Sustainability: What’s In A Name?
Maybe it’s just semantics, but I think the words we choose are important. 40 years ago, when I was in college, “sustainable agriculture” was a revolutionary concept. Forward-thinking universities created Sustainable Agriculture Departments. Most farm and ranch kids enrolled in the Animal Science or Crop Science programs while the hippies enrolled in Sustainable Agriculture.
But who could argue with sustainability? All sustainability means is that something can continue indefinitely. Sadly, 40 years later, the rate of erosion on most croplands and rangelands still exceeds the rate of soil formation. Surface and ground waters in too many places are still being polluted with ag chemicals. (Want to keep the EPA away? Pressure your neighbor to clean up their act.) Very few farms and ranches are profitable. They are more reliant than ever on off-farm income and other personal subsidies.
The problem with sustainable agriculture programs has been that they focus on sustainable production practices while ignoring sustainable business practices. In the real world, a farm or ranch isn’t sustainable if it isn’t profitable.
Somewhere along the line sustainability lost favor and got replaced by terms like regenerative and resilient. There’s nothing wrong with these words, but in my opinion their meaning is too narrow. When most people talk about regenerative and resilient farms and ranches they focus on increasing biodiversity, enriching soils and improving ecosystem services. If they do mention economics or finance, they just pay them lip service, at least that’s the way it feels to me.
To me, sustainable is bigger and more inclusive than either regenerative or resilient. I think Joel Salatin got it right when he said, “If our farms aren’t fun, if they aren’t profitable, and if they are too much work, our kids won’t want them. Romancing the next generation is the ultimate test of sustainability.” You and other stakeholders in your business might want to take the RFP Sustainability Test to see how you stack up against Joel’s definition of sustainability.
Notice that Joel doesn’t say anything about the primary focus of most sustainability programs: ecology. He doesn’t have to. If the ecosystem isn’t healthy, your place is going to be too much work, it won’t be profitable and it isn’t going to be much fun.
I think it is a mistake to think of sustainability in terms of a destination. I think it is more useful to think of it as a trend. It boils down to one key question: Are the practices you are applying today positioning your business, and the people associated with it, for a healthy, happy, prosperous future?