Category Archives: Agriculture

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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#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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What Makes Farming Worth the Heartache?

Recently I can’t help but notice so many blog posts, articles and pictures of heartache related to farming and ranching. My heart goes out to those producers in South Dakota that lost so much to the recent unexpected October blizzard. So many cattle, horses, hours, years of building genetics, so much.

Another blogger recently wrote about wanting consumers to feel the struggle that we go through as farmers. I know we’ve had ours but I’m sure there are those that have it much worse.

And I’ve seen not just a few posts about city gals marrying farmers and what farm life means. Most of it seems like they’re bending and getting used to life on a farm, maybe even falling in love with it too, though capturing what can be isolating and heartbreaking as well.

So, what keeps farmers going? Why do we put up with the heartache  and uncertainty? I’ll admit I’ve looked at my own DF and asked, why can’t we just have a house in a town somewhere with 9-5 jobs and a paved driveway?

I think farmers are built a little differently. I think the wives or the husbands that fall in love with them accept that and move with them to where they need to be. You have to understand that you can’t change a person, no matter how many J Crew pants you buy them. (I’m still learning to love the tapered leg jeans my DF prefers.)

I’m not city. But I’m not totally country either. I’ve had the farming bug most of my life. I bought my first Jersey calf when I was nine years old. I had a little insight into the heartache and the responsibility that goes along with owning, caring for and loving animals. My very first calf, Annabelle, got sick when she was very young and we had to let her go. This experience, along with many others, led me to making this choice to farm with my husband with my eyes wide open.

And there has been heartache. There has been dearly loved old cows laid down to rest. Young heifers lost by a spell of bad luck. Days where two steps forward gets you three back. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it feels like a ton of bricks gently laid down on your chest.

But this writing isn’t about the heartache. My question is, what keeps people farming, if not financial return?

For me, it’s mostly about the animals. It’s the cow who somehow finds herself on the other side of the fence separated from the herd and shows up at the back of the house, bellowing as if she knows you’re in there and you can fix things. (This happened the morning I started writing this and I just shook my head with a little laugh.)

It’s the promise that a newborn baby calf brings, especially when she looks at you with those big brown eyes. The latest girl born here, Amaryllus, had a tough time walking on her back legs as she was a big calf and her dam (mama) had a difficult time birthing her. It’s the moment you realize she’s going to be just fine walking on her own.

It’s Towanda, age 6 now, who was born too early, in a cold, frozen free stall barn whose mama abandoned her that I nursed back to health with many towels, a hair dryer, some help from my brother and another friend and a lot of loving. She’s making the most milk of any of the jerseys now, though she’s still a peanut of a cow.

Towanda, on the left with the white patch, had a little help getting along with pen-mate Lucky Girl when she was really little. Towanda was such a pipsqueak back then - Lucky Girl was an average size calf; Towanda was about half her size.

Towanda, on the left with the white patch, had some help getting along with pen-mate Lucky Girl when she was really little. Towanda was such a pipsqueak – Lucky Girl was an average size calf; Towanda was about half her size.

 

It’s the rush you feel when all the cows surround you in the pasture as you walk out to greet them.

It’s the beauty of the place around you and the sun on your face on a crisp October afternoon while your son is on your lap and you take a spin around a few fields on the gator.

It’s the fact that your son’s first word was “tractor” and the greatest thing on Earth is to ride in his daddy’s lap while he gets the day’s feed for the cows.

Maybe we need the heartache. Maybe it makes these things all that much more endearing; entwining our beings with the farm life so that you have no choice but to give it your best. All your best.

Some people are born into farming, some have the seed planted early in life, like me, and still some are bitten by the bug much later in life. Whatever the case, it sure is hard to shake!

Care to share what keeps you farming despite the heartache it can bring?

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Guest Post: Dairy Farmer, Raw Milk Expert and Friend

I’m excited to share this next post with you. I’ve invited my friend Terri Lawton, dairy farmer from southeast Massachusetts, to write a guest post about her farming operation and her background. Terri sells raw milk and is a technical

Terri, getting ready to give a talk about milking standards at a conference.

