What Sustainable Agriculture Means to Me

by Ralph Turner, Laughing Stock Farm, Freeport

Laughing-Stock-GreenhouseThe Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society (MESAS) asked a number of local farmers to write a short piece on why sustainable agriculture is important to us, and why it’s not just a concept.  While I believe it’s important, I also believe it is just a concept, and one that has many different meanings to many different people.  As I thought about it I began to realize that the term “sustainable” is so overused especially in marketing today that I had to start by trying to think about what it means to me, fundamentally.  The oxford dictionary very simply defines “sustainable” as “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.”  Our mantra here on the farm is that sustainable means that we have to be able to earn enough this year to farm again next year.  That’s pretty close, but it’s obviously much more complicated than that.

Marketing campaigns of all kinds extol the sustainable virtues of products and parent companies.  Web sites of non-profit groups of all kinds advise that if you’d like to make a donation to support their sustainable programs simply “click here.”  In manufacturing and other corporate enterprises what used to be called “environmental”, “waste treatment”, or “recycling” departments are now being called “sustainability” departments.

While the USDA has (for better or worse) taken legal control of the word “organic”, the EPA seems to be trying (for better or worse) to take subjective control of the word “sustainable.”  According to the EPA’s web site: “Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”  I actually kind of like this definition because it recognizes the importance of the natural resources we are all trying to protect; that we are not just individuals operating in our own little bubbles but that we are all interconnected; and it also recognizes the importance of economics to sustainability.  What all of this means to me is that sustainable agriculture is not a marketing campaign and that it depends on factors that we can control that are internal to our farm as well as factors that are external that, try as we might, we have no control over.

Factors that we can control – On our farm we do many things to try to make our farm operations sustainable.  First, let me address the elephant in the room.  While we are a certified organic farm and we adhere to the strict definition of “organic” according the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), we do not believe that strict adherence to the NOP is the only right way for farming to be sustainable.  In fact, when you get right down in the weeds, so to speak, some of the OMRI  listed (organic approved) treatments, like the copper used to control fungal diseases on organic farms are highly toxic and, we believe, fundamentally unsustainable.  We use OMRI listed fertilizers, but we also monitor the soil nutrient levels carefully to make sure we don’t over use them.  We try to place the fertilizers exactly where the plants need them and not where they just feed weeds or may run off.  We try to minimize the use of equipment by performing as many operations in a single pass as possible to save fuel and time.  We use a bed former on gently sloping contours to minimize erosion.  We use green manure cover crops for weed control, to prevent erosion, build organic matter, and retain nutrients.  We have developed a system for using used vegetable oils and animal fats to heat our greenhouses so that we can minimize the fossil carbon emissions from our winter operations.  We use a variable frequency drive and back flow preventer on our irrigation system to minimize energy use and protect our water resource.  We built a super-insulated walk-in cooler to minimize energy use in cold storage.  Maybe most importantly we closely monitor our costs and revenue, and if something we’re doing isn’t working we try to do it better.  We are no different than most other commercial family farms in this regard.  Whether farms choose to operate as organic under the NOP or not, most farms today are doing these kinds of things because they save resources, protect the environment, and because they save money.

Factors that we cannot control – None of us farm in isolation, we all operate in broader markets.  A commercial agricultural enterprise is sustainable only if there are enough customers who can afford to buy enough of the product so that the farm can cover the capital, and operating costs of the business and the living expenses of the farmer.  The land trust model is a little different, they can relay on the tax code and donations (when they can get them) to buy land and equipment and make up for operating losses.  Regardless of what business form the farm takes, the current reality is that there are more and more farms competing for a limited number of customers at the highest price point.  With greater competition and increasing costs we are now seeing established farms decide that it’s just not worth it and go out of business.  This is especially true in the dairy and meat production sectors, but it’s happening in the vegetable and fruit sectors as well.   “Local foods’ are enjoying great public support and enthusiasm, but the economy has taken a toll on everyone, and the costs of producing local food on a small scale still place it beyond the reach of many, probably most, local consumers.

