Tag Archives: farming

Starting 2017 on a Rise

I’m not going to lie to you. The year 2016 was one I’d rather forget. In my mind, I’ll remember lots of stress, running around, frustration, and the time when I was convinced that I had legitimate memory loss issues (still think I’m not 100%). (My mom tells me it will come back when the boys are a little older.) (I don’t get that!)

Here’s the thing, as I was pondering a post and thinking about what I might write reflecting about the year and how horrible it was, I saw the title of the post from last year come across my Facebook memories: “Buh-Bye 2015.” Stop it. Did I write about 2015 in a good-riddance way too?

What is wrong with me?

Hold on. I think its human nature to dwell on the negative, right? But wait, that’s not me. I can always find the silver lining in something. And there were some redeeming things about 2016, so here goes.

I discovered the book-turned-tv-series Outlander, written by Diana Gabaldon (@WriterDG on Twitter), which immediately became my guilty pleasure. I read all eight books plus the graphic novel. That’s like 15,746 pages (not really, but they are huge books). I had not read for pleasure in such a long time – six years at least, that I forgot what it was to get wrapped up in a great story. (In full disclosure, the idea for the title of this post came from @WriterDG when she casually said she was ending 2016 on a rise.) (She’s so cool!)

I grew both professionally and personally, continuing to exercise the “choose wisely” mantra my husband said to me once. Sure, I learned a lesson or two, or seven, but all in a good way.

And of course, the boys are wonderful. They are both in school now. TK can read in Kindergarten! How crazy is that? They go from being these tiny beings incapable of the slightest care for themselves to reading in five short years! Big E keeps us on our toes. He is very quick-witted. When he starts in with the “MAWEmmeee I want some chocolate milk” for the eighth time in a two minute span, I reply “Well I want a million dollars.” To which he replies “But mommy, I don’t have a million dollars and we do have chocolate milk.” He’s 3 folks. How many more years of this?

So that leaves, the farm. As I’ve reflected on why I feel like I won’t miss 2016, it’s mostly about the farm. Don’t get me wrong, we are still very happy with our choice to farm and be here, but between the low milk prices and waiting all year for something to happen (hopefully soon) (we’re still waiting), the slightest thing tend to get you down and maintaining perspective is hard.

But even at that, by late fall, things had started looking up. The milk price started to come up. The forecast for the year is to be much better than 2016. And we had a beautiful Thanksgiving and Christmas with lots of visiting family and friends we are blessed to have in our lives.

And the first calf born for 2017 was a Jersey heifer…okay, she was second to a Holstein bull but it was the same freaking day. After my bad luck with not getting many heifers, I am rejoicing in small victories.

Which leaves me with one goal for 2017: To be able to look back on the year in the last week of December and feel a little less good riddance and a bit more nostalgia for auld lang syne.

 

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Meet Circle S Lemonhead Trisha, aka Miss Trisha Yearwood!

 

 

 

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Choices and Farming

Life’s about choices. As we have advanced as a culture, we have created more choices in nearly every aspect of life. When I was planning my wedding, I remember being in awe about all of these choices being thrown at me. Sometimes it felt like I was on the bottom of a big pile just trying to get out from under it one decision at a time. Some people thrive in that situation. For me, I just wanted to marry my husband and not worry about whether we’d have wine on each table or serve it from the bar.

That’s not to say that choices are not important. Certainly there are those that are indeed more important than others – like my decision to say “yes” to my husband when he asked me. Or even perhaps my choice to ask him, had I thought of that.

To me, this ongoing debate about how farmers should farm is much like this type of scenario. There are many choices we have to make – like what color or brand of equipment we choose, which isn’t as important as whether we will be buying a no-till corn planter or something else that makes sense for our farm.

As I’ve been vocal in the debate about labeling or as I see it, stigmatizing, food produced with GMO crops, people have asked why speak up? Reporters seem to always want a simple answer – which happened in this Christian Science Monitor article, which I was happy to be a part of but left me a bit disappointed in its finished form. The journalist reasoned that my main concern about stigmatizing GMOs was because I was afraid it would raise the feed expense for the cows and thus, my boys wouldn’t have the chance to carry on our farming tradition. While this is a small part of my concern, there’s way more to it.

Let’s face it. Right around one percent of Americans are primary farm operators, or about one farmer for every 99 people. One expert and 99 back seat drivers give or take. That’s a pretty big bus that farmer’s driving. To some extent, the farmer can listen to passengers and go slower or faster, turn the A/C or heat on or off, provide more cushion on the seats or not; but at some point, the bus has to safely arrive at it’s destination – avoiding pot holes, ice, ditches, oncoming traffic, etc. More importantly, the driver (the farmer) has to make the best decision possible for protecting those passengers, getting them safely from here to there while keeping the bus in good condition for future trips. Sure, there may be other buses passengers can choose – but there won’t be as many without preserving options – either through legislation or the market.

Back to choices as a farmer and figuring out the best way to make the best use of our resources while preserving the farm for the next farmer to come along: Choices ensure sustainability.

Choices ensure sustainability.

