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What Is Sustainability? Part One in a Series

Telling Your Story

Farms must be profitable to be sustainable

Published on: March 15, 2013

Sustainability is a hot topic, and was a major theme of the 2013 Commodity Classic.  As described in one session, "ask 100 people what 'sustainability' means and you might get 100 different answers." Maybe we can flesh out the answers here and in the next few articles in this series.

Although the term sustainability generally refers to environmental impacts, the reality is that a farm also has to be profitable to be sustainable.  One Hundred Meals recently highlighted a few farms which by popular definition would have considered their farms sustainable. However, the blog goes on to discuss that although it met all the popular criteria, these businesses were not profitable. 

"Perhaps it's just time that we the consumer realize that hanging one's shingle out that reads, 'sustainable farm' is not a free ride to monetary success.  Given the consumer's general unwillingness to pay more for foods, the case is likely the opposite," writes blogger Grant Kessler. "There is nothing about a farm with sustainable farming practices that inherently makes it 'bound to succeed'".

The challenges described above are familiar.  Some farms will overcome obstacles that they face and become successful and thrive while others will not survive.  One thing that is almost certain, in the early phases of the business, the farm will be subsidized from elsewhere. 

In many traditional farms one or both spouses might work off farm until the business reaches a level that is profitable enough to support the business, then cover family living expenses.  Some farms may always have a spouse who works away from the farm to provide funds for family living expenses or benefits such as health insurance.

Traditional agriculture has had its own fair share of challenging times, and at the end of the day, a farm's entities must be profitable to be sustained.  Otherwise, the business is living off of equity elsewhere. 

I'd encourage you to think about your definition of "sustainability." If someone asked you how your farm is sustainable, what would you say?  Next week, we'll continue the discussion of sustainability.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    It would be interesting to "let" the food prices quadruple and watch demand erode. Guess we shall find out what the true alternatives are.

  2. Anonymous says:

    "... the reality is that a farm also has to be profitable to be sustainable." NOT TRUE, by the classic definition, SUSTAINABLE is defined as "conserving an ecological balance, by avoiding depleting natural resources". Soil nutrients are natural resources, and one can not raise crops while avoiding depleting them. There are methods of fallowing land in a long rotation that will minimize depletion to a degree, but nevertheless the "ecological balance" of the soil is disrupted. And soil is only one element of the equation. There are many others that factor in, which ultimately lead one to deduce farming is unsustainable. I happen to enjoy eating a mostly vegan diet, however I don't view it my social/religious responsibility to coerce others into adopting my choice. Unless we plan on forcing 300-million people in the U.S. to go vegan, we cannot feed this country while deindustrializing American Agriculture. The Left has worked their Alynsky Rules for Radicals on ag to the point that many are now exhibiting signs of Stockholm Syndrome, joining in chanting the mantra (sustainable), as if our survival depends on adaptation of the very practices that will decimate out industry. Do you honestly think ag's opponents want us to be profitable? Do some deep digging to the very beginnings of the movement, before they understood they couldn't afford to openly speak about their ultimate goals. That should wake you up. If Europe has this "right", how is it that they were beating down our door for feed wheat a few short years ago? The author surmises that "the (sustainable) farm will be subsidized from elsewhere". WHO will subsidize the farm? The Environmental Working Group, which represents the Left political spectrum lobbies tirelessly, like a cancer, killing or minimizing every USDA program they can. Should farm people work careers, doing their farming as a hobby? Isn't this sort of limiting small scale agriculture with limited output exactly what our detractors have in mind? While they live and work in the city, doing their 9 - 5, 40 hour work week, we of the agrarian class are assumed to love our quaint lifestyle so much we will continue it essentially for free. If someone asks me if my farm is sustainable, I will tell them to raise ALL their own food for a full year, and get back to me with the question. Would we expect our city cousins to work three or four jobs to sustain their chosen lifestyle? Hardly. Will we in ag ever have the gumption to look the enviro-zealots in the eye and tell them their food budget must quadruple, IF they want to impose these serious restrictions on American Agriculture?

  3. Anonymous says:

    I chuckle when my no till friends say their farming method is "sustainable". What about the ability of weeds to adapt and resist chemicals. In less than 15 years we have seen weeds become resistant to our Superstar--Round-Up. Our no-till friends are really chem i-addicts--waiting for the next chemical formulation so they can save the soil. I can farm using reduced tillage and still "save the soil" and not poison the earth with excessive chemical use.

  4. Anonymous says:

    When the oil runs out we will all be the same.