From the Executive Director: Sustainable? YES!

By John Mesko

John Mesko

John Mesko

Do we really believe sustainable agriculture, focused on building up its resources (soil, animals, people), is sustainable? Do we really believe industrial agriculture is not sustainable?

I do. And if you do, I would encourage you to behave as if you really believe it. By definition, we should be confident in our assessment of the future of agriculture. In so doing, I trust we will not be contributing to the kind of misunderstandings and “us vs. them” mentality that has led to the current perception in mainstream ag media and university extension about sustainable agriculture.

Case in point: I recently read a blog post entitled “Sustainable?” at MN Farm Guide which made a number of condescending and disparaging remarks about practitioners of sustainable agriculture.

The blog belongs to Dr. George Rehm, a former University of MN Extension Specialist and currently Director of Discovery Farms Minnesota. Conveniently however, Dr. Rehm, does not claim authorship of this particular blog post. In this case, he says he’s found a “guest blogger,” a Mr. Lay Zee Jones, to go negative on sustainable agriculture.

Despite attempts to reach Dr, Rehm, in hopes of getting some clarification of his, er, Mr. Jones’ intent prior to writing this response, I’ve been unable to contact him.

But as it pertains to our work here at SFA, this post is a tangible reflection of the impact our movement is having. If sustainable agriculture weren’t viable, there’d be no need for anyone to waste the time to write a post like this. It’s also a wake-up call. The post reflects the impression the author, the publisher, some (not all) within the University of Minnesota, and some within the conventional agriculture world in general have of sustainable agriculture and sustainable farmers. According to Mr. Jones, sustainable farmers:

  • Are lazy
  • Spend free time playing video games
  • Smoke marijuana
  • Are naïve
  • Aren’t “real” farmers

If this is what conventional agriculture thinks of sustainable farmers, we need to convince them otherwise.

Speaking specifically for Sustainable Farming Association, and generally for the whole of sustainable agriculture, we are not a club of like-minded folks who really don’t have a prayer of making a difference in agriculture.

The premise of sustainable agriculture is founded on understanding the short- and long-term effects of everything we do in the environment. It’s working with natural systems and processes to build up the resources at our disposal; not attempting to subdue nature with the latest technology. We know it works, and we believe industrial agriculture practices are unsustainable. We should be doing everything we can to be approachable, kind, considerate, respectful and welcoming to everyone who asks politely, or condescendingly, about whether our brand of agriculture is viable.

Mr. Jones questions the ability of sustainable agriculture methods to produce enough food. Let’s not shrink from that, but let’s not fail to challenge the “Feed the World” mentality underlying the question.

Every concerned citizen should be asking industrial agriculture to explain how antibiotic resistance is a sustainable. Let’s continue asking what the plan is to resolve the situation going on in Des Moines, Iowa, and places along the Mississippi River, where agriculture has added so many nitrates to the watershed that cities must spend thousands of dollars a day to purify their drinking water.

However, lets not be snarky or unprofessional. That won’t get us anywhere. We live in an overstuffed media environment with great temptation to create “buzz,” or “Ag Buzz,” as the case may be. If a post or news story isn’t catchy, or a little shocking, it probably won’t get read. But we are talking food, farming and the future we are building for the next generation, not discussing the latest music video.
We will continue to point out the flaws we see in conventional agriculture practices, but we will not hyperbolize, exaggerate, or personally attack anyone or any group of people.

With that in mind, here are some rules of engagement for everyone, but especially the sustainable agriculture community for this important discussion:

1. We are all farmers, and all people. Commit to treating each other with respect. Disagreement is normal in this world. Fighting and anger is not. Don’t fall into the trap.

2. Be the leader. Let’s set the tone for this discussion. Even when you are attacked, don’t spiral down with the attacker. Take the high road wherever you can. Invite them to join you there. If they choose not to, just keep walking.

3. Know your facts. Don’t just “pile on” when you see a news story about how bad industrial agriculture is. Get the facts. The temptation toward over sensationalizing a controversial news story is often too hard for the media.

4. Be ready to give an answer for what you believe about food and farming. Come to the SFA Annual Conference on Feb. 8, or the Midwest Soil Health Summit on Feb 19-20 to learn more about sustainable agriculture.

5. Get some help. Join a group; Be a part of the movement.

6. Be inviting. Don’t put up walls. You’ve got the answers to many of the problems in agriculture!

Let’s get beyond name-calling and “us vs. them.” That’s what we are doing at Sustainable Farming Association. Will you join us?

John Mesko is the Executive Director of Sustainable Farming Association, a farmer-to-farmer network dedicated to advancing sustainable agriculture practices, rural communities and local foods. In addition to Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Agronomy and Agricultural Economics from Purdue University, he held several agronomy positions with Dow Agrosciences, served as a County Extension Director with Purdue, and with his wife and two daughters operates a grass-fed beef operation. He can be reached at john@sfa-mn.org or 763-260-0209.