December 6, 2022
As I write this column, I’m sitting on an airplane headed back to Lubbock, Texas, from Phoenix, where I had the honor of helping represent sorghum farmers at Field to Market’s Sustainable Agriculture Summit. As I reflect on the past few days, it strikes me that sustainability is no longer the buzzword it was just a couple years ago. It’s now a concept that most of U.S. agriculture fully understands and even embraces.
Simply put, agricultural sustainability means taking some action today so that things can be equally good and maybe even better tomorrow. Though we may disagree on how to go about achieving this outcome or the degree to which we should concern ourselves with it, most of us want it in some form or another. It took a lot of discussion, but almost everyone is finally on board with the concept — likely because they wanted it all along.
Notice in my definition of sustainability that I didn’t mention agronomy, environmental stewardship or agricultural economics. Why? Because we’re missing the point if we think about sustainability only in scientific terms. Farming is overwhelmingly a family business. Even those who found their way into agriculture without familial ties often come to embrace the family atmosphere of most agricultural enterprises. And many raise kids in the stock show ring. If family is second only to faith, as many in agriculture affirm, why aren’t we thinking about the sustainability of our families? We should be!
Farm family sustainability
Farm family sustainability is multifaceted. First, there’s the mental health aspect. To put it bluntly, farmers’ families need them — alive. The suicide rate among farmers is nearing a record high, so family sustainability is tragically impossible for many a farm family today. If anyone reading this is struggling, they can’t, nor should they, feel ashamed to unburden themselves by talking to someone. I’ve done it. I’m seeing a counselor currently. And I’ve taken medicine for severe obsessive-compulsive disorder for most of my adult life. I’ll talk about my own struggles all day if it helps one person. There’s a solution for every problem, and nothing is as bad as it seems.
Second, there’s the quality time aspect. Sure, Paul Harvey’s farmer put in 40 hours before noon on Tuesday, but did he have to? Probably. After all, hay takes baling. Cotton must be harvested. And cows need water on frostbitten mornings. But must tomorrow be like today? What if there’s a better way? Not only do farmers’ families need them alive, but they also need them present. Farmers have so much to give and teach their families, and it’s one of the great tragedies of agricultural life that the hours required by the job so cut into farmers’ time to do just that.
To be clear, I’m not calling farmers absentee fathers and mothers. And in many cases, the entire family works together on the ranch, in the field or at the dairy, so many farmers have more quality time with family than 40-hour-per-week working stiffs. But in how many cases are farmers not optimally using their time?
How many brilliant farmer-marketers incorrectly value themselves by thinking the best use of their time is changing bearings on a tandem disk rather than locking in a profit by hedging next year’s corn crop? And how many could lock in that profit in a morning of trading and spend the afternoon with their kids?
I feel strongly that our farms could be more productive and our families more sustainable if we spent some time thinking about how we’re using the hours in our day.
If agricultural sustainability is acting today so that things can be equally good and possibly better tomorrow, we owe it to our families to apply this principle on the home front, as well. I’m going to lean in on this idea, and I hope others will join me.
Duff is founder of Serō Ag Strategies and serves as a consultant to National Sorghum Producers. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @sorghumduff.
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