September 2015 ushered in a curious shift in the way agriculture is characterized these days. In the legislative halls of North Carolina, a proposed change aimed to legally define “sustainable farming” for public policy decisions. In the end, the effort did not succeed, because … how can you legally define what’s effectively become a buzzword that different parties use for different interests?
We don’t need to dismiss the notion of sustainability in agriculture thinking it is a useless buzzword. It’s not. If you hang out with the most successful farmers in the United States, you will see farm management that is, in fact, sustainable. Sustainable farms capture the essential factor of business efficiency and align it with a long-term outlook. The scale of operations, the number of workers, the extent of mechanization, and the presence or absence of organic certification do not matter.
Economic achievement and growth are prerequisites for sustainable farming. Farms are businesses first and foremost, and profits are used to grow the business and to provide for employees and family (and can be generated with the additional intent of contributing meaningfully to the social and environmental fabric of the community). What matters to be a sustainable farm businesses is the ability to consistently pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, no matter how large or small. So how can sustainable farming do it?
1. They have defined their mid- to long-term goals. Rather than spending too much attention on what’s happening today or tomorrow, they plan with a generation’s span in mind. Reaching the vision and goals of a farm takes an effort advanced by small steps. Some steps might prove risky and require re-routing, but the long term plan remains as a guidepost every day.
2. They use real-time information because data from “now” is essential in sustainable farming. They check in with other team members, they stop by fields, they visit the tractor repair work and walk through barns, taking in all they see, hear, and sense. They blend these personal observations with records provided by their software. With field observations and real-time data, the gut instinct they have honed over the years serves them better than ever.
3. They make a daily practice of recording and analyzing records. They understand that if it is not written down, it’s not going to improve. Crop notes, harvest records, a task journal, input cost information, and income statements form the backbone of good farming and effective decision-making.
4. They build resilience and readiness into the farm by anticipating change and knowing what to do if things change. Practically speaking, they require farm data to be backed-up and easily accessible anywhere. They protect electronics and make sure everyone has the technology tools to keep in touch and manage a crisis, even when far from the home farm.
Sustainable farming is not “sound science” or “organic” or a term meant to be applied to certain small farms. It is a set of habits and philosophies that makes sure the farm is strong and successful for family and employee generations to come.