What does sustainable mean to you?

Nov 11, 2011

Despite this being harvest season, I’ve been pestering farmers with theoretical questions about food and agriculture labels.

Here’s something I’ve learned: If there’s one thing to guarantee a lengthy conversation with an ag-minded person, regardless of his or her crop harvesting schedule, it might be on the farm labels.

I’ve also learned that there comes a point when slapping a pithy saying on an agricultural method is a detriment to understanding just how a farmer does his job.

For example, I talked to a farmer in Michigan who says people call him “Big Ag” at least once a week, and he admitted this to me with an odd mix of guilt and braggadocio. The thing is, this farmer told me, he’s not the bad guy the “Big Ag” label makes him out to be, and he wishes people could see this for themselves — but they often don’t give him a chance. So the consumer may never know that a “Big Ag” farmer, like Jeff VanderWerff from Michigan, conservatively — not flagrantly — sprays his field, or that he treats his animals with respect and care, not like chattel.

Meanwhile, other farmers live and die by the Certified Organic stamp because it sets them apart from the conventional growing crowd. At my local farmers market, there are so many vendors who are “spray-free,” and few who can legally sell their food as organic. It makes it more difficult for those who have gone through the certification process to sell their specialty product. And as we blogged last week, the organic label may be a touch passe these days. Some progressive farmers think the heavily regulated moniker doesn’t go far enough and want to go “Beyond Organic.

Beyond organic, indeed. There’s another term that describes a more comprehensive list of farmers. It’s not as easy to dismiss as hollow or fatigued; perhaps you could call it organic’s more open-minded sidekick. It’s “sustainable agriculture.”

And although sustainability might seem as ambiguous as “all-natural” (listen to our recent Field Notes podcast), the term was at least provided some clarity in 1990 when Congress approved a definition.  In brief, sustainable agriculture is an operation that creates food, provides jobs, is not wasteful and provides for the future.

Now that’s quite open-ended.

Defining 'sustainable'

According to the the legal definition approved by Congress and used by the USDA, Sustainable Agriculture is an "integrated system of plant and animal production practices" that will:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends.
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

In 2010, the federal government’s Board on Agricultural and Natural Resources put it this way:

“The definition of sustainable farming does not accept a sharp dichotomy between unsustainable or sustainable farming systems because all types of farming can potentially contribute to achieving different sustainability goals and objectives.”

I asked Robert Hedberg for clarification. He is in charge of sustainability programs for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“For me, sustainability is a working principle,” he said, “I like the idea of thinking about sustainability as not a ‘this person is and that person isn’t,’ but all of us are involved in the system constantly trying to improve it.”

It’s always surprising to me when polemical agriculture ideas are brought to light with fairness and room for contradictions. Sustainability is one of those ideas. It’s not alienating to conventional producers like “organic” tends to be. It’s also easy to interpret based on the individual farmer’s needs. This doesn’t happen very often.

Because of this, farming methods that were originally presented in the spirit of sustainability, and were subsequently considered alternative, have gone mainstream: no-till farming, cover crop planting and integrated pest management, for example. I’ve met farmers in seed caps who boast a no-till planting style – and behind them are thousands of acres of soybeans as far as the eye can see.

Still, 20 years after sustainable agriculture garnered that open-ended legal definition, it does remain more strongly associated with small, progressive farmers.  

So, who are the farmers that make up this bright, new, inclusive sustainable future? And, how do they connect sustainability to agriculture?

Let’s start with someone who’s met a more diverse group of farmers than I ever will. His name is Daniel Klein, and his mission is to seek out meaning in sustainable farming with his project “Perennial Plate: Adventurous and Sustainable Eating.” In addition to sampling regional cuisine, Klein has visited farmers from coast to coast on his “Real Food Road Trip.”

“We don't know the answer to what sustainable means, so we are out to discover and take our viewers on that journey,” Klein said. “So we can each develop our own perspective. It is a learning process by which people are trying to figure out the best way to harvest food in an economically and environmentally conscious way.”