We face a constantly changing landscape as farmers, with new challenges and opportunities appearing nearly every day. No doubt my sons, or the next farmers here, will face the same. In order to keep up, adjust or take advantage, the ability to make choices that the market will accept and that regulation will not deny will be key to ensuring sustainability.

So yes, preserving the next generation’s chance to farm is about concern for the cost of feed for the cows – both economically and environmentally, but it’s also about so much more than that.

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Dairy farming: More than just milk

A few months back I was lucky enough to attend a conference put on by The Economist Events called the Innovation Forum. Yes, the magazine The Economist. I was there with the incredible honor of representing the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. You may wonder why something so traditional such as the dairy industry was present at this conference, well I’ll get to that in a minute, but first: sustainability.

To me, sustainability is a three-legged stool, a milking stool, if you will. One leg is environmental, one is social, and the third is economic. To be sustainable and ensure a going concern for future generations, you need all three legs in tact. I’ve recently touched upon economic sustainability; here we’ll talk environment and economic to some degree.

I saw this tweet the other day, which rewarded me for my procrastination with this post. The story of how the dairy industry has improved its environmental impact over the past several decades is inspiring. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the steps taken by dairy farmers to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

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Jeff Simmons is President of Elanco.

Some dairy farmers go above and beyond the rest of us. Yankee ingenuity was born on a farm, and it’s still alive and well today on a place located in the northwest corner of Connecticut, the Freund’s dairy farm and Cow Pots. A CowPot is a biodegradable nutrient-rich planter that is made from cow manure, after it has been run through a methane digester. Recently, the Freunds were awarded with a Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to recognize their innovative efforts in this area.

Amanda Freund graciously took a few minutes out of her busy day to do a quick Q&A with

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Amanda Freund

me:

How did the idea of CowPots come about?

This far-fetched idea of making a pot from poop has evolved into a successful business due to 3 very important factors:

1.     Our farming family collaborated with neighbor farmers to develop the Canaan Valley Agricultural Cooperative. The farmer members meet annually with the specific purpose of working and brainstorming together to manage the manure collectively produced on our farms. Amongst the farmers that attend, there are over 4000 cows represented, which equates to a lot of manure! These cooperative gatherings also include agents and professionals from CT Department of Agriculture, CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, UConn Extension, USDA Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service. Using this network of people and services has been critical from the very beginning of introducing the idea to developing and branding the end product.

2.     Thinking of manure as a resource and not as a waste product. Changing our mindset about how we think of poo (or other byproducts) is a big deal. The reality is that there is a lot of fertilizer value in manure and it holds a great value for producing food. It stopped being a discussion about waste management and became a conversation about resource stewardship.

3.     Perseverance. Ten years of trial and error, research and development, failures and successes took place before a viable product was developed and ready for market. During that time there were a lot of dead ends and bumps in the road, but my family carried on and didn’t stop until they proved there was a way to turn manure from poo to pot.

How does it fit into your overall goals for the farm?

The technical way that CowPots fits our overall goals is that it allows us to export 10% of the manure produced on our farm to places where those nutrients can benefit someone else’s garden. We ship boxes and pallets of this value added product to greenhouses and retail stores all over the country (and Canada). This is an important farm activity to comply with our Nutrient Management Plan, which is a contract between our farm and the USDA on how we manage the manure produced by our cows. 

From an outreach standpoint, marketing CowPots has provided us an awesome opportunity to talk to all sorts of groups around the country (and world) about our farm. We hosted Mike Rowe in 2006 to film an episode of Dirty Jobs, which has aired in over 120 countries. We’ve spoken at conferences in Seattle, St Louis, Washington DC, Worcester and many other cities describing the environmental and horticultural benefits of our products. Inevitably, these conversations also allow us to talk about the 2 most important components of our business; our cows and our family. Without these things, there would be no CowPots.

What was it like winning the dairy innovation award- were there any particular moments or otherwise that stood out for you?

It was a team effort to draft our application for the Dairy Sustainability Award; I think we had 4 or 5 family members that contributed to the effort. It was very special to be able to share the honor with the whole family.

As the dairy farmer’s daughter, I was proud to see my dad and uncle be recognized for their unwavering commitment to being good stewards of the land. It was an honor to share the stage with my dad to receive the award and it sets the bar quite high as I think ahead to the positive impact my generation can make on this land and this community.

What else is on the horizon for the farm?

In March of this year we introduced our cows to a brand new barn with rotating brushes for back scratches, waterbeds for improved comfort, alley scrapers to keep the alley ways clean, a robotic feed pusher to ensure they have access to fresh feed 24 hours/day and most significantly, 5 robotic milking machines. We’re excited to be the first farm in the state of Connecticut to install this technology. This allows our cows to voluntarily choose when and how often they want to be milked. We’re still in the transition phase, but they’ve adapted to the new routine very well! And while there was a learning curve to accessing the robot milker, they didn’t need any training to figure out the back scratchers!

