A Story for the Grandkids

Two and a half weeks ago, I had a unique opportunity to sit in front of a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives to share a bit of my farm story. I told them about our cows and about how our farm operates, a little about our history and family, and shared specifically how important biotechnology is on our farm and others like mine around the country. The big topic of the day was (and is) genetic engineering or modification (GM).

How did I get there?

Years ago, I had the opportunity to apply for American Farm Bureau’s Partnership in Agriculture Leadership program. I was accepted along with nine other Young Farmers from across the country. It was a tremendous program and I learned a lot. One idea in particular that has stayed with me was from a former president of National Corn Growers who said it is one thing to have the vision to recognize an opportunity when it comes along. You must also have the courage to take advantage of it.

Fast forward ten years.

What started as an invitation to attend the annual Washington, D.C. meeting for the National Council for Farmer Cooperatives and participate in their young cooperator program, led to sitting on a panel to discuss my experience about blogging and social media and sharing our farm story online, which led to a phone call out of the blue asking if I’d be willing to fill in as a witness at a hearing about the societal benefits of biotechnology for the House Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture. Um, YES!

After about a week and a half of very late nights and early mornings trying to get all my work done, keep up with the farm and the boys and prepare for my testimony, I found myself sitting with three other panelists in front of six members of Congress.

Yes, that's a Jersey Cow on my lapel.

Yes, that’s a Jersey Cow on my lapel.

I’ve taken some time to reflect on that day and the subsequent reactions that I experienced following. Each time I’ve started to write this post, I have found myself getting bogged down in too many details. It’s truly been a whirlwind. The actual hearing lasted nearly two hours. The other panelists were with universities and spoke about their tremendous knowledge and research about GM crops both in the U.S. and other countries, (see link to hearing summary page below). I was the only farmer on the panel and tried to share how biotech fits in our daily operations. When our time was up, there was a very positive vibe in the room, despite realizing a rather somber conclusion: we in science and agriculture have not done enough to convey the benefits (and safety) of GM crops. Thus, we have much work to do.

Perhaps what resonated with me the most from the hearing, were comments made by Ranking Member Kurt Shrader, an organic farmer from Oregon. They were similar to a theme that I’ve been carrying with me for awhile now – at the end of the day, we’re all farmers regardless of the label that is put on the product we’ve made, and there’s room for all of us. Here’s one of his quotes from the day:

“As science and technology advances, it’s important that we do not pit different agriculture systems against one another – we should support all forms of agriculture.”

I’ve had the privilege of receiving generous support and thanks, for which I am grateful, from people I know personally and also from people across the country. I’ve made many new contacts and now have a go-to group of people who are a lot smarter than me that I can bounce the scientific articles off of to help better understand and interpret them.

Of course, I’ve also received some negative tweets, comments, messages and have even been included in an extremely negatively slanted article (sponsored by a company that wants to sell you more burritos) that received a lot of attention, unfortunately. Perhaps the toughest, though, has been facing people close to me, hearing their ideas about GM and our food system which is why they may be fearful or misinformed, and trying to gently share facts with them without causing a rift.

A few days after returning home to the farm, we were putting the cows out to pasture. It was a beautiful morning- cool breeze, warming sun – and as the cows filed past me I think I caught a few nods as a sort of “welcome home.” Really, it was just another day heading up to graze the beautiful top pasture under the watch of Wheeler Mountain. It reminded me why I took advantage of the opportunity to testify, why I put myself out there, no doubt to be judged and questioned.

I’m protecting our way of life. I’m protecting the way we farm and care for our cows. I’m also protecting consumer choice and farmer choice and opportunity. I’m protecting the legacy we are continuing by farming this land, and the legacy we plan to leave the next generation. I know that there are many more people out there like me or that feel the same way that I do, and our work is not done. This was simply my turn to step up and I was happy to do so, and would do it all again.

