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Sanders: Sustainable Ag

The term "sustainable agriculture" is frequently bantered about. When I first heard it being discussed, it seemed logical to me that sustainable agriculture simply meant an agricultural producer who managed to stay in business over a sustained period of time.

How nice to finally have farmers and ranchers recognized for the fact that their livelihoods feed the U.S. and much of the world. It was understood that the phrase meant those who work the land had to make enough of a profit to keep themselves in business, or in other words, their operation must be sustainable.

That seemed logical to me and, of course, I was wrong.

The originators of the phrase wished to convey an entirely different scenario. They fail to acknowledge, let alone understand, the great strides that have been accomplished in production agriculture, particularly since the "Dirty Thirties," by those who make our living from the land. We are often referred to as "conventional farmers or even "industrial farmers," and those descriptions are often spat out as though they are cuss words. Amazingly, the uninformed that harangue modern producers have neither the desire nor the intention of making an income profitable enough to support a family from the land — beyond eating the yields — yet they criticize and malign those of us who do.

“After all, says the subsistence farmer, we must share our bounty with the creatures.”

To give factual perspectives from those of us who live the life, I'll give one example. We lived on an irrigation project created by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Soil Conservation Service during the late 1940s and early 1950s. When we first started irrigating, we used dirt ditches and irrigation tubes, admittedly not such an efficient method, but it was what was available then.

We have gone through the stages of having concrete ditches installed where practical, to using 30-foot long aluminum, and later PVC, gated pipe, to the present when center pivots are common. The water savings with each of these practices have been tremendous, each one more effective and productive than the last. Since those opposed to farmers do not have the facts, they do not realize how diligently we work to conserve irrigation water … and the amount of money we spend to do so.

Subsistence farmers may have a large garden, a milk cow or goats and cooperatively share with others, but that produces only enough for small group use, which is fine for them. Individuals who practice subsistence farming actually have no idea what it takes to operate a farm or ranch on a large scale — yet they extrapolate their experiences and wonder why someone who farms 1,000 acres of alfalfa hay can't just live with alfalfa weevils or have 1,000 acres of corn can't live with corn borers. After all, says the subsistence farmer, we must share our bounty with the creatures. That may be fine for those whose gardens are for family food and hobby, but it doesn't work for those who need to make a profit, those of us who practice what I consider sustainable agriculture.❖