Sustainability: Passing Fad or Foundation for the Future?

By Bruce I. Knight

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Farmers are first and foremost stewards of the land. Taking care of the land that provides a living for us and for our children is ingrained in everyone who plants a field, grazes livestock or harvests timber. We know we're passing through this world and passing it on to the generations who follow us.

Recently, more of our corporate customers have begun to emphasize stewardship as well. But they call it sustainability. Sustainability, as defined by the United Nations in the mid-1980's, means “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” So when today's agricultural processors and retailers use this term, they want their suppliers to assure them that what they sell to consumers has been produced with the future in mind. Recycling, preventing erosion, maintaining and renewing forests, conserving energy, improving water quality and minimizing the carbon footprint are all part of this conversation.

Together we can feed the Bees

As our country gets back on its feet financially, we know we have to reduce debt so we don't foreclose options for future generations. Similarly, sustainability is a positive, voluntary approach to safeguarding the environment today to pass on productive lands, clean water and vibrant wildlife to our children and grandchildren.

Retailers' public commitments to sustainability offer the agricultural community an opportunity to share and build on their own deep-rooted commitments to stewardship. Now is the time for us to help shape the discussion about voluntary efforts to protect the environment in ways that recognize the legitimate needs of working agricultural lands and the public ecosystem benefits they provide.

Hallmarks of sustainability are attributes that can be measured and verified. Farmers and their representatives have sophisticated new tools to help with that. Especially important is the fact that sustainability efforts can deliver results for the farmer's bottom line - reducing energy costs with efficiency audits, avoiding unnecessary expense for fertilizer by putting the optimum amount exactly where it needs to go based on soil analysis, and limiting water usage through careful irrigation management. Minimizing the resources we use lowers expenses and that boosts income. In this case, doing the right thing is also doing the most profitable thing. Improved sustainability need not be just increased costs - it's a win-win for farmers.

Dairy and wine grapes are two areas taking the lead on sustainability - primarily because they are close to consumers - soccer moms and dads who buy milk and visitors to vineyards who purchase wines on the premises. Nearly every commodity check-off program is looking to develop a sustainability assessment or claim - using its own definition of sustainability. Now is the time to weigh in on these.

My personal definition of sustainability is pretty simple. I just ask myself: Am I providing income for my family? Am I taking good care of my cattle? Have I improved the land, water, air and grass since I bought the ranch? This definition of sustainability has worked on our ranch for three generations. I pray that the consumer who wants greater sustainability can respect it.

Do you have a sustainable operation? If so, you've established a firm foundation for the future - yours, your children's and our nation's.

About the author: Bruce Knight is a principal with Strategic Conservation Services. Knight was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006-2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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