By John Mesko • SFA Executive Director
In the 1980s and ’90s, a confluence of concerns in agriculture over the environment, the economy, and the viability and sustainability of the mid-sized farm created information needs that industry, university and government sectors were not prepared to fill. Nonprofits proliferated widely, seeking to fill this gap. Many farmers found each other as reliable sources of information regarding sustainable production models and the need for farmer to farmer networks became evident. The Sustainable Farming Association, along with others, such as: Practical Farmers of Iowa, The Institute for Ag and Trade Policy, The Minnesota Project, Land Stewardship Project, Minnesota Food Association, Environmental Initiative, Renewing the Countryside, the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, and several other organizations were started during this time.
Just as we celebrate the value and benefits of diverse cropping systems, the tremendous diversity of people and practices within the Sustainable Agriculture Movement should be celebrated as well. We’re not fans of monoculture in the field, nor should we be a “monoculture” in our approach to each other.
Agriculture is changing dramatically and, by definition, agriculture’s best way forward is not to draw a line in the sand, dividing people and practices. The Sustainable Agriculture Movement should be just that, a movement focused on moving participants down a continuum of sustainability toward higher yields and profits, but also toward quality of life and strength of community.
Our food and agriculture infrastructure, here in the U.S. and globally, is too far developed to undergo the massive overhaul required if our goal were ideological purity. Rather, we must focus our efforts on improving the sustainability and profitability of farms and farming systems while enhancing the environment. In agriculture, more than any other industry I’m aware of, we develop farmers with a very specialized skill set and knowledge base. With a relatively low number of active participants, we need all the farmers we can get. Our goal should not be to replace active farmers with new “sustainable” farmers. Rather, we should be training new farmers in the ways of sustainability, from its foundations into practice. We should also be looking for ways to help existing farmers become more sustainable. Farmer networks, with farmers learning from one another is a great way – possibly the best way – to make this happen.
I don’t know of any farmer who actively seeks to do harm to food or the environment. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt and work together to improve our farms and farming practices. At SFA, we do that at our events and conferences, as well as in our Deep Roots Farmer Development Program. Even if you are not a farmer, we’d love to count you as one of us!