Terri, getting ready to give a talk about milking standards at a conference.

expert on the subject, raw milk food safety and regulation and has addressed national audiences about the topic. The last two posts I’ve shared have been about why raw milk is a somewhat complicated issue. I’ve said that even though we have decided to not sell it, we are not against other people selling or consuming it. Terri and I spoke about my recent experiences and my posts and I was thrilled when she agreed to write about what she does with a few suggestions regarding raw milk, if you are interested. She can be found on Facebook and has her own blog at terrilawton.wordpress.com and okarealmilk.wordpress.com.

From Terri:

I’m an 11th generation farmer. I grew up on my parents’ dairy farm in Foxboro, Mass. I always loved cows, and spent most of my time on the farm as a child, pretending to be a cow, feeding the cows, milking the cows with my parents or gettingmy 4-H calf ready to show.

When I finished high school, I went to college and studied agriculture. I got my associates degree in Production Agriculture, with an emphasis on feedlot management from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. Because I felt like I still had a lot to learn about farming, I transferred to Purdue University where I was a double major in Animal Agribusiness and Agricultural Communications. I was also in the crew club, dairy club, and Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. I also did livestock judging for three years of school and dairy judging with Purdue.

Because I had a strong background in dairy and several food science/food safety classes at Purdue, I thought that being a dairy inspector for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would be a good way for me to get involved in the agricultural industry in Massachusetts. Several farms I inspected were selling raw milk directly to families. I had been drinking raw milk my whole life. I was amazed when I realized that some people drove more than an hour to get raw milk.

After I finished up as a dairy inspector, I wanted to get closer to farming. I enjoyed being around cows, and owned several which my parents milked for me. I had planned to start making cheese, but needed an income while we were building the cheese room, and developing our cheese recipes, which is why I looked at selling raw milk retail.

I knew that my experience as a dairy inspector could help me harvest and bottle a superior raw milk. After developing a milking and bottling protocol that minimized potential risk, having the farm and retail area inspected by the dairy inspector, and having my milk meet exceptionally high standards, I received my license to sell raw milk in March of 2006. I started selling raw milk from grass fed cows on a pre-order basis so that I could ensure people got the freshest possible milk. Usually it was only a couple hours old when customers picked it up and brought it to their homes.

I decided to put food safety and integrity first from the beginning.

I know that selling and drinking raw milk can be risky. Based my experience as a dairy inspector, education at Purdue, and personal research about food safety and microbiology, I believe it is a risk that can be managed successfully. I also have seen farmers that were not up to the rigorous integrity and obsession with food safety that I think is necessary to do a good job producing raw milk for retail sale. However, for some farmers it is not much of a stretch to produce an exceptionally high quality raw milk.

I am grateful to be able to sell raw milk directly to families. I like having the folks come to the farm to pick up the milk. I enjoy meeting folks that care so much about food and supporting their local farmer. If I could encourage raw milk drinkers in one thing-please get your milk from a licensed raw milk retailer. It is a lot of work to keep raw milk clean. Inspected farms are held accountable, and must adhere to standard good practices. Integrity is very important in selling raw milk. Our customers need assurance that we are working hard to keep the milk safe. Inspections, milk quality testing and licensing are good tools to provide that assurance.

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October Already?

Ugh. It’s been almost one full month since I’ve sat down to post. I can’t believe it. I was on such a roll. And please don’t think I haven’t thought about posting. I have several ideas in the works, but that seems to be where they are stuck. In the works. Nevermind. This post isn’t about how guilty I feel for not have written sooner, but rather an update of all that’s going on here.

To say the least it’s been a busy fall. TK and I have been out an about – we traveled down to the Big E in West Springfield and watched an impressive Jersey Show. I miss showing and hope to get back on track with a little help next year. We had a great time though, and TK got to go on his first ride!

Mom, TK and cousin LEO on the carousel!

