Agriculture Phrases that Frustrate Me

Beautiful (and sustainable?) farms in Benton, PA by Thadd Selden via Flickr.

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.


  1. Thanks for the post Carolyn. I am more familiar with contention of issues between non-farmers, but wonder about cross over. Do you think groups mainly consisting of non-farmers (from either side of an issue) agitate or provoke disagreements among the farming community. Would there be agreement without outside input?

  2. My student applied for a scholarship and the main point was explain sustainable ag. I recommended a contrarian approach– there is no sustainable ag. What can we possibly do sustainably? It all has impacts.
    We need to switch the discussion from an amorphous misnomer like “sustainable” and replace it with “low impact”. Minimizing environmental impacts while maintaining profits for farmers and healthy food for consumers is everyone’s goal.

  3. >>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 this is your concern, then why not eschew that term "organic"? Dump it, in fact.

  4. I completely agree with Kevin. All agriculture has impact. the trick is the produce the most food with the least impact.

  5. Carolyn!
    Love the post and agree on so much of what you say… I haven’t met a farmer who is carefree about sustainability — they are all focused on reducing their environmental footprint and producing food. One thing I’d point out, I think its fine if some farmers want to focus on things outside the US. Again, that’s up to them. Feeding my community or another community miles away, both of those objectives rock!
    On another point mentioned in the comments, I RARELY if ever has disagreements with the look of agriculture with farmers regardless of the labels people put on them. I told Rob the same thing… I think a lot of people pretend to speak for biotech or organic or whatever and they are less a part of the community and more agenda-driven than some folks realize. When real people talk, it is pretty easy to actually have forward movement on important things like soil health, pest management, etc.

  6. Thanks, Janice!
    My point about the “I need to feed the world” phrase, is not that it is a bad thing to grow things for export, or worry about world hunger issues. To some consumers, it sounds like we are using that phrase as an excuse to do whatever we want without regard for the land and waterways. I think we are more successful in getting our message out by pairing with organizations like Feeding America, local food shelves, and Kids Against Hunger. Farmer promotion is okay, to a point. I would rather every farmer gets up and tells their story than listen to a bunch of talking points or canned messages. That’s my opinion, anyway.

  7. Hi Bill!
    I do think non-farmers have a hand in agitating the farming community. When farming methods are pitted against one another, especially when the arguments are full of half-truths or myths, there are no winners. I am friends with many types of farmers from all over the United States and Canada. When groups try to demonize one method of farming (it goes both ways depending on the group), farmers will fight for their chosen way of farming – even if it means throwing their neighbor under the bus occasionally. I don’t like that one bit.
    Would there be agreement without outside input? I’m not sure about agreement – I think understanding would be a better word. I’ve been to many general farming conferences over the last few years, and have always been able to talk about farming in general with others. There are more similarities amongst farmers than differences, really.

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