Everywhere I go, I hear farmers argue over the word ‘sustainable’. So much so, that I really want to puke. It gets brought up at policy meetings, on social media sites, and in blog entries. When I hear farmers discussing what it means, I only hear Charlie Brown’s teacher… wha wha wha wha whaa, wha wha wha wha whaaa.
What brought on this latest episode of word fatigue? Yet another article written that only serves to divide farmers into groups. Organic vs conventional, small vs large. It’s like we’re a huge dysfunctional family who can’t even manage a holiday dinner without arguing over an issue that started out so minor, but has now caused family members to quit speaking to each other.
I Googled the phrase ‘sustainable agriculture’, and the usual websites popped up. I looked at Wikipedia – not one of the most reliable sources according to English teachers – and wasn’t too surprised when I found this definition:
“Sustainable agriculture may be defined as consisting of environmentally friendly methods of farming that allow the production of crops or livestock without damage to human or natural systems. More specifically, it might be said to include preventing adverse effects to soil, water, biodiversity, surrounding or downstream resources—as well as to those working or living on the farm or in neighboring areas. Furthermore, the concept of sustainable agriculture extends intergenerationally, relating to passing on a conserved or improved natural resource, biotic, and economic base instead of one which has been depleted or polluted.”
Do you see anything that doesn’t apply to all of agriculture? Shoot, every single farmer out there should be trying to be sustainable. If you look at the regulations that we have under the USDA, EPA, FDA, state, county, or whomever, their rules point to this goal. What farmer isn’t trying to leave their farm better than when they started?
This brings me to my next point. Why are we getting so stuck on terminology, and who is “better” than the “other”. And, why are we so worried about everyone who does things differently? If we look at differences under the same narrow focus, does that mean that corn farmers cannot get along with peanut farmers? What about fruit and vegetable farmers? They are different…why are they not arguing over methods of raising produce?
I think farmers need to get over the whole “I need to feed the world” thing, and focus on their own farm. If we continue to argue about who is doing the better job at being sustainable, or who is the one producing the most to feed the world, we are going to miss out on the important signs that maybe things are not going well at home.
This brings me back to the family holiday gathering scenario. Agriculture is the parental unit here. Ag gave birth to farmers with different personalities; different wants, needs, practices. While the farmers are their own people, they need to stick together through thick and thin as any strong family unit does. We need to stand together when the Farm Bill is struggling to make it to the floor, when droughts stress families to the max, when animal rights activists and organizations are doing everything they can to divide and conquer. These are issues that require that we stand together in order to stay together.
Carolyn Olson raises organic corn, soybeans, field peas and small grains with her husband and their three daughters on 1,100 acres near Cottonwood, Minnesota. They also finish about 7,000 conventional hogs annually. Their farm will be recognized as a century farm this year. Carolyn is an active member of her community, serving on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Minnesota Organic Advisory Task Force, as co-chair of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Pork Chop booth at FarmFest, and much more. Carolyn blogs at Carolyn Cares and tweets as @Westacre2CJ.