Friday, April 10, 2009

My Point of View

Farmers and Ranchers Should Help Define ‘Sustainable’

By Troy Hadrick

It’s hard to get through the day anymore without hearing the word “sustainable.” In fact, I was recently asked if I was a factory farmer or if I raised cattle sustainably. Who judges what’s sustainable and what isn’t? It seems that the word has been hijacked and is being used by people who are opposed to modern agriculture.

Sometimes you just have to shake your head when you hear the term. When I hear about sustainable wood, it always puzzles me. Are there some trees that don't grow back?

But in food production, we hear more and more that modern agriculture can’t continue down the same path it’s currently on. What exactly led to that false notion, and how would anyone possess the kind of knowledge needed to back up that sweeping statement?

Skeptics say we should go back to how we used to raise crops and livestock. But how far back should we go? To the 1950s? Or how about the 1870s? Maybe we could go back to when everyone raised just their own food?

Broadly, it is frequently true that so-called sustainable practices are those techniques used before the combustion engine was invented. Every industry has adapted and used technology to improve production methods and output. That includes agriculture.

From a farmer’s perspective, there are two questions that should have to be answered before any agricultural practice can truly be considered sustainable. First, will the farm and ranch families implementing the practice be able to generate enough income to continue farming or ranching? Will those families be sustainable? And second, will the practice help producers increase food production to keep up with a growing population? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then, from my perspective, it should not be considered sustainable.

If farmers and ranchers can't make a living, they obviously won't be around very long. That’s not what I would call a sustainable practice. Or if America’s farmers and ranchers are forced to use production methods that do not yield enough food for everyone would you consider that sustainable? I wouldn’t.

At the end of the day, agriculture has a single, yet vital, responsibility -- to provide food, fiber, fuel and other basics of life for an ever-growing world. The agriculture industry that some folks like to envision is better described as nostalgic rather than sustainable or even realistic. Our society wouldn’t have developed into what it is today if 25 percent or more of our workforce was still required to grow food. For the past century, we have continually produced more food with less farm inputs. With the technologies available today, that trend will continue.

American agriculture has a longer track record than any other industry in this country. Many families are producing food on the same land their ancestors did. That is proof of sustainability. Farmers and ranchers know a thing or two about being sustainable since our livelihood depends on it. It’s time we take our word “sustainable” back and encourage everyone to think about and use its real definition.

6 comments:

Brad Redlin said...

Just a note that sustainable agriculture is defined by and for real on-the-ground farmers and ranchers: http://sustainableagriculture.net/

farmmom said...

Troy,
Your take on "sustainable" is right on. The many generations of farmers still on the land are the true definition of sustainable farming.
They keep adapting and will adapt again if needed.
Those like Pollan and the others who seem to want to go back to the "good ol days" remind me of the saying: "Be careful for what you wish for, you may get it." I think the story on the diseases in free range pork prove that.
Keep doing what you do Troy, I read it everyday. Thank you.

Texas Cattlewoman said...

Troy, I so agree with what you say is "sustainable." Your right we will adapt again, and it is around the corner. We had a taste last year of high fuel, high fertilizer costs, and ranchers with increasing harvested feed costs. It's not as high as last year, but we do see the future. Those farmers and ranchers don't just grow food without being able to feed & clothe their families. We are businessmen and women who are as capable of running a business as any CEO of any corporation. What the Urban dweller must understand farming and ranching isn't for the meek or mild individual. Sometimes I think they would make better CEO's of the corporations in this country. We are always looking for ways to improve our bottom line and produce more for less cost. We allow for the citizens of this country to enjoy the lifestyle they have by what we do day in and day out.

Kim

Anonymous said...

What really irks me is that agriculture already is sustainable because it produces something useful year in and year out.

Think about what building houses creates? Garbage year in and year out. Are houses sustainable? Are people sustainable? Give me a break!

Winston Gladwell said...

Troy - Excellent post. Here's a question I would like to hear asked/answered more often. How much of American land can sustain/affordably produce crops, and how much is only suitable for animal agriculture? I'm not a farmer, so I don't know this answer - I DO KNOW that HSUS/PETA are out to abolish animal agriculture. How much damage would this do to USA crop farmers? You never hear those animal rights activists talk about the fact that 856 million people go hungry in this world...

Isn't it true that USA crop farmers and animal farmers are mutually dependent?

Troy Hadrick said...

Winston, three-fourths of the land mass that we use for food production isn't suitable for growing crops, it is used for grazing. So forcing a vegan society would require that we feed everyone on the planet with one-fourth the land that we currently use.

And you are correct that many crop farmers would fail if animal agriculture went away. They are very dependent on each other.