My full written testimony: Written testimony of Joanna Lidback

A link to the full release including testimony from the other panel members: Subcommittee highlights benefits of biotechnology

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GMO Label Only Perpetuates Wedge Between Farmers

Over the weekend, I wrote my first letter to the editor since high school. While I had been content to post my opinion pieces here, I felt compelled to speak up more locally after reading a response to an article in our local paper that discussed the mandatory GMO labeling law recently signed in Vermont. It should be included in tomorrow’s edition. I’ll keep you posted if there’s any more to report. 

In response to Mr. Lazor’s opinion letter, published in the May 29 Chronicle, I agree that a wedge between organic and conventional farming is present, and the dispute over the use of genetically modified organisms is just one area driving it. The now infamous labeling law recently signed by Gov. Shumlin does nothing more than add to it.

My husband and I are conventional dairy farmers; proud of the animals we raise, the way we farm and the products we produce. It is difficult to discuss this “wedge” if you will, particularly when you clearly fall on one side of the fence or the other. There are specific reasons why a farmer chooses to do things the way he/she does. Inevitably, you may look at farmers on the other side of the fence and question some of their practices. It’s hard to stay neutral, especially if you feel attacked.

I don’t believe Mr. Birch in Bethany Dunbar’s May 22 article necessarily characterized organic farming as low yielding and a recipe for world starvation. Certainly advances have been made to improve organic yields over time just like conventional. As Mr. Lazor quotes the UN, to paraphrase, some organic farming may have the potential to alleviate world hunger; in my opinion, many other methods of farming may as well. The fact is we have an ever decreasing land base and increasing global population and it will take all of agriculture to meet the nutritional needs of people everywhere.

With respect to labeling, I personally am not in favor of this new law. This does not mean, however, that I am not proud of the advances in genetic engineering that have resulted in using “GMO” crops. In my opinion, this level of genetic engineering has sped up traditional plant breeding, making it more efficient and resource-effective. The potential for GMO-crops goes beyond improved yields, less chemicals sprayed and reduced carbon footprints, but also includes drought tolerance (DroughtGard corn launched in 2013), improved nutrition (Vitamin A and Golden Rice) and disease resistance (Rainbow Papayas and the Ringspot Virus in Hawaii), to name a few.

I think government mandated labeling of GMOs perpetuates an unnecessary fear. People have a right to know their food, but that does not equate to a mandated label, particularly as food from GMO crops do not pose any additional food safety or human health threat. The Food and Drug Adminitration requires labeling of anything about a product that affects health and safety or nutrition. Since the introduction of GMO crops to the general public in 1994 (Flavr Savr Tomato), there has not been one documented case of associated illness. A review of 1,783 studies completed between 2002 to 2012 by a team of Italian scientists published in the September 2013 Critical Reviews in Biotechnology could not find a single example of GMO crops posing a threat to humans, animals or the environment. And yes, I have done my own research.

As a taxpayer, it concerns me that the costs associated with mandated labeling and of course the lawsuits it may bring about have not fully been sorted out. It seems the question of who will pay and how much doesn’t matter in many issues these days. While we waste more time and energy debating, defending, making rules and implementing this law, more pressing issues continue to be tabled such as the pervasive drug abuse and associated crime that is increasingly affecting our cities and quaint towns; continued unemployment and the loss of or rather lack of new jobs; the crumbling infrastructure of our roads and bridges; and by the way, how the heck we are going to pay for our new health care system?

And while we deal with our self-induced non-issue mandated-GMO-labeling law, the marketplace will have sorted this out. It will take at least two years just to put our law into place, let along fight the expected legal battles, and already labels (and more farming opportunities I might add) exist in response to consumer request – specifically a “non-GMO” and certified organic label. Additionally, there is proposed Federal legislation that may take our “law” out of play anyway.

