There is no clear legal definition of sustainable agriculture and that opens the door to anyone who wants to claim that their farming practices are sustainable. It also opens the door for anyone who wishes to define sustainable agriculture to suit their own agenda. Ironically, not all agree to the vague and self-described definitions.
In reality, sustainable agriculture is as old as the hills. Most farmers know about the “Circle of Agriculture” especially in raising livestock.
You don’t raise more animals on your land than what the land can adequately handle meaning that the land should be able to safely absorb the nutrients from the manure produced by the animals (no runoff) and used to raise enough grain or grass to feed the number of animals without using synthetic chemicals or fertilizers.
Going back to the word sustainable as it applies to farming. To easily understand the new agriculture lingo is simple revolving around the principle of methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources.
Unfortunately, there are many who have inserted their own words into the simple definition of sustainable agriculture to meet their desired goals or motives. These goals have nothing to do with farming and in doing so, what sustainable agriculture is has become terribly muddled.
A handful equate sustainable agriculture from a Utopian ideology that being an imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its citizens. In other words, utopia is a perfect “place” that has been designed so there are no problems. This would be a self-chosen lifestyle not agriculture.
Others have included sustaining the communities in which they live. Small scale sustainable farms support their communities through their purchases which are needed to live and farm. That falls into the category of a sustainable economy.
A few have decided that sustainable agriculture should include worker’s pay. Others have decided that farms should only be owned according to race and gender. While there is nothing wrong with a racially and gender diverse farmer community, as it should be, it’s really not something that should be dictated by the elitist group that I mentioned above. As far as what should be paid to farm employees that is more like a labor union than a sustainable farming group.
These are just a few descriptions of what those who know better have decided what sustainable agriculture is and if these methods aren’t incorporated into your farm you are somehow evil and you aren’t a sustainable farmer.
I’m certainly in agreement with the Circle of Agriculture and employing the simple definition revolving around the principle of methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources. According to USDA, utilizing more ecologically sensible practices, that poses no harm to the environment is a fully sustainable method of farming. I think that is closest to what sustainable farming practices are.
The one thing that we haven’t addressed in all of the made-up definitions is the economic sustainability of the farm.
Farming is more than a full-time job with long hours, blood, sweat, and yes, sometimes tears. Unless you’re independently wealthy, retired, or practicing a choice of lifestyle, farming is a business not a hobby. Which brings us down to what is sustainable.
In 2016, Americans spent an average of 9.9 percent of their disposable personal incomes on food—divided between food at home (5.2 percent) and food away from home (4.7 percent). USDA ERS
Almost equal to one-tenth of one dollar in disposable income spent on food doesn’t leave much for the farmer’s income. Most of that ten cents goes toward processing, packaging, transportation, and marketing and what is left over goes to the farmer’s gross income. From that the farmer has to pay the cost of production.
There isn’t much left over for the farmers spendable income. If one were to incorporate all of the definitions mentioned above, the farm wouldn’t be sustainable it would be bankrupted attempting to take care of everyone’s pie in the sky sustainability definitions.
As long as one practicing farming methods of balance with the land, water, and air, is caring for the welfare of their animals, does not use up or destroy our natural resources and environment – you’re doing a damn good job.
Maybe while the think tank Utopians are at it, they should find a way to sustain the independent farmers. Try marketing their products, start a “Buy Local” campaign, or pay the real cost of producing food. Until you walk in a farmer’s shoes to make a living, stop telling us how or what.