The farmers’ markets finished up fairly well. They tell me there are three seasons to farmers’ markets up here. Starting with Memorial Day to the 4th of July; the second goes to Labor Day; and the third goes until Columbus Day, of course depending upon the weather. Foot traffic is much slower in the first and third season than the middle, which makes sense. The middle is the peak season for tourists. It starts to cool down quickly up here as we had our first frost on the 18th of September. So crazy.

Our set up at one of the markets.

We had another new calf at the end of the summer. I’ve decided to call her “Jersey” even though she is a Holstein, obviously. She is small for a holstein, out of a first calf heifer (first-time mom), so we say she is a Holstein in a Jersey package.

Here is Jersey, with my 13-pound rat terrier dog and 8-year-old cousin LEO for reference.

The garden finished up well. We had tons of green beans, yellow beans, zucchini, summer squash, buttercup squash, pumpkins and sunflowers! If you recall, I was clueless about gardening and not only had to read the back of every seed packet while planting, but also planted every seed in every seed packet. Yup. Zucchini from seven high producing plants – we had zucchini coming everywhere we turned! It was pretty crazy. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite prepared for that level of production so much of it went to compost though we did try to eat and give away as much as we could. Next year I’ll be more ready!

My little squash picker!

And finally, maybe our biggest surprise of the summer, something that slowed me down a little (or really a lot at times!), we’ll be adding a new little one to our family sometime in March. We are very excited for it. To be honest, I was a little intimidated at first – TK and Baby L will be 19 months apart. I kept thinking (and still do sometimes), how will we take care of two little ones? My DF, who really is my rock, is not worried about it and knows that we will figure it out. When I do find myself thinking too much and getting a little anxious, the baby’s due date pops into my head. It’s 3-16, which is one of the most popular verses in the bible. 

No, I don’t do the Tebow but I do feel an immediate calm come over me in one deep breath.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

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Farmers’ Market Conversations Part II: Our Chosen Farming Practices

This post started out as “Why We Choose Not to be Organic.” However, the forever positive person that I am, I was having a hard time with that negative title. It’s a question that has come up at the Farmers’ Markets a few times. Actually it goes something more like this:

Person: “Oh, you’re not organic?”

Me: “No, we aren’t.”

Person: Gives an empathetic look as if to say oh, that’s too bad.

Me: “Let me tell you the reasons why we do things the way we do…”

This is a tough post to write. Like a previous post, “It’s Okay to Buy Plain Old Milk,” it has taken me a lot longer than I expected. To be clear, my DF and I support all responsible agriculture which we believe comes in all sizes and shapes, including organic farmers. By no means is this a jab at them, but rather a little more detail into why we’ve made the choice to remain “conventional” as some would call it. I simply prefer “farming.”

The main and most important reason for us is the fact that by remaining conventional, we can use whatever medical treatment necessary to treat a sick animal, which includes antibiotics. Now some organic farms have found a way around this – some will not withhold any treatment, giving a cow what she needs to get better were she to get really sick. However, the cow then can’t stay in the herd. They may sell her to a conventional neighbor, or some organic farms are large enough to also have a separate conventional farm and they can send the cow there. For us, at 30-cows the idea that the cow must exit the herd is not sustainable. Besides, with the amount of financial, historical and emotional capital we have invested in each one of our girls it just does not make sense to us to not treat her with what she needs to get better and send her away.

And, to be sure, our cows do not get sick very often. A brave person at the market asked, “But aren’t the cows healthier with organic practices? Isn’t that the idea?” It was a simple question, which of course she is allowed to ask, though I felt my face start to flush and a wave of anger rise up. It was hard not to feel like she was implying that our cows were somewhat less healthy because we are not organic. Rest assured, I kept my cool, “Oh no, we take excellent care of our animals.”

Fact is like anything, there are good and not-so-good caretakers that are organic, conventional, grass-based, corn-based, small, large, etc. Just because a farm gets a particular label does not necessarily indicate the level of care or health of the animals is better or worse. Another person at the FM shared with me this past week that the sickest, skinniest cows she had ever seen were at an organic farm, (I hope she called the local American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals- ASPCA). The sickest, thinnest cows I ever saw were from a conventional farm, (and yes, the ASPCA was called). I guess there is some truth to what an old boss told me when I was a loan officer, “You have to get out and see what you’re investing in for yourself.”

