Tag Archives: sustainability

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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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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