What does "sustainable" agriculture really mean?
The farmer of future will grow food and raise animals with tomorrow in mind. They’ll know contributing to the food supply is not enough. If the soil, air and water they use to produce food is damaged, good luck feeding anyone.
That’s the idea, anyway, behind “sustainability” — one of the big buzz words in agriculture today. It’s all about making sure natural resources are not depleted or permanently damaged so that we can farm into the future.
But how best to do this and who’s really making the commitment for the long term?
Unlike with the organic label, you can’t be certified “sustainable.” So many people have come up with their own idea of the word.
There is a five-part definition, courtesy of Congress no less. But it’s a little complicated and vague, covering everything from enhancing environmental quality and using resources wisely to keeping a close watch on the farm finances. Part E reads: “Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”
How do you interpret that?
“These are the kinds of questions that a lot of people can spend a lot of time debating and looking at the fine detail,” said Rob Hedberg, national director of the of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE).
Farmers have studied the fine detail, picking and choosing sustainable methods as they please. The consensus, though, seems to be that farming sustainably is not organic or industrial, it’s a mix of all of the good practices from each.
“Sustainability is a journey,” said William Powers, a farmer in Lincoln, Neb., and director of the Nebraska outpost for the SARE program. “Sustainability goes beyond something that is written down.”
Sustainable farming speaks directly to educating the individual, Powers said, but the big idea behind agriculture in the U.S. for so long has been “grow food, at any cost to the environment, to communities, to farmers themselves, to feed the world.” Though, as hard as the industrial agriculture model works to reach that goal, Powers said, when he looks around he doesn’t see a well-fed world. The town nearest his farm has people who go hungry.
“So if that’s the goal, they’ve failed,” Powers said. “It’s just not an obtainable goal in my opinion. A growing population needs to learn to feed themselves, to be able to live for themselves…and that’s going to be sustainable.”
Dan Howell, a farmer-rancher in Marshall County, Kan., agrees.
Most of his 1,500+ acres once yielded strictly row crops, milo soybeans wheat — the classics in Kansas. But at the age of 60, Howell is experimenting with his land like an idealistic young farmer. Why?
“Years ago when I wanted to farm more crop ground, I went through the farm crisis of the ‘80s, and that was really ugly,” Howell said. “I am wanting to be a little closer to shore than farther away.”
Howell said he no longer uses big equipment or fertilizer on his land, and for the most part, the farm runs itself. He said he’s sustainable because he works with the land, instead of manipulating it to work for him.
“I don’t like buying $3 and $4 fuel," Howell said. "So, these are things that I can do to buy less of it and still be productive."
Changes have come in the form of a high tunnel, a young fruit orchard, and a shiitake mushroom grove built into an old cluster of trees. He sells his cows to other farmers and his produce to the local school system. Instead of living in a barn, or a small grazing field, his docile Hereford and Angus cows rule the rolling hundreds of acres around them.
“In society today, we don’t have a real strong sense of accepting diversity in agriculture," Howell said. "I’ve had several friends, and good people, but they say ‘Why don’t you let me rent that ground and plant and grow corn and soybeans, instead of running cows on that ground?’ They thought I had fallen off a rock fence or something.”
But, Howell said, when making a decision about the type of farm he wanted to run, he looked to the future and knew, after decades of planting soybeans, that it could not sustain him, or his family for very long.