Sounds open ended enough, though I was still interested in his notion of sustainability. On what sort of farmer does he see this label placed?

“Organic, biodynamic, Community Supported Agriculture, smaller,” Klein said.

Now, Klein’s not pulling this out of thin air. Sustainability has been co-opted by the organic community, and it’s a more common to see a Certified Organic badge alongside claims of sustainable on-farm practices, than on a can of pre-made spaghetti, for example. Though, if you check back with the legal definition, and treat USDA’s final word on the term as truth, you’ll find no mention of favor toward certified organic producers.

What does Sustainable Agriculture mean to you?

We posed that question to our Harvest Network. Farmer William Powers of Ceresco, Neb., said Sustainable Agriculture is more than just farming methods.

"To me and my wife sustainable agriculture is a journey. It includes providing an economic opportunity for us to survive on the farm, while also providing a quality, healthy product for our family and our community and also enhancing and nurturing the environment we farm in."

Hedberg, from the USDA, said the reason the two camps might be linked comes from the overlap in organic rules and sustainable practice guidelines.

“We do not have a USDA sustainable certification program,” he said, “The only certification program that I know of that is most similar is the national organic certification program.”    

So, what’s good for organic producers, might also be sustainable. That could be as simple as creating “food and fiber for human consumption,” or as detailed as “making the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources.”

Onto the conventional farmer, who perhaps in 1990 would’ve scoffed at the idea of sustainability as a fringe idea. It’s been awhile, and now our example — Bill Graff a grain and cattle farmer in Springfield, Ill. — has had time to think about sustainability, and he knows it well.

“Sustainable is a word that has been “captured” by many people who want it to mean what they want it to mean,” Graff told me. “In many cases it means not big, but small farmers, who find it very hard to compete in the world of commodities where the efficiencies of scale work in a big way.”

Graff went on to ask, with skepticism: Can any production practice really be completely sustainable?

“Anytime you remove food from a farm you remove a product that has some minerals, water, sunlight used for energy,” Graff said, “So whether it is grown organically or with conventional means, can what you as a farmer continue to do, be done forever?”

A good question and perhaps one that can be answered by adopting a willingness to accept the contradictions sustainability and agriculture present. Try circumventing the need for an all-or-nothing understanding of the word. After all, the legal definition of sustainability is mutable enough to be molded to each farm.

Dairy farmer James Bosma, from Abbotsford, British Columbia in Canada, might have the right idea.

“To me, the word sustainable has become a buzz word, synonymous with terms such as eco-friendly or green revolution,” Bosma said. “As an all-encompassing management practice, I prefer the term stewardship.”

Bosma said a sustainable future for his farm means also providing a future for his family.

“Stewardship is respecting the privilege I have to farm, and employing the best welfare and management practices I can,” he explained, “I farm with the mindset of ensuring that my children have the same opportunity.”

Bosma might be the type of farmer who would fare best working within the sustainable guidelines laid out in the definition — a description that’s decidedly not out to make anyone strictly conform.

And that might be the key in leading a sustainable life on the farm.

“Remembering it’s process, not an endpoint,” the USDA’s Hedberg mused toward the end of our conversation.

Less conformity and more diverse farming techniques, and the willingness to change as needed. Unlike the food labels that are governed by a checklist and inspectors, “sustainable agriculture” is more like the label of the people.

Dairy farmer Bosma keeps his family’s future in mind as he farms, and that’s what sustains him. For Graff, it’s getting the most of out of the smallest piece of land possible.

So, if you’re a farmer looking for the right way to choose, you might look no further than the last point in the official definition of sustainable agriculture: “Enhance the quality of life for farmer and society as a whole.” Perhaps it’s easier to make a decision for profitability and what to plant next, when the consequences of these actions are measured on the same plane as family, environment and what can best sustain your rows of corn or stalls of cows into the future.