Vermont’s Avenging Angel of Technology

I was fortunate this week to meet a woman named Joanna Lidbak. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy in this fact, save for where I met her and who she is.  She was a witness for the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) as a Vermont member of Agri-Mark, Inc. at a House Agriculture Committee subcommittee hearing on the “societal benefits of biotechnology.”  She was the only witness who didn’t have a PhD, nor a teaching/research position at a major university.  I wish there were a million more like her out there.

Her resume puts me and most I know to shame; consider the following next time you even think about complaining you have too much to do and not enough time:

Ms. Lidbak and her husband are first-generation farmers, running a 45-cow dairy in northeast Vermont.  They rent 200 acres from her husband’s aunt and uncle, cut extra hay, raise/process Jersey steers for local beef sales, and sell a bit of composted manure.  There are two young sons involved – a  three-year old and one just sixteen months – and she has a full-time job with a farm credit association, she’s first vice president of the county farm bureau, and a dairy cattle judge for youth and 4-H dairy shows across New England.   She’s got a degree in agri-business management and a master’s in business administration.  Did I mention she’s got a serious blog?  Yes, it’s called, and she’s on every social media outlet there is.  Go there, read it, tweet her, follow her.

She hauled herself to Washington, DC, ostensibly to talk about the benefits of biotechnology to both farmers and consumers, but delivered, I think, one of the most eloquent, simple and well-reasoned strategies for dealing with the average Joe and Jane naysayer about technology in agriculture broadly.  Her message was simple:   Without the technologies allowing her and her husband to grow corn in a short season, use genomic cattle testing, maintain and enhance animal welfare and health, keep their land fresh for pasture, control production costs so they can produce high quality, safe and affordable foods, they’d be out of business.

Empathy was evident in her testimony when she stated so much of the “information” the average consumer carries into a supermarket about biotech, animal welfare, organic versus conventional is misinformation, gleaned from social media, irresponsible or lazy general media or promoted by one activist group or another.  “No one likes to be told their wrong,” she said to me in a short conversation after the hearing.  “People don’t like to be told what they believe to be true isn’t.  You have to be patient, listen, provide direct information directly, and hope they have an open mind.”   Biotech companies, food companies, are you listening?

She’s an equal opportunity farmer, believing there’s room for as many kinds of farming and ranching as there are folks who want to engage.  Her egalitarianism extends to her organic producer neighbors, and to support her community she’ll buy their products at farmers’ markets.  However, she draws the line at buying organic in supermarkets.  “I generally do not believe in paying the higher premium for these foods because they provide no added nutritional or other health benefits.  With a growing family and a growing farm business, we have lots of other places to spend our hard-earned money,” she said in her hearing testimony.  I love her for that philosophy alone.

I’ve been to her blog a couple of times and she’s being attacked as a “traitor” on Twitter by the anti-technology, label-everything gang for even testifying.  Based on her responses, she’s taking it all in stride.   When it comes to accusations the use of technologies is not “sustainable,” here’s her take:

“To us, sustainability means living and farming in a way that meets today’s needs while ensuring future generations also can meet their needs.  Every time I look into my sons’ eyes, I realize they are that next generation, which makes our responsibility that much more tangible.”

Her plans?  Here’s what she told the House subcommittee:

“I am happy to continue to speak up for our right to farm in the best way we know possible, which in our case includes biotechnology and the use of GMOs.  I will continue to pursue an active presence (on social media)…via newspapers, church meetings or everyday conversations, sharing articles and ideas along with my knowledge about the opportunities and challenges we face as modern-day farmers and parents.  If I reach one person or 10 people reach out to me for a question or appreciating my hands-on and practical perspective from farm, then I have succeeded.  And I have.”

I wish there were a million more like her.

The full House Agriculture Committee biotech hearing video and testimony can be found here:

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