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Published March 30, 2015, 10:07 AM

Grafton, N.D., woman leads educational campaign for sugar beets

Laura Rutherford, a Red River Valley farm wife, is being tapped by the American Sugarbeet Growers Association to help farmers tell their story to the media.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — As U.S. sugar beet growers face increasing political fights about things such as genetically modified organisms in beet seed, they’re raising the profile of their staunchest allies — farm women.

Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, spoke March 26 at the International Sugarbeet Institute in Fargo, N.D., about some of the industry’s challenges and opportunities.

Then he introduced Laura Rutherford, a Red River Valley farm wife and the first of a new cadre of farm women from sugar beet regions across the country whom the ASA will call upon to tell their story to the media.

“She’s the leader because she helped create it,” Markwart said of the new campaign.

Rutherford, of Grafton, N.D., will be an effective farm voice to help teach consumers about the safety of sugar. Markwart said the industry historically has been represented by male voices who approach topics from a business perspective and aren’t always as effective with consumers.

Women in the audience who often make family food choices might be inclined to listen to a farm woman and mother who has the same concerns they have for the “environmental benefits and the safety of the food” produced with crops enhanced with GMO traits, he said.

GMO in sugar

Among other things, Markwart expects potential export competition from the European Union sugar production restriction to be removed in 2017. The Europeans don’t allow GMOs and U.S. producers expect they’ll use that as a market advantage, even though the process of making sugar removes the protein and DNA, making GMO sugar indistinguishable from nonGMO sugar.

Rutherford and Markwart have developed an educational slide show about GMOs and the sugar beet industry, especially the reasons for the 2007 adoption of Roundup ready beets, modified for resistance to herbicide. Rutherford showed the slides at a recent winter sugar beet meeting in California.

Rutherford has already testified in the North Dakota State Legislature against GMO labeling. She also spoke at a joint American Crystal Sugar Co. and Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association board meeting in December.

Listen to moms

Rutherford, a 2004 political science graduate from the University of North Dakota, is married to Roy Rutherford, and has three sons ages 4 to 8. She grew up on a farm-ranch near Forestburg, S.D. In North Dakota, she helps on the family farm by driving beet trucks and other duties, including caring for the family.

She says she’s a strong believer in the cooperative system and sees the sugar beet community as a “family,” because it is a specialty crop with far fewer acres and farms than the large commodities. She says research shows American consumers “like and respect farmers, and like and respect moms.

“Sometimes they’ll listen to moms even more than they will to scientists or researchers or celebrity chefs,” she says. “The public trusts them and holds them in high esteem, and, in this situation, the messenger is as important as the message.

“There’s a ton of opinions, misinformation out there,” about GMOs and other issues involving farmers, she says. “I’d like the debate to be defined by scientific evidence instead of conjecture and fear-mongering.”

Rutherford says she has a passion for the topic and thinks “activists are trying to drive a wedge between those of us in agriculture and consumers that buy our products.”

She says “every person — every woman — needs to speak out on these issues because we can no longer be silent.”

She is an unpaid volunteer, but the ASA and the Sugar Industry Biotech Council initially have been covering travel costs.

Rutherford said in the next two weeks she will launch a blog designed to tell the sugar story — www.thesweet