.  “If you didn’t have to spray, the economics [of Bt corn] look very good.  The question is this:  How do we get people to live with insects in their food.  I do … I’ll share my corn tips with earworms – a bit for them and plenty for me.  But this is a difficult sell to most people.”

Does Bt corn have environmental or public health costs?  “I don’t have a great answer to this,” says Jemison. “Bt [toxin] is in the pollen and gets spread around mostly by wind; it’s in the stover that remains in the field; and it’s in the root system.  Most research has looked at its impact on other insects and found minimal effects, generally.  The bad news is, if you don’t want to eat it [the Bt toxin] and you are buying sweet corn in the store from another state, chances are it could be Bt sweet corn. Your exposure to synthetic pesticides is reduced, and since we have an acid stomach, the Bt toxin crystals don’t form in our stomach, and so the toxin should go through you.  In the 10 years of commercial use, few real negative effects have been shown with its use.  Bt corn has been coming into Maine for a decade as grain feed,” Jemison adds.

MOFGA opposed registration of Bt corn varieties. The association’s position on genetically engineered organisms is posted at

While Jemison acknowledges the unknowns of genetic engineering, he notes that crops engineered for humans, such as Bt corn, are approved for the human food supply – unlike crops engineered to contain drugs for pharmaceutical companies.

“I’m very concerned about these ‘pharmed’ crops, because they are not necessarily meant for human consumption,” says Jemison, and his research shows some level of drift in all GE crops. While he sees no way of keeping Roundup Ready crops and Bt corn out of Maine, he sees a unique opportunity for the state to prohibit “pharmed” crops.

“I would like to see the BPC and state of Maine say we are not going to do pharmaceutical crops. We have never done them and we never will.” Jemison hopes other northeastern states will join Maine to create a “pharm-free” corridor. The BPC would have jurisdiction over pharmed crops only if they contained a pesticide; banning pharmed crops that don’t contain pesticides would require that the Maine Legislature pass a bill to that effect.

About the author: Rhonda Tate is currently taking a break from teaching high school biology to teach her two very young sons how to walk, talk and savor good food.

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