Last month I argued that there is no need for a specific sustainability title in the next farm bill, but that there is a definite need to consider the impact of other titles on sustainability as we advance further into the 21st Century. This month, I want to examine another aspect of sustainability that we need to bear in mind as we look at American agriculture in the coming decades.

Recently I spoke to a gathering of agricultural economists at Mississippi State University in Starkville about sustainability. I reminded them of the three pillars of sustainability—environmental, economic and social impacts of producing food and fiber. I noted the need to double our productive capacity by 2050. And I shared my personal definition of sustainability—leaving my land and my cows in better shape than when I took over the ranch.

What struck me as I was preparing for that talk was that conservationists and environmental organizations have done their job of stressing the importance of minimizing environmental impacts of production. And we can count on animal rights advocates and those concerned with labor and human services to ensure that social impacts receive due consideration. But who is looking out for the financial welfare of the farmer? Who is tracking whether the policies and programs we implement make it possible for those living on the land to actually make a living from the land?

So I challenged those agricultural economists to make this part of their mission as they think about the next farm bill. If the agricultural community doesn’t make sure that the policies that ensure sustainability for our natural resources also ensure economic sustainability for those who work the land and care for the livestock, no one else will.

Farmers and ranchers who install conservation practices or adopt new technologies that sustain the land must receive a return on their investment. Further, we need to ensure that the safety net in Title One of the farm bill, the traditional farm program benefits and payments, remains in place. Those in the Cotton and Corn Belt understand this all too well after experiencing at best a break-even year. Having vibrant farm programs as a safety net is a key support to economic sustainability for farmers and ranchers.

Crop insurance has become a critical risk management tool for farmers and an important component of sustainability policy in the farm bill. It’s time we recognize that role in supporting sustainable farm operations. Sometimes overlooked is the vital role that free and open trade play in the incomes of American producers. If we are going to feed the world in the future, we’ve got to have in place the trade rules and agreements that permit food and fiber to flow from farms here to those who need it wherever in the world they may be. We need to make certain that those agreements don’t distort planting decisions or limit our opportunities to sell what we’ve produced to Asia, Canada, Africa, South America or Europe. Farmers and ranchers must speak out for access to world markets. It’s also time the environmental community recognizes that free trade is a vital component of sustainability objectives, understanding that production on the best lands in North America protects vulnerable lands around the globe.   

In short, if we want to sustain our private agricultural resources along with our public natural resources, we must take a broad view of sustainability and make certain it includes the opportunity for producers to receive a return on conservation investments and a profit on what they produce. That requires taking a holistic view of the farm bill and recognizing that sustainability depends on the economic viability of individual farmers and ranchers as supported and encouraged by the separate but interlinked programs the bill includes.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 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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