Sustainability, a decade or so back, put farmers in a watchful mood, wondering what new regulation was about to create more paperwork, more stress and less efficiency for their operations.
The irony in that skepticism was and remains that farmers already employed most of the practices necessary to satisfy reasonable conservation initiatives.
They also understood, better than anyone else, that sustainability without assuring survivability of the farm was, well, un-sustainable. Profit, they argued, had to be built into the equation to ensure someone remained on the land to continue the conservation practices necessary to produce safe, affordable food and fiber and to offer a means of making a living.
Things have changed. Farmers still deal with more red tape and bureaucracy than is probably necessary, but sustainability has become a tag they can display to make consumers aware that agriculture depends on sound resource conservation to remain viable.
I’ve talked to dozens of farmers in the last few years who, instead of shying away from the term sustainability, have begun to embrace it. They own it. They promote conservation agriculture as part of what they do to assure ample food, safe to eat, at reasonable prices.
I talk to more and more farmers who employ new and time-tested practices to conserve water, reduce runoff and to prevent nutrients, silt and other crop protection materials leaving their fields. And most find that these techniques not only conserve resources but also improve efficiency.
I recently visited a rice farm where the owners work with Ducks Unlimited to create waterfowl habitat. They found that adhering to the Ducks Unlimited recommendations offered few challenges. They were already doing most of the things DU expected.
They also found that ducks and geese help fertilize the fields and ate a lot of weed seed. Win, win, win, to trot out a tired cliché one more time.
Another farm I visited recently is working with university scientists to measure and evaluate the water coming out of the field. They have found that a cover crop — one of the time-tested farming practices — makes a significant difference in how much water leaves the field and how clean it is as it flows out.
Reduced tillage, over the past two, maybe three, decades has become a normal practice as farmers find they can reduce costs — fewer trips across the field, so less fuel, less labor and less wear on equipment — while conserving soil and water. (Insert the cliché again.)
In the more than 40 years I have been privileged to meet farmers and tell their stories, I have yet to meet one who said: “What I want to do is mine the soil, get all I can out of it and move on.”
I’ve heard the opposite. “I’ll leave it better than I found it.” That’s sustainable.