The reality is that this a big world, with room for all sorts of farmers – conventional, certified organic, non-certified organic, GMO, non-GMO, no antibiotics, certified humane, animal welfare approved, biodynamic, non-mechanized farmers, John Deere farmers, farmers that are diehard red tractor fans, women farmers, blonde haired farmers, farmers named Bob, etc. In order to reduce or eliminate the “wedge” or maybe “wedges” between farming groups, we need to start letting go of the labels – physically and mentally – and do a better job of explaining why we do things the way we do them while respecting the choices of other farmers.

I don’t need to put a label on the gallon of milk, block of cheese or package of hamburger from our farm to say that I am proud to be a first-generation dairy farmer with my husband, keeping land that has been used for farming for generations in production and taking care of animals that started out as a 4-H project when I was nine years old while raising our kids in this farming lifestyle. Knowing we provide a safe, wholesome, nutritious product for other families and individuals on a daily basis is enough for us.

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Losing the Calves

I love posting pictures on social media sites of all the fun stuff around here: the fresh cut hay, cows grazing on rolling green pastures and cute baby calves. Farming is not all fun stuff though; it’s tough, sometimes so tough that you find yourself asking why you continue to do it. Sometimes those baby calves don’t make it for whatever reason, but reason beyond your control.

This spring, we have had a string of bad luck with our calving. We lost three heifer calves – all to freak things. I wrote the following post on my phone while the second one we lost was struggling to make it. When I wrote, we had done what we could for her and we were in wait & see mode:

towanda

Towanda and me on a random Tuesday night.

There’s a heifer calf in the barn struggling to live. While her future is bleak, there still is hope. I found myself in the same position a few years ago with a cow who is now seven years old. In a similar way it was a very cold day in March and she came unexpectedly. We brought both into heated parts of the barn. We dried each calf, rubbing them down with at least a half dozen towels. We “tubed” each calf, inserting a small tube down to their stomachs to get them colostrum with vital nutrients and immunities they need to fight off whatever they may have to fight off in these first few hours of life. We put blankets on them, said a little prayer and tried to make them as warm and comfortable as possible while we left to go do the next thing.

And now we wait. Last time, I went back to check on the baby calf at noon and found a spritely little thing be-bopping around the room. She was very cute- already a very small calf having come early and out of a first-calver and we only had a large Holstein calf blanket available.  I think it made her even cuter – she was swimming in that thing! Because of her spunk, I named her “Towanda” from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. I hope for a similar outcome today, but am not optimistic. Maybe I’ve become a little jaded as I’ve gotten older. Maybe I’m more realistic – this isn’t exactly the same situation, and it seems the calf this time is struggling a bit more as we think she may have aspirated during calving. Maybe I’m just feeling depressed because it just keeps snowing. Or maybe I’ll be wrong and she’ll make it.

Later that night:

Turns out I was right. Unfortunately the calf didn’t make it. When I went back down to check on her, she had gone further downhill, not even able to pick up her head. It is an indescribable feeling, holding a dying calf in your lap. You feel sad, hopeless, and maybe a little angry that there wasn’t anything else you could do to save her. It certainly makes you want to work harder and smarter for the sake of all the rest of the animals who did make it and are in your care. It reminds me of a line from that Paul Harvey speech made famous by a 2013 Super Bowl commercial:

God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.'”

And while this doesn’t happen often, it happens on farms regardless of the label put on the package its product sells in. Again it leaves you wondering if it is all worth it. Then you look around at all the faces watching you as you walk back through the barn to get ready to feed or clean or milk or for one last check before you leave for the night and you realize it is.

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Immobile in the Yogurt Section

The other day I went grocery shopping at a store that is not one of my two usuals. Everything was going fine, uneventful, maybe even a little dull, you know – grocery shopping – until, I was struck immobile in the yogurt section.

