Almost everything we do in life must focus on sustainability in order to guarantee the possibilities of continuing those practices in the future. However, lately it seems the term sustainability has become more of a buzz word that implies something better, thus opening the doors for advertising and marketers to take advantage of certain elements of their products that seem more sustainable than their competitors.
Sustainability is not a buzz word to farmers, as agriculture has always focused on producing food for our communities while caring the environment in which we live. Still, history has proven that sustainability in any measure is a task that is hard to achieve.
As we talk about sustainable agriculture there are several key elements that seem to get left out of different perspectives. In order to better understand how farmers work to overcome social, political and environmental issues surrounding the sustainability of their farms its important we address all aspects of sustainability in our discussions around agriculture.
To start with here are some key areas around sustainable agriculture:
- Economic – In my mind economic sustainability has to be achieved on all sizes and shapes of farms. Farmers must be able to produce enough from their land to cover the cost of living for their families from year to year, if they fail to achieve this they have no opportunity to look at the other areas of sustainability.
- Animal Welfare / Plant Health – The health and well being of a farmers crops and livestock ultimately determine how successful he/she becomes. When farm animals are not properly cared for they can become ill, depressed or injured and can even die. Poorly managed crops will also suffer from increased pressure from competition for natures available nutrients. In essence lack of care of results in fewer products and/or damaged, unmarketable goods. To dig into this aspect of sustainability check out Marcus Hollmann’s article on animal welfare in sustainable food production.
- Demand – Even if all other aspects of sustainability are achieved if there is not demand for ones goods the farmers, like any other business would ultimately fail and seek other avenues for revenue to support their family. Demand is always changing based off of price, nutrition, food safety or emotional issues that can easily change public perception. Farmers must always be looking for the future to determine what goods are demanded in the marketplace and what can sustainably supply their farm.
- Personal Fulfillment – Everyone seeks personal fulfillment in their life and careers. If one is not personally satisfied with their job they will quickly abandon it when a better opportunity arises. The same goes true for the opposite and several other components of sustainability can be trumped when personal fulfillment is achieved. For instance it is not uncommon for a farmer to take a part time job to supplement their income or in some cases even make up for losses from their farm activities.
- Environmental – Most farms have been operating for generations, this is only possible when farmers properly manage the scarce resources that are available to them with minimum impact to their environment. If a proper equilibrium is not maintained on a farm and the community in which it operates it ultimately will not be able to be sustainable in the future.
In an ideal world, all aspects of civilization would work in equilibrium with each other to balance the use of our resources. Unfortunately the world is not ideal, therefore we must continue to improve by doing more while using less of the finite resources available to us: in essence become more sustainable. Despite what some headlines may lead one to believe, agriculture as an industry has one of the best track records at improving its management of resources and continues to look for ways to improve.
All of these elements could easily be expanded on in detail, and they affect each individual farm uniquely. It’s interesting to me that all the factors intertwine with each other, and in several cases even contradict one another, making true sustainability an even more complex task to accomplish.
What areas of agricultural sustainability are most important to your household or farm and should be prioritized over the other? This is a complex topic and surely deserves more discussion than a marketing slogan so I am interested in expanding the thoughts in this post with the discussion below.
Mike Haley is a row crop farmer and cattle rancher. His farm in Ohio has been in the family since 1907. Mike tweets as @farmerhaley and blogs at Haley Farms.