Sustainability, Some More Thoughts
Over the past couple of weeks I have participated in several discussions regarding sustainability and what it “means” to different people. Definitions of sustainability vary between urban people and rural people, environmental activists and active environmentalists, organic producers and conventional producers, “small” producers and “big” producers, and everyone between.
With ever growing metropolitan, urban and suburban areas, productive agricultural land is being forced out due to the “annoyance” of smell, noise, etc., resulting from normal farming and ranching activities, the Colorado State Dairy is a prime example. Others are simply bought out, since the value of the land for development surpassed its agricultural value as demonstrated north of Sacramento, where hundreds of homes and the ARCO Arena were built. Without better county planning and more strategic growth of cities, this trend is going to continue at an alarming rate. Additionally, environmental concerns are also ever increasing. Farmers and ranchers are continually being faced with more restrictions and regulations limiting their use of their land and water rights which both increases production costs and decreases productivity.
Farmers and ranchers have always been active environmentalists, providing habitat for birds, wildlife and fish, the same cannot be said for development. However, since those in agriculture have “shallower” pockets, they have been the target of the masses, not “deep” pocketed developers and growing municipalities. The misconception is that developers can buy and set-aside “open space” as a mitigation for building. Yet, that open space is often producing agricultural ground that then goes out of production and into buffer zones. Too often, agency personnel fail to understand and realize the healthy, symbiotic relationship that exists between agriculture and the environment. When agricultural land is regulated out of profitability, the only option is to sub-divide and sell, further reducing food production capability and increasing degradation of wildlife habitat.
Organic v. Conventional
Once again, I am not against organic production. We live in a country where people are able to choose their product and the method in which it was produced. Having said that, one method of production is not any more, or less, sustainable than the other; both are faced with similar market challenges, rising costs of production and transportation of goods and pressure from the urban and environmental communities. Sustainability for both operations hinges on the ability to earn a net profit for the product produced.
Big v. Small
While it is possible for both to be sustainable, it is often much easier for larger producers to absorb changes in the market, and diversify production in order to deal with cyclical changes in both the market and climate. Often times, small producers are left at the mercy of the market and are unable to survive short term challenges in product value and climatic events.
Our operation is small for our area, 650+ acres. We run ~150 head of registered Angus and Hereford cattle, ~200 head of sheep (Suffolks, Hampshires and crossbreds), ~40 head of horses (Percherons, Thoroughbreds, Quarter horses and Warm bloods) and farm ~200 acres (Alfalfa, Alfalfa/Grass, and Wheat). We have done bank stabilization along the river, planted riparian habitat, built riparian fencing, installed fish screens on both diversions, have permanent rock weirs in place, eliminating the need for push-up dams, and put in locking head gates that are under the supervision of our water master. Additionally, I just installed a center pivot irrigation system to more efficiently irrigate ~120 acres. We rotationally graze, feed nutritional supplements and utilize straw and corn stover for feeding cattle in the winter. My parents run the east side and my wife and I manage the west side and we share one part time employee during the summer. We are NOT sustainable. Both of my parents had off site employment, as do my wife and I, until last year, when I returned to farming and ranching full time. Taxes, fees, fuel, labor, fertilizer and interest payments combine for nearly 85% of our annual operating expenses and over the past five years have led to a net income of 6% of our gross combined. Granted, we have been doing some major repairs and upgrades, but 6% retained net is hardly sustainable considering off site employment is supplementing. Is the land productive? Yes. Will the land be productive for future generations? Yes. Are we environmentally friendly? Definitely. Do we need subsidies to survive? No. However, they do help ensure affordable prices for consumers. Do we need reliable crop and livestock insurance? Certainly. Do we need less regulation founded on poor science, fewer costly and unnecessary permits and fewer fees to use our property and water rights in a beneficial manner? Absolutely!
Farmers and ranchers by in large, utilize best management practices (BMP’s) and adaptive management practices (AMP’s). They also, whether realizing it or not, are very holistic in their operations. However, unless we can remain economically viable, earn a profit for our product, and catch a breather from socio-economic-environmental regulation and legislation, farms and ranches, organic and conventional, big and small, will never be sustainable. Agriculture is the backbone of America. Without a strong and vibrant agricultural industry, the security and wellbeing of our country is in jeopardy.