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 must 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. Instead they were referring to what they believed to be vastly more important than the people who produce the food. They fail to acknowledge, let alone understand, the great strides that have been accomplished in production agriculture, particularly since the “Dirty Thirties,” by those of us 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 who harangue modern producers have neither the desire nor the intention of making a living profitable enough to support a family from the land, yet they criticize and malign those of us who do.
To give factual perspectives from those of us who live the life, I’ll give one example. We live 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 and each one more 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, the amount of money we spend to do so and the improved yields on the same number of acres.
Subsistence farmers may have a large garden or a milk cow and cooperatively share with others, but that produces only enough for a small group use. 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. 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. ❖