I was literally wandering up and down the seven feet of yogurt products while working through an internal struggle. You see, my usual choice for my kids is Chobani Champions in the tube; a Greek yogurt because of the additional protein and a tube because it’s fun. Of course, this particular store did not carry the Champions yogurt, though it did have several choices: regular and lowfat traditional yogurt, greek yogurt, kids-themed yogurt, serious “indulgent” adult yogurts, and of course, Stonyfield organic yogurt and all its offerings including its “YoBaby” and “YoKids” – the only other choice in a tube.

Up until this point, I was very much anti-Stonyfield yogurt. In fact, truth be told, I am anti- most organic products unless it is grown by someone that I know. You see, while I appreciate choice in our food industry, I don’t appreciate misleading marketing efforts that feed into an often irrational fear of our safest food supply in history; particularly when it’s just to make a buck. But on this specific day, I decided to test myself to see if I was willing to make a concession for the sake of the “tube” and the delight of my children, albeit a two minute delight. After a solid five minutes of deliberation, I found that I was not and I am glad that I did not give in.

The very next day, my decision felt further justified as one of the Twitter accounts that I follow shared the top to a Stonyfield yogurt – one I somstonyfieldehow missed during my yogurt examination – with a comment “Marketing at its finest. Come on. #cantweallgetalong.” Amen sister.  (picture at right)

The problem with this label is that organic farms are allowed to and do use “toxic” pesticides. The difference is, they are not allowed to use “synthetic” pesticides. I know this already because of my involvement in farming, but was also happy to read a recent article on slate.com that addresses pesticide residue in fruits and vegetables written by a mommy-blogger. The author, a non-farmer, took task to find the actual numbers behind pesticide residue in produce farmed organically versus conventionally, because like many others, she had been led to believe that harmful residues in conventional produce was not good for her son. What she found was far from her initial belief, no doubt created in part by crafty product marketing. Her conclusion was, though you may have other reasons to purchase organic produce, when it comes to pesticide residue, “Conventional fruits and vegetables are perfectly healthy for kids.”

The thing is, this trust-eroding-though-we-think-we’re-building-trust-in-our-BRAND advertising strategy (ala many other big-food companies like Panera and Chipotle as well) is not coming from the organic farmers. It’s coming from a marketing department removed from what’s actually happening on the farm and obviously what the national organic standards are in the U.S. What strikes me ironically is that Stonyfield recently had an initiative to recruit more conventional dairy farms to become organic-certified and sell milk to them directly, all the while their marketing department continues to piss their so-called recruits right off.

I know a lot of organic farmers. Some are even great friends. And while I respect their decision to farm organically, I don’t agree with all of their practices, just as I am sure the pendulum swings both ways. But I do know that we all care for our animals and the land to the best that we can and that alone builds a level of commonality. Trouble comes when the people using labels and other advertising to sell farm products for their food company pit us against each other. And while we do have the safest food supply in history, that in no way means that there isn’t room for improvement, innovation and still more choices.

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#FarmLove is All About the Love for the Farm

You may have seen several posts recently on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media outlets using the hashtag #farmlove. I thought I’d take a few minutes to share what it’s all about and why we chose to pursue it.

First, #farmlove is all about farmers and those who love farming to share why they love farming. Let’s face it, farming is a tough business and not for the faint of heart. There have been a few days where even I have asked why it is that we are in it. Not only do farmers have the daily operations of keeping everything fed, healthy, running and humming but we also have a constant worry about making enough money to pay the bills and put food on our own table, let alone future stuff like who will take over the farm when we are gone.

And now we have more concerns arising from a shadow that has been cast by mainstream media. Every time an undercover video of animal abuse is released, animal ag takes a hit, even though that type of behavior is not tolerated on the vast majority farms. Certain terms like factory farm, industrial farm, GMOs and hormones are thrown around without any regard to context that they have taken on new meaning and their own negative light. Today’s farms are being scrutinized in everything they do from the types pens they raise their calves in to the type of corn seed they purchase or even if they grow corn by an uninformed, or worse, a partially informed, non-farming public.