For me, the key to the sustainability of the local farm system as a whole in the face of increasing costs and competition is simple: we must all work together to increase the market while using care not to displace existing farm/customer relationships.  Our goal has always been to build new markets and not just take another farm’s market share.  This was pretty universally understood ten years ago, but the concept has virtually disappeared from the landscape today.  The two most obvious and often discussed ways of increasing markets are to produce new and different products to fill unsatisfied and emerging market niches, and to show people who can afford local food who are not already buying it that it is a good value for its variety, freshness, and taste.  Policy makers and farm advocacy groups often decide that the best way to increase markets is to create new distribution systems.  Establishing big or small wholesale distribution systems does not increase markets or promote a sustainable agricultural system if all they do is take customers away from one farm and give them to another, especially when a middleman asks the farmer to lower their price so the wholesaler can mark the product up to recover their costs and make a profit.

There is another way to increase markets that no one seems to want to admit.  Small scale farmers can increase our productivity to reduce our operating costs so that we can make a better living and sell our product at lower prices.  Lower prices will increase the market by placing local food within reach of more consumers.  More consumers is the definition of a bigger market.  I’ve learned recently that these are fighting words for many in the farming community, so let me assure you all that I’m not advocating for the “get big or get out” model of the 1950’s, but if we’re honest with ourselves we all have to admit we can do better.  We’re a vegetable farm. On our farm we grow about an acre of carrots and an acre of beets among many other things.   There is no equipment available for purchase to harvest these crops at this scale.  The equipment exists for large scale, but we could never pay back the investment at our scale.  For us, pulling carrots and beets is the functional equivalent of milking cows by hand.  No one would expect a dairy farmer to be competitive if they had to milk each cow by hand and, in fact, small scale milking equipment is readily available, but hand pulling beets and carrots is just normal at our scale.  It’s crazy.  We and many other local small scale farmers have to innovate, improvise, fabricate, and fail repeatedly until we end up with homemade equipment that works for us.  As obvious as this is to me, I’ve had this conversation with many policy makers whose eyes just glaze over at the thought of it.  Until this limitation is recognized by policy makers and some type of programs or incentives are implemented to help develop, manufacture, and get this equipment to small scale farmers we will continue to have more in common with farms in developing countries than developed ones.

As I said at the beginning, sustainability is a concept that has different meanings to different people.  The proof of this fact is the disagreement among people about what constitute sustainable practices.  There are many who believe that organic farming is inherently unsustainable from a global perspective.  Credible scholars disagree on whether there is enough “organic” nitrogen to support food production to sustain the world population.  Large scale producers believe that small scale agriculture is unsustainable and vice versa.  Wholesalers and many policy makers believe that farms who direct market are unsustainable where we see direct marketing as the only way we can stay in business.  While I see private property, and a commercial agricultural model as the best route to sustainable agriculture, many others strongly disagree.  I attended a workshop recently where it was presented that “the time in our society for the private ownership of agricultural land has come to an end.”  Clearly the group who presented this workshop, and many others who adhere to the “land trust farm” and “foundation farm” model see our commercial family farm as the antithesis of sustainable agriculture.  I see our vegetable oil heating system as the best, most sustainable use of this limited energy resource.  Unfortunately for us, the exorbitant government subsidies offered exclusively to the alternative transportation fuels industries shows that the government, and by extension society, see transportation fuel as a more important use of this limited resource and they have made our farm significantly less economically sustainable through the legislative and regulatory process.

Sustainability is in the eye of the beholder, but we shouldn’t be surprised by that.  There are omnivores and vegans; capitalists and socialists; democrats and republicans; Christians, Muslims and Jews; and on; and on; and on.  It feels like we are being increasingly bombarded by people who’s impassioned messages all seem to be firmly rooted in the one common belief that theirs is the only true path to sustainability, or salvation, or whatever.  I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.  In the end I just hope that all the decisions we’ve made and all the work we’ve done on our farm will have been enough to sustain us when we’re too old to farm.  We’ll see…