Saturday, March 22, 2014

What is Sustainable Agriculture, Anyway?

Submitted by Jim Mizik.  Jim has been the district technician for the Noble Soil and Water Conservation District since 1999. He also raises beef cattle with his son, Jeremy, on his family farm.

Writing Dirt on Conservation articles is a rewarding task that all the soil and water staff members who write take seriously. We all want the readers to know what we do, how we do it and who we do it with.

My problem is coming up with a topic that hasn’t already been covered and is interesting enough to get folks to read the whole thing. And I never know where that idea will come from.

So, in getting ready for this year’s Envirothon competition, as I looked over the guidelines for this year’s theme, I realized I didn’t know very much about sustainable agriculture.

If I were to ask 10 farmers to define sustainable agriculture, I would get 10 or 11 different answers, and none of them would be wrong. Just as every farm operation is different and unique in its own way, every answer would reflect that and be just a little different than everyone else’s answer.

Three pillars
What I didn’t know was that sustainable agriculture was so well defined. It seems the whole idea centers around the three pillars of sustainable agriculture — economic profitability, environmental health and social equity.

I had no idea. I thought it was more about hard work, good stewardship and working with family and friends — but what did I know? Well, it turns out we’re saying the same things, only in different ways.

Every farmer has a goal of being profitable — why else would we do what we do, right? But profits come in many forms, and I can’t think of any group that has the variety of benefits that farmers do — from the exhilaration of a new calf on a frosty morning to the exhaustion of a long day in the fields as the sun goes down. These are all things that most folks don’t get a chance to share.

Environmental health is something soil and water districts have been working on for 70-plus years. There have been a few hiccups in recent years, but the overall water quality in Ohio’s streams is lots healthier than 40 or 50 years ago.

Soil health is not just talked about anymore; we have folks in Ohio who are leading the way with new ideas about the benefits of cover crops. As for the social equity, raising and selling produce, meat, eggs or whatever at the local level helps you to make those important social connections needed to ensure a steady market for the future.

And with the social media that is so prevalent today, there are more marketing opportunities than ever before.

I don’t mean to rant, it was just that when I researched, I found this concept, which is for the most part recycled.  Growing a variety of food to feed the family, being diversified in the animals you raise and the crops you grow, and taking care of the land are all things our grandparents did.

Now, I am the age of the average farmer in the U.S. and I have grandkids of my own, and I sure hope they feel the connectedness I feel as they get older and realize all food doesn’t come from a grocery store.

As the need for transparency grows into every industry, we all need to understand that whether you consider yourself to be sustainable or not, if you sell food your customers want to know how it was raised. It’s their right to know, but we sometimes don’t do a good job of telling our story.

So, whether you are sustainable or not, I’d like for you to think about something for a minute. There are about 75,000 farms in Ohio, according to the latest ag census. If one person from each farm were to get together, we wouldn’t come close to filling Ohio Stadium.

By the year 2050, there will be 9 billion people living on this planet, and the amount of food needed is already a concern. We have to produce as much food in the next 36 years as has been produced in the last 500 years combined.

There will be lots of opportunities for everybody who wants to grow food in any way they see fit. Just remember, somebody’s always watching.

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