So in a way, #farmlove is about connecting all farms together too. There are no labels when we’re using the #farmlove hashtag. Big farms, small farms, conventional farms, grass-based farms, hobby farms, organic farms can all use it. Because we are all in this together. We are all farmers. We all care for our animals and our land and just may have different ways of doing it.

Anyway, #farmlove is about just that. Sharing the love that we have for our farms, for our farm life. If you have any pictures or videos to share, feel free to start. February is a month for love, let’s make it for #farmlove.

FarmLove

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Things Relearned in 2013

As we head into 2014 I am excited for what the year holds for us. There are lots of things on my list that I would like to do like so many others – lose that last ten pounds, watch our home budget closer, plant a garden this summer, prepare healthier meals and snacks for my family and myself and take time to blog a bit more (!). But I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions, preferring instead to focus on the day to day, stringing together a year that we can look back at and say “not bad.” I think I’ll be doing just fine if I am able take these lessons re-learned in 2013 into 2014 with me.

Here’s my version of taking inventory of 2013:

  1. Time sure does fly; don’t forget to live in the moment. For the first three months of Baby E’s life, I told myself as long as I can get through these first three months and we can establish some sort of routine, I’ll be all set. Guess what? In hindsight, those first three months passed like a flash and all of the sudden Baby E was smiling, rolling over and cooing. And now that he is approaching ten months, I find myself realizing that I didn’t really need to “wish” that time away. I just needed to find more patience.
  2. Patience, patience, patience. I always thought I had a lot of patience without having to think about it. What I found out with two little boys 19 months apart, a full time job and a dairy farm is that maintaining patience is a skill that needs to be practiced. Sometimes things seem to bubble up until I can’t take it any longer, and yes, I need to walk away, but I’ve found that by maintaining perspective I’m able to get through the tantrum meltdowns, fussy babies, never ending farm work, late-night catch up work sessions and even the constant clutter that doesn’t seem to unclutter itself. A reminder or perspective-check from conversations with close friends, family and the DF helps to keep that big picture view.

    One of the "farmer-rigged jobbies."

    One of the “farmer-rigged jobbies.”

  3. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. TK is BIG into tractors, particularly pulling wagons or some other sort of farm implement. At first, he used red implements that went with red tractors and life was copacetic until…he started wanted to use the wooden train cars as wagons. For about a week I tried to explain to my two year old that it could not be done. They were not the same and the two things didn’t go together until…one evening after a particularly pathetic meltdown I had a brainchild to use a twist-tie from a bread bag and hitch the two things together. Voila, problem solved. Besides, I had it on good authority that Santa was bringing him a new green tractor and green wagon and blue tractor and blue wagon and I wouldn’t have to deal with my “farmer-rigged jobbies” anymore. And yet he still comes to me, now saying “Help you?” wanting to mix up the sets again.
  4. Take time to connect with the people you care most about. A friend of mine lost her battle with cancer a few days before Christmas. Not in close contact and having recently seen her vibrant and full of life this summer, the news of the downturn in her health caught me off guard. She went into hospice care shortly after Thanksgiving and her family started a blog where they posted updates about her health. People could also leave messages for her. Once you posted, an email notification was sent each time someone else did too. To say it was inspirational to read about the impact this woman hand on so many lives seems too simple. How often do you have the chance to say thank you to someone for the impact that they had on you in your life’s journey? And she impacted so many! She was one to share her thoughts openly and honestly in a way that endeared her to you, making you feel comfortable to share freely as well. Just a thought, but maybe if we took the time to say thank you a little more often we might live fuller lives and help others to feel more free as well.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. In turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home and a stranger into a friend.”- Melody Beattie

Thank you to my family and friends who fill my life.

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On Sustainability, but Not Really

I was thrilled when my friend Tyler wanted to write a guest post for farmlifelove.com. He chose an important topic, perhaps the most important topic that unifies all farmers who simply wish to continue to farm especially if they plan to pass on a healthy business and way of life to the next generation. My DF and I think about this more often than we realize. It’s in the air up here. We ARE the next generation currently picking up the ball to give it a go at running this farm. While the next “handoff” is a bit off in the future, it’s exciting to think that we may actually be looking at their faces when they get out of bed each morning. Enjoy.

