Farm Fresh Perspectives: Just what is sustainable?

Sustainable, huh? This one little word has caused a pretty big rift in the world of agriculture. The term “sustainable” has been bandied about to describe everything from pastured poultry to clustered housing developments. When ascribed to agriculture specifically, “sustainable” is a large and slightly vague concept, but has been broadly defined as agriculture that is ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible.

This definition looks concise at first glance, but one must think about everything that must go into it. Sustainable agriculture 1) must not be exploitative of the land and water, it must actually maintain or regenerate the quality of the natural resources on which it relies over time; 2) must be sufficiently profitable to keep the farm prosperous in perpetuity in a climate of cheap food and confounding market factors; and 3) always produce with the best interests of every farm worker and consumer in mind, despite the very broad spectrum of interests.

That is a big set of expectations for anyone to live up to; not impossible, but certainly challenging. Yet, the community of people producing or supporting natural, whole, and organic foods (of which I am a member) has widely adopted the term “sustainable” to describe many sets of attributes that suggest progressive production and marketing practices. Organic vegetables, unsprayed fruit, pastured poultry, cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, dolphin-safe tuna, and the list goes on. We say these products come from sustainable farmers on sustainable farms, but do we know that for sure?

As a thought exercise, consider the more conventional corn-soybean-livestock farms that dominate the Illinois landscape. Many of them have instituted conservation tillage practices, planted grass waterways, and put highly erodible land into conservation programs to reduce the amount of topsoil lost. They have installed variable rate fertilizer application technology and planted streamside buffer strips to reduce over-application of chemical fertilizers and reduce their presence in surface water. Many conventional farmers are instituting advanced manure management plans, and paying close attention to animal comfort and well-being to provide healthy, humanely-raised meat products. But we don’t call these farmers sustainable. I’ve had people ask me, “So, does that mean I’m considered unsustainable?” Farmers resent that.

Now, I am not trying to trivialize the efforts of farmers with a more progressive, consumer-driven mindset or laud the effort of the farmers with a more conventional, market-driven mindset. I am simply arguing that the sustainability of a farm cannot be accurately diagnosed by its end products. An organic vegetable farm that mistreats and underpays immigrant labor may be less sustainable than a well-managed farm that grows standard No. 2 yellow corn. A pastured poultry farm that goes out of business for insufficient sales revenue may be less sustainable than a conventional cow-calf operation. However, any of these may be more sustainable than an irresponsibly-managed farm that wears out its soil, pollutes its watershed, fires its workers, then goes out of business.

Every single farmer I know feels like he or she has a serious responsibility to the earth and the environment. None is so arrogant to think he or she can just exploit what he or she has, and move on. That may have been an option long ago, but they are not making or discovering any more arable land in this country. As a matter of fact, more and more of it is being covered by homes, storefronts, and concrete every year, so the land that is in farming needs to be cared for all the more earnestly. Farmers, whether they are conventional, natural, or organic, tend to be careful and experienced stewards of the land. Sustainability is a complex juggling act that must pay attention to the demands of the consumer, the farm, and the target market. Please continue to vote with your grocery dollars to support a food production system that aligns with your personal preferences and ethics, but do not belittle what all farmers are doing for us and for the earth by assuming, without close inspection, that one farm is doing a better job than the next. Be careful whom you call sustainable.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the Jan. 18-24, 2006, issue

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