On Sustainability, but Not Really

I was thrilled when my friend Tyler wanted to write a guest post for farmlifelove.com. He chose an important topic, perhaps the most important topic that unifies all farmers who simply wish to continue to farm especially if they plan to pass on a healthy business and way of life to the next generation. My DF and I think about this more often than we realize. It’s in the air up here. We ARE the next generation currently picking up the ball to give it a go at running this farm. While the next “handoff” is a bit off in the future, it’s exciting to think that we may actually be looking at their faces when they get out of bed each morning. Enjoy.

I hear farmers talk a lot and I like to listen to them. Not just to what they say, but what they mean. When I hear them talk about “sustainability” it’s like they put on someone else’s clothes, or start speaking in French or Pig Latin and pointing to clouds in the sky. They don’t seem to be using words that mean the same things to them as to the people who want them to use those words.

Here’s what I think they mean: Being sustainable is being able to pass the farm to the next generation. Black and white.

Behind that decision point follows a lot of other fractionally impactful decisions . Those are the ones that the neighbors seem to want to talk about, but not really.

At that point in the conversation I think farmers end up talking past their neighbors; they cite the improvements in technology or technique that have made an impact on their farm’s ecosystem. No till, cover cropping and minimal spray techniques are all a little too technical, and seemingly insignificant to the observer. It’s a whole lot easier to see and understand and still the impact of cover cropping across so many acres is going to be difficult to understand for someone not used to thinking in those terms. And when a farmer has made a decision not employ a certain beneficial practice they often hear, “Why aren’t you organic?”, frequently phrased as an accusation, and have to justify their decision to a stranger. Each farmer has made a calculation balanced with cost and impact about what to do and what they can afford to do. Sometimes that means waiting to do something impactful until they can afford to, not because they don’t want to.

Most people don’t talk about money away from their kitchen table, and most never talk money with their neighbors, but believe you me, there is nothing less sustainable than handing an under-qualified successor an unprofitable farm. If the farm has struggled for a long time, it’s entirely possible the kids have already given up on it. And likewise, it’s hard to be a positive force in the community as an overworked farmer with limited financial resources who’ is hustling but still losing money. When a neighbor asks a farmer to donate to their church’s food pantry, it’s hard to know if the farm can spare the foregone income or not. It’s not about being a good and charitable person; it’s about paying the electric bill.

Let’s not forget that some very profitable farmers and some very progressive farmers are taking risks here. Sustainability measures that some communities most want to see enacted could be a death knell for farms in the name of global environmental progress. Or simple NIMBYism. Or both. Then a community on the urban edge is faced with a change in values: a farmer is selling his farm and we don’t want a housing development there. Unfortunately his farm wasn’t sustainable and now the town has a broader tax base . Personally, the farmer is probably devastated, or angrily bitter about his change in direction. Or just defeated. Who knows how the rest of his family feels.

Being sustainable for the sake of being sustainable is a non-starter for most businesses, and I feel like that’s not enough of an open secret to the neighbors who want to influence their neighborhood businesses. It kind of feels like a shakedown, with some cartoon thug cradling a Louisville Slugger with a big scripted “sustainability” across its barrel. “Sustainability” needs to have a positive incentive and a more personally realized effect for it to be valuable. Otherwise it’s a convert-or-die mentality that doesn’t have any room for tolerance or alternatives. Farmers are frustrated that their neighbors don’t see the connections they do, that things like no till across 1,000 acres of silage corn can have a huge difference in water quality in the community. Frustrated most of all when they are characterized and generalized as destroying the environment. First, they work in the environment and understand it very differently than the abstracted version in the “conversation” and second, why would they ruin the land they want to pass to the next generation?

It’s hard to know the inside of somebody else’s farm and what factors led them to the decisions they make . It turns out that issues of sustainability are much harder and more personal things to have a conversation about than is realized by those neighbors who “want to have a conversation about sustainability.” Because they’re probably not talking about the same things. Not really.

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Tyler Matteson is a freelance writer and farm finance expert, working as Controller at Tendercrop Farm in Newbury, MA. He has previously worked for Farm Credit East and the Boston Flower Exchange and written for Green Profit, Grower Talks and Progressive Forage.

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1 Comment

Filed under Family, Farm life, Life Balance

One response to “On Sustainability, but Not Really

  1. Thanks for the good thoughts Tyler!

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