I hear farmers talk a lot and I like to listen to them. Not just to what they say, but what they mean. When I hear them talk about “sustainability” it’s like they put on someone else’s clothes, or start speaking in French or Pig Latin and pointing to clouds in the sky. They don’t seem to be using words that mean the same things to them as to the people who want them to use those words.

Here’s what I think they mean: Being sustainable is being able to pass the farm to the next generation. Black and white.

Behind that decision point follows a lot of other fractionally impactful decisions . Those are the ones that the neighbors seem to want to talk about, but not really.

At that point in the conversation I think farmers end up talking past their neighbors; they cite the improvements in technology or technique that have made an impact on their farm’s ecosystem. No till, cover cropping and minimal spray techniques are all a little too technical, and seemingly insignificant to the observer. It’s a whole lot easier to see and understand and still the impact of cover cropping across so many acres is going to be difficult to understand for someone not used to thinking in those terms. And when a farmer has made a decision not employ a certain beneficial practice they often hear, “Why aren’t you organic?”, frequently phrased as an accusation, and have to justify their decision to a stranger. Each farmer has made a calculation balanced with cost and impact about what to do and what they can afford to do. Sometimes that means waiting to do something impactful until they can afford to, not because they don’t want to.

Most people don’t talk about money away from their kitchen table, and most never talk money with their neighbors, but believe you me, there is nothing less sustainable than handing an under-qualified successor an unprofitable farm. If the farm has struggled for a long time, it’s entirely possible the kids have already given up on it. And likewise, it’s hard to be a positive force in the community as an overworked farmer with limited financial resources who’ is hustling but still losing money. When a neighbor asks a farmer to donate to their church’s food pantry, it’s hard to know if the farm can spare the foregone income or not. It’s not about being a good and charitable person; it’s about paying the electric bill.

Let’s not forget that some very profitable farmers and some very progressive farmers are taking risks here. Sustainability measures that some communities most want to see enacted could be a death knell for farms in the name of global environmental progress. Or simple NIMBYism. Or both. Then a community on the urban edge is faced with a change in values: a farmer is selling his farm and we don’t want a housing development there. Unfortunately his farm wasn’t sustainable and now the town has a broader tax base . Personally, the farmer is probably devastated, or angrily bitter about his change in direction. Or just defeated. Who knows how the rest of his family feels.

Being sustainable for the sake of being sustainable is a non-starter for most businesses, and I feel like that’s not enough of an open secret to the neighbors who want to influence their neighborhood businesses. It kind of feels like a shakedown, with some cartoon thug cradling a Louisville Slugger with a big scripted “sustainability” across its barrel. “Sustainability” needs to have a positive incentive and a more personally realized effect for it to be valuable. Otherwise it’s a convert-or-die mentality that doesn’t have any room for tolerance or alternatives. Farmers are frustrated that their neighbors don’t see the connections they do, that things like no till across 1,000 acres of silage corn can have a huge difference in water quality in the community. Frustrated most of all when they are characterized and generalized as destroying the environment. First, they work in the environment and understand it very differently than the abstracted version in the “conversation” and second, why would they ruin the land they want to pass to the next generation?

It’s hard to know the inside of somebody else’s farm and what factors led them to the decisions they make . It turns out that issues of sustainability are much harder and more personal things to have a conversation about than is realized by those neighbors who “want to have a conversation about sustainability.” Because they’re probably not talking about the same things. Not really.

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Tyler Matteson is a freelance writer and farm finance expert, working as Controller at Tendercrop Farm in Newbury, MA. He has previously worked for Farm Credit East and the Boston Flower Exchange and written for Green Profit, Grower Talks and Progressive Forage.

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