Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Who is sustaining who ? or is it whom ?


Hey !  Yes you. See that wooden box over there ? The one right next to you with the word  "SOAP" on it ? Yes, that's the one. Kick it over my way would you ? Hey, not so hard !  OK then, let...me...just step...up here...umphhh...groan...THERE. I'm up and ready to go. Cute suit huh ?

In case you are new to this blog, well first I apologize, and second many thanks, but you  may not realize that I have  just mounted my soap box which means an opinion is coming. There is still time to bail if you click on that little "X" in the right hand corner of your screen. Otherwise you'll have to read on and endure.

Farming is full of trendy terms right now. Organic, beyond organic, local, all natural, grass-fed, free-range and of course sustainable. I've ranted before about the the organic label with its correct and incorrect use and its likely I will come back to it but today's word is "sustainable."
We've used it to describe our own farm for some time now and it is  used frequently by other farmers we know and even some non-farmer types which is odd but true. I recently read an insurance companies ad that referred to itself as sustainable. Truthfully, I have found the term confusing so I've done some research. The definition (from several agricultural sources ) is this:

A method of agriculture that attempts to ensure the profitability of farms while preserving the environment.

Funny. In my peacock sized brain, I thought "sustainable" meant simply the ability to support ones farm without outside financial assistance, Which is why I have felt so guilty, yes guilty for so many years because our farm was surviving due in large part to the income I brought in as a nurse. My husband, who was the one doing the majority of the farm work up until my "retirement"  from nursing 5 months ago, would be the first to agree, as would our tax man.

But in looking at that definition above, in no way does it imply that the financial resources a farm requires to operate must come from the farm alone. Once again I created my own definition and was incorrect.  (cue the song "You're so Vain" here) Or am I ? In the first three words , "A Method of Agriculture" suggests that it is in agriculture alone we can ensure profitability. But what if in those early years the products you produce, grow and hopefully sell are not enough to meet expenses ? Are you "less sustainable" as a farmer if you require additional non-direct-farm income in order to make the hay payment or buy the grinder needed to mix your own hog feed or heaven forbid, you accept assistance from government programs such as NRCS ?  

Moving on to the next section of "attempting to ensure the profitability of farms," I have to wonder about that word "attempt."  Pretty weak isn't it ?  Down right wishy washy in my opinion. Like, "OK, I'll attempt to be profitable but you can't blame me if corn prices go to high. "  Granted one farmer is not able to control all grain prices but that same one farmer can decide how he will deal with those circumstances on his /her own farm. Perhaps the pastured hogs will get less corn and  more of the other sources of less costly protein such as soy bean hulls , hay or raw milk if one has access to a nearby dairy and the means to transport the milk. Options.  We all have enough options to allow us to accomplish a task instead of  just "attempting" to accomplish it.  Attempt, such a defeatist word. No wonder farmers feel so low sometimes.   

And now "Profitability."  Our farm has never been hugely profitable yet bills were paid and some luxuries were allowed.  My salary covered all the household expenses and then bought the things the farm needed that the farm could not pay for. We drove used vehicles and Keith's farm equipment was even more used. In the 18 years we have been married we have purchased just two brand new pieces of farm equipment. One Kubota tractor and one livestock trailer which was paid for with grant funds from the ever generous Frontera Farmers foundation. These are not complaints. These are facts. But when our methods didn't work we changed them. Sometimes the changes  were BRILLIANT (like selling whole hog carcasses directly to the back alley of fine restaurants ) while other times the changes we made failed worse than  those changes barked about by that hotshot politician from Chicago.

And in light of all that we decided the best way to become more sustainable and more profitable was for me to leave a job that paid financially very well but had taken me to a dead end spiritually. So here we are trying, "attempting" every day to be independently sustainable. Will we make it ?  Only Mud, Sweat and Tears will tell. If we mange to support our farm with no outside income are we "more" sustainable than those farmers who still must farm all day and perhaps work all night in a factory or all day for perhaps another farmer and then working a second shift on their own land ? Whose wives must teach or cook or nurse or God willing , write, to bring in more income ? I think not. Farming is hell and heaven all mixed into one wet and cold, warm and sunny day and in my opinion, again, if you are still getting out of bed each day thinking about how you can make your farm just a little bit better than it was the day before, you are indeed "sustainable"
And if all that is not enough, the definition of sustainable goes on to require preservation of the environment. Again, very subjective. How WE  choose to preserve the environment (through the very stringent standards of the National Organic Program) may not be the same way YOU choose to preserve the environment. To some gardeners a little bit of Round Up to control weeds is acceptable while to others it is frowned upon or even to others may be illegal to use on their farms.

Regardless of the buzz word you type on your farm products label YOU are accountable to that customer. who buys your product. Say what you mean and mean what you say verbally and in writing. But please think hard about what you put on those labels and be willing to defend with pride the words you have chosen to identify the farm you represent. Honesty and integrity are still the best buzz words of all.


  1. Applause!! Well said! Well said! A bit of a bee up your bonnet??:)) Now do you need help off that soap box so I can climb on??

  2. Thank you crazy. yes always a bee or two up my bonnet which is why I usually wear coveralls instead of dresses. More protection that way. And there is plenty of room on my soapbox come on up !

  3. Ooh, Matt actually HATES the word "sustainable". He argues all farming is meant to be sustainable because if a farmer ruins his land he ruins his livelihood. That's where he says soil testing comes in. And sometimes I tell him he had so much ag experience its hard for him to wrap his mind around the fact you can do things other ways. His over-experience and my lack of it cause us to question each other just enough that it works!!!