If you ask a third-generation farmer when this new sustainable farming trend emerged, he’ll look down at his boots and say, “It’s always been here.” However, the fact remains that a significant portion of the general public thinks it’s new. They don’t realize just how widespread sustainable practices are in Big Ag, so for the past 10 years, the farming community has been unfairly judged.
Farmers and Big Ag alike have always been concerned with preserving our resources for the future, but sustainability is a moving target, and what was considered a sustainable act 30 years ago is ancient by today’s standards. Yet, almost every farming operation I visit incorporates some level of sustainability. After all, the type of person who gets involved in farming or ranching generally wants to be a good steward of the land and resources. He just doesn’t get credit for it.
All Sustainability Counts
Sustainability is a pretty broad term that includes many things — from recycling to seed-saving to healthy soil treatment. Sustainability isn’t only about big ideas like city farming. While covering the sides of skyscrapers with mechanisms that can grow enough food for everyone in the building is a worthy endeavor, those types of enhancements aren’t things everyone has access to.
Any time the newest technology hits the market, people think everyone has to implement it right away, but that’s just not practical. Adopting innovation takes time in any industry, and agriculture is no different. But Big Ag is working very closely with organizations like the MIT Media Lab and the University of California, Davis to develop new technologies that can make a big difference. Truthfully, some of the largest farming operations are the early adopters of the most innovative practices because they have the resources to do so.
Unfortunately, at this stage, sustainability isn’t very profitable. Still, we’re starting to see certain aspects of sustainable practices yield greater returns as they continue to evolve. Everyone is asking, “Are we doing everything we can?” But this is the wrong question. We’re never doing everything we can because there’s always something new, and it takes time to incorporate innovative developments. The better question is “Are we moving in the right direction as quickly as possible without threatening the health of our businesses?”
A Better Way to Spread the Word
People know that sustainable farming practices are happening, but by the time they hear about it from a blogger who’s not fully informed, facts become clouded by opinion, and the opportunity to educate the public is lost. However, it’s not the blogger’s responsibility to do a better job of reporting facts — it’s ours.
If you’re ready to get the message out there, start with government reporting. Then, check in with academic studies and research; they’re on the forefront of sustainability innovation. Communication is key in the education process, and it must be done efficiently.
First of all, we need objective reporting in mainstream news. The public isn’t going to be reached through ag reports or scientific studies alone. We need the facts delivered in a way that they can understand in mainstream news. For example, the term “GMO” scares people because we don’t define and explain it properly. It’s time to be smart about how we’re communicating.
We also need to let people know what’s actually going on at our farms and ranches. We can all learn something from Gerbert Oosterlaken, a Dutch hog farmer in the small town of Beers in the southeastern Netherlands. Oosterlaken, along with all livestock producers, is experimenting with a drastic reduction of antibiotics, and it’s going well. Oosterlaken invites folks to stop by and see for themselves what’s happening at his farm. In the U.S., we push people away because we’re afraid they’ll misunderstand and vilify us. Let’s be open, bust through the negative myths that surround us, and be transparent about what’s going on.
Lastly, we need to be less argumentative as a whole. There’s no Rosetta Stone for solving the sustainability issue, so every effort should be recognized as a positive step forward. Villainizing someone for failing to incorporate one particular opportunity — either because he can’t or it doesn’t make sense for his operation — is wrong. Let’s be reasonable and understand that people can’t do everything at once; they need to preserve their livelihood as much as they need to sustain the land.
The word “sustainable” gets redefined all the time, but it’s actually pretty simple. We need to be responsible and reasonable about being good stewards of the land, animals, and resources we use so that when all is said and done, we’re not wasting or harming them. That’s it. The sooner the general public understands this, the sooner they’ll recognize the sustainable practices that are already in use.