The kicker to the antibiotic use issue in organic animal agriculture is that while U.S. organic standards strictly prohibits the use, European standards do not. (I’m trying to track down Canadian standards, though I think they are allowed). Typically when antibiotics are allowed in organic animal agriculture, it is for medicinal use only and  there are longer waiting periods before the milk or meat from a treated animal before it is allowed to be sold again. Rest assured that medications already require holding periods where meat or milk is not marketed. And because of rigorous testing, you can be certain that no milk on the shelf has antibiotics in it. We risk the ability to sell our milk if one of our loads ever failed a test – something no dairy farmer messes with.

Liddy saying hi!

We have other reasons why we have remained conventional, but this is really the crux of it. Maybe it’s not very business-like of me to be so tied to my animals, but when you feed and care for them each day, when you see their personalities come out, when you are never far from them when they need medical attention or treatment, or when your life is scheduled around their attention needs, you’re bound to get attached. And in my opinion, that’s a good thing.

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Farmers’ Market Conversations, Part I: You Have to Believe in Your Product

Farmers’ Market Conversations

People who know me know that I’m a talker. In fact, I think my favorite thing at the farmers’ market so far has been all the discussions and conversations that I have had with visitors and vendors alike. This gave me the idea to expand into detail some of the topics that have come up that we’ve discussed. Over the next several weeks and perhaps in the future when I have more, I’ll share my favorites here.

Part I: You Have to Believe in Your Product

Today another vendor at the farmer’s market shared a very important truth when it comes to direct selling. She said, “You really have to believe in your product and show people why you do to be successful.”

For some reason, that struck a chord with me. While explaining what Jersey Beef is and why we raise it instead of some other breed I often suggest with a grin that I could be the poster girl for the Jersey breed of cattle. Seriously, I think I could.

I love my cows. There, I said it. My family started with Jersey calves with my older sister and brother’s 4-H projects back in 1982. We’ve never looked back though we had never lived on a farm. I lived on one briefly where I raised my own heifers (young female cattle) and now of course, I find myself on one in a beautiful spot in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

That’s me with the Mickey Mouse shirt on, anxiously waiting to show one of my sibling’s heifers in the kiddie class at a local fair

Through those early years, we took care of our animals whether they were next door or 45 minutes away. We showed our heifers at the local fairs and visited friends that had dairy farms throughout New England and New York. I think when you put so much work and effort and hanging-on into something so long you’re bound to be bound to it one way or another. And we didn’t live in one spot – my Dad is a United Methodist minister, retired now, and so we moved a few times, but always found a place for the cows wherever we moved. I think that was fate.

If there is one part of having Jersey cattle that always bothered me was that there was not much you could do with the bull calves. We would send them to the auction house and generally because they are smaller, you don’t get much for them and often end up paying the auction house to cover the commission, trucking and other costs.

You can imagine my surprise when I learned about the excellent qualities of Jersey beef which was not long ago. I had no idea, really. Jersey beef ranks up with Angus and Waygu cattle in terms of taste and tenderness. It has one of the highest rates of monounsaturated fats and beta carotene among the various breeds of beef. And because they are generally smaller and leaner, the cuts are smaller and leaner which helps with portion control and goes along with a more health-conscious diet.

The challenge in raising Jersey steers (castrated male cattle) is that they take longer to grow and finish, they have different diet requirements than a larger breed and they’re not the easiest to herd – they too have the Jersey “attitude.”

What a coincidence. Here are all these wonderful aspects of a breed of cattle that I already love. And as far as the challenges go – we raise them right alongside the heifers (young female cattle) and we are in no rush. I grew up with the Jersey attitude and have an appreciation for their sass.

Two years ago I convinced my DF to give raising a few Jersey beef a shot. Remember – he brought the Holsteins to our farm equation and sometimes has to be reminded about how great Jerseys are. So far, the success that we have had at the farmers markets has him more and more interested. It seems perhaps he too is a believer in our jersey beef; the first of many more to come I hope.

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