As for CowPots, we’re experimenting with some new recipes and styles as we consider developing products that can be used outside of horticulture. We’re looking into the opportunities for manufacturing packaging corners and other products using our cows’ manure. There are an infinite number of products that we could form using our manufacturing process; plantable pots are just the tip of the iceberg.

Well done, Amanda. My best to you and your family.

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Economic Profitability Key to Sustainable Dairy Farming

My personal vision of dairy farming has changed over the years. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a farmer, a vet, an ice cream maker; among other things. I will never forget in discussing my plans with my Great Uncle Frank – everyone has an Uncle Frank right? – who was a dairy farmer himself back in the ‘40’s and 50’s in Westborough, Massachusetts. When I told him I was going to be a dairy farmer, he replied, “Oh, you’re going to marry a dairy farmer!” Being the determined person that I am, I said, “No , Uncle Frank, I’m going to be the dairy farmer.” To which he then said, “Oh, you’re going to marry a man, he’s going to do the work, but you’re going to be the farmer!” And I just shook my head and walked on, but little did Uncle Frank know that my love for dairy would lead me to life not only in the industry but also on the farm.

My vision for dairy farming continues to evolve as I meet more and more people in this great industry. My vision includes a great diversity of business models and smallowners/managers – commodity and value added, large and small, conventional and organic, purchased feed and homegrown, cattle and sheep or goats. There are certain characteristics that are common to all models – hard work and a love for the animals and land in our care.

For my own family, we are proud to be continuing a family tradition, and raising our children in a farming life. Our two young farm boys already have such a grasp of how things like tractors, mowers and choppers work as well as the importance of caring for another life. While it’s hard to predict the future, it’s exciting to think about the time when either one or both of them take over the reins of the farm.

Whatever the business model, the old adage will remain true – “If your outgo is more than your inflow, you’re upkeep with be your downfall.”

Having a good handle on your finances and making sound decisions based on what they tell you will be central to economic sustainability – an absolutely key component to farm sustainability. What’s more, planning ahead using economic information will allow you to get ahead. Tools like benchmarking, forecasting and budgeting will serve to improve the performance of our dairy businesses. The importance of financial skills cannot be understated as we move forward into the future – so that we can carry on with our passion, our farms, our livelihood.

 

The above was from a short speech given at The Vermont Dairy Summit, November 2015.

 

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Just Ask the Farmers

It’s funny how things happen sometimes. How events and conversations and invitations and blog posts go together.

A few months ago, I served on a panel to testify about the societal benefits of biotechnology in front of a Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. You can read about the hearing here. We concluded that we in agriculture and science have not done a good job sharing information about various biotechnology, for example, genetically engineered crops, with the general public.

Since then, I’ve taken a keen interest in following the latest in the science and communication efforts surrounding genetic engineering. I’ve followed along with online forums of expert scientists actually working in the field, other farmers that work more closely with GM crops, writers and still others who have an interest. I’ve listened to people who still have reservations about GM crops. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve even addressed some questions personally on a one-on-one basis.

Recently, I had a conversation with a summer neighbor who spends the rest of the year in a state where mandatory GMO labels were recently defeated. She said as a consumer, it was very confusing to sort out facts in the media. She felt could “read” through the pro-labeling/anti-GMO rhetoric and just kept waiting for someone else to step up with the facts. While she did find them, they were slow in coming, and the overall experience was confusing.

I can see why she was confused. Take, for example, these two articles published on the Huffington Post. Two polar opposite views from the same source is confusing enough but what’s telling is the format of the article and where they were published on the site. Can you spot the differences?

First article, published a day after the hearing: Americans are Too Stupid for GMO Labels, Congressional Panel Says

Second article, published three weeks after the hearing: What’s to be Afraid of? Congress Talks GMOs with Congressional Panel

A few differences I spotted:

  • The first article was first originally sponsored by Chipotle. You don’t see it if you click on the link now, interestingly enough. The second never had a company “sponsor.”
  • The first article was on the “Politics” section of the site. The second was on Huff Post’s “Green” section.
  • The first article, with its sensational title (no one ever used the “s” word by the way), garnered over 2,200 comments (clearly offending many) while the second, a mere 9.
  • The first article opened with a statement that was not true – I should know. I was there.

So when my neighbor shared her experience with me about being confused, I was not surprised. This reinforced my intention to help people get good information, grounded in science, agriculture and from people who work directly with the technology.

Not long after the hearing, I was invited to join an online effort called Ask the Farmers. It is a collaborative resource made up of farmers from all across the country and from all different aspects of farming – animal ag, crops, organic, conventional, small, large, etc. I’m very excited to help in an effort to put more good information out there – be it for genetic engineering, dairy farming, animal welfare, balancing life with work, farm and family, whatever, straight from the horse’s (or cow’s :P) mouth.

Here’s how to find us:

I’m excited to do what I can to get people answers to their questions. I am really proud of the diversity in agriculture within the group. The world is a big place and with so few people left in farming, there is certainly room for all of us. Ask the Farmers is an example of many different farmers coming together to promote responsible agriculture. If there’s one thing we all understand and can agree on, it’s that at the end of the day we are all farmers and we’re all doing the best we can to take care of our land and animals.

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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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