Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Third Commandment of a Sustainable Farm

Think long term.

Of course I understand that farm businesses need to think in the short term as well as long term, but I think it's all too easy to fall into our cultural trap of not thinking about the longer term at all.

When I think about farming our homeplace, or farming my in-laws place or the place we just bought, I'm thinking about things and gearing my management style toward the long term. At a minimum, I'm thinking about using these pieces of land for the remainder of my working lifetime, which I hope is for a good long while yet ! In actual fact, I'm farming on an even longer scale than this, because the hope is that these farms will be passed on to someone who will tend after them at least as well as I did. No matter who gets them (or when), they will be getting well tended farmsteads that are in better shape, are more useable and are more productive than they were when I got them. I think in much the same way when I rent or lease a piece of ground from a neighbour or a family friend.

Conversely, when I rent or lease a piece of ground from a developer (so that he can maintain farm taxes on it until he sells it or builds it out), I am not thinking beyond what that land can do for me this year or at the very most, perhaps this year and next year. Because my mindset is different, some of my agricultural practices on this land wouldn't pass muster at home.

[Before I go on, I want to state very clearly that I am NOT inherently biased or against large scale agriculture. Big farms can be well run....and they can also be run in a sustainable manner. What I AM biased against is the sort of corporate mindset that too often lurks behind the scences in large scale agriculture.]

With it's myopic focus too often based solely on quarterly performance, it's my opinion that corporate agriculture too often treats land, buildings, animals and people as though they are resources to be used up, just like land leased from a developer. When these resources are no longer productive, or no longer productive enough, the "care" they receive stops and they will be sold to the highest bidder for whatever they will bring. In my opinion, this is the antithesis of sustainability in that nothing has any inherent worth or inherent value beyond that which relates to the profit motives or other directives of the corporation. In my opinion, every business needs to think about making a profit. However, when profit is all that it's about, I believe myriad examples will show that businesses lose their humanity and ultimately their reason for being. I've thought for a long time that running a business solely for profit must be a hell of a way to live one's life. I know factually that this sort of business isn't much fun to work for.

In my case, being a farmer is a lifestyle, a way of life and a business all rolled into one. I farm because I enjoy it, and because I make a good living at it. Perhaps because I enjoy it so much, I want to share my enjoyment with my family, my employees, my friends and my critters. I can't imagine a better way to live my life.


Anonymous said...

I've been reading a very interesting book - Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David Montgomery. It's about the misuse of soils and the depletion of their long-term sustainability, and how that has affected various civilizations. In fact, the settlement of the West in the US was in part driven by poor agricultural practices that depleted Eastern soils, leading people to want to migrate West.

The focus on the short term is also driven by the chemical companies, who have farmers in a situation where they are dependent on the heavy use of chemicals, which do nothing to enhance the complexity or long term sustainability of soils.

Sylvia said...

Great post. Loving that you're writing more :)

Jason said...

Thanks Sylvia ! :)

Kate; Only in the last twenty years has sustainability evolved into anything more than a nice idea at our land grant colleges. In North America the general mindset has been to use it up and go get more. That only stopped when there was no more to go get.

Corporations exist to sell their products and services, and they have a hard time selling them if farmers see no value in their usage. Thus they promote a mindset that encourages usage. Like most things in life, it's seldom that simple though. One of the biggest positive changes in North American agriculture in terms of slowing the loss of soil organic matter has been the advent of no-till planting techniques for corn, beans and wheat. No till planting requires two passes with the sprayer instead of one when plowing, discing, and cultivating before planting. It's not the entire answer; far from it actually, but it is a widely adopted positive step in an industry with that has precious few of them.