Friday, September 2, 2011

What Is Sustainability?

As an ag student, my friends and I have some pretty heated conversations about contemporary agriculture issues.  These can range from GMO's to using goats as weed control.  But no matter what subject we're talking about, the question of whether or not that specific practice is sustainable always comes up.  My answer is always the same; "That depends on your definition of sustainability"

The fact is, that 'sustainable' is not really quantifiable. Let me explain: I was reading a book (a textbook, actually that I bought because it looked interesting... I know, I'm a nerd) in which a professor from USU along with several of his colleagues endeavored to, among other things, define sustainability as it pertains to agriculture.  He said that sustainability is totally subject to the particular farmer's opinion, and what goals the farmer has for his/her operation.

There are, however, some basic objectives of sustainability that underlie almost every sustainable agriculture paradigm.   A sustainable agriculture system must:

-Satisfy human food, feed, and fiber needs
-Enhance environmental quality and the resource base
-Sustain the economic viability of agriculture
-Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole (1990 Farm Bill)

As I stated above, because of the subjective nature of sustainability, a farmer may use one or all of these points in his/her definition of sustainability on his/her particular farm.

Take farm soil for example.  One teaspoon of healthy soil can contain as many microorganisms as there are people on this Earth.  It is very important stuff, and if you ask me, soil health is the #1 factor in whole-farm success.  Generally, the looser/'fluffier' soil is, the healthier it is because it allows more Oxygen to reach plant roots and microorganisms, and loose soil encourages proper soil drainage.   Conversely, compacted soil prevents Oxygen and roots from penetrating, and inhibits proper soil drainage, leading to salt buildup and waterlogged crops.

In this context, lets look at two possible farmers, each with their own definition of sustainability, and each considering the merits of buying a larger tractor.  Farmer 1 is an agrarian-type small farmer and, taking a cue from Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, feels that the larger tractor will cost a fortune to fuel, pollute his air with diesel fumes, and compact his soil beyond repair.  So, he decides to use carefully-designed crop/animal rotations and conservation tillage to ensure loose soil, and he sticks with his smaller machine.  Farmer 2 feels differently.  He also wants healthy soil, but feels that with the larger tractor he can plow deeper, thereby breaking up the more compacted soil.  He also plans to use his new tractor to power a manure spreader to naturally fertilize his fields.  Additionally, he expects that with a larger machine, he will be able to work more acres (more income) in less time.  He wants to use his new extra time to go to night school and pursue a degree.

 Both farmers reach their goals of sustainability and both fulfill several of the aforementioned requirements.  Take a look at this table:

Farmer 1
Farmer 2
·         Food, feed fiber needs
Produces Food
Produces Food
·         Enhance environmental quality
Conservation tillage, animal-crop rotations, increases soil fertility and health
Mindful of soil compaction so he plows through compacted soil layer regularly, also uses manure as fertilizer and organic matter for soil
·         Sustain economic viability
Saves money on fuel costs, produces animals and crops on same land, diversifies his business (more stable)
Can now work more acres and potentially earn more money
·         Enhance farmer quality of life
Farmer feels more connected to his land
More time to pursue education

So, you see, sustainability is in the 'Eye of The Beholder".  So, what's your definition of sustainable? Write it in the comments section!!! (this is the one time in your life where you're guaranteed to get a right answer, no matter what you write!)


  1. Quiero ser un farmer! :P Es verdad lo que dices....pero ten en cuenta el contexto y la realidad de la gente...creo que un desarrollo sustentable tambien depende de maximizar los recursos que se posee aun con una realidad caótica o saludable. Muy buena entrada mi amigo!

    Saludos desde Peru

  2. Hola Noor! Estoy completamente de acuerdo con su declaración. Toda la base de la sostenibilidad es que cada definición está en el contexto de lo que el agricultor específica quiere o necesita en su granja. Su cultura individual también debe tenerse en cuenta.

  3. English: Hello, Noor! I completely agree with your statement. The whole basis for sustainability is that each definition is in the context of what that specific farmer wants or needs on his farm. His individual culture must also be taken into account.

  4. Very interesting. I don't really know what my definition of sustainability is, though. I just want to grow some healthy food and eat it. I do think I need major help with my soil. I don't want to do a butt load of work and I don't want to spend a butt load of money. Any suggestions?