Sustainable Ag

Sustainable agriculture? 

The definition of sustainability should be pretty straightforward shouldn’t it?  We complicate things, most often through rationalization. Many of us farm sustainably, but only when we look at it in a certain way, generally disregarding most of the inconsistencies in our philosophy. Sustainable means just that, it is capable of going on forever. Forever, though means different things to different people. It seems more often the case that it means “until I am dead”, or until I sell the depleted piece of earth for development because “it…is dead”.

At the birth of the organic growing movement of the 20th century, pioneers like Sir Albert Howard, looked to the east, and saw a vision of true sustainability. Enmeshed in their very lives was a cycling that led not just to great yields, and embodiment of culture, but a sustainability for countless generations. Not the current world method, but a purer one. The current method is “borrowing from our children the resources we have no intention of paying back”. Is this even remotely debatable?

So, what does this have to do with growing fruit? Nothing at all, really, unless you believe in such statements. Myself and my family’s approach to farming is to be sensitive to sustainability. This philosophy drives our day to day decisions in the nursery and orchard. A philosophy, like a religion, is hard to abide by and we err (even more so in our non-farm existence). But, for better or worse, this is the platform we try to filter things through. Same goes for species stewardship and healthy food production.

Let’s take fossil fuel use for instance. The big boogeyman in conversations is transportation, but it accounts for only 16% of the total US use in agriculture. Field machinery is 19% and inorganic fertilizer is 31%. The US has increased fossil fuel use 20 fold in 40 years, 17% directly attributed to agriculture. Enter here all arguments on how we cannot feed a starving world (deposit green revolution figures), how it is impossible to use hand labor or draft animals, and how farmers cannot make a living otherwise. My opinion is that it doesn’t make a lick of difference. In the short term, fossil fuel use will be so expensive and difficult to extract, we will be forced to farm differently.

The only real issue is where will effective models be? In a crusty old book…or in a pool of determined farmers in the present. The current trend is more non-sustainable practices, not less. We have tractors pulling prone workers planting strawberries, tractors unrolling plastic mulches, small fruit harvesters, mechanical pruners and other labor saving devices, at a time when our citizens are in need of basic employment. This is also in addition to the use of machinery in tillage, combining, elevators, etc. The point is that we can’t continue with these practices anyway, despite any arguments to their merits. No one wants to see people go hungry, or farmers work harder, but when the jig is up, it won’t matter. Future generation, likely our own grandchildren, may see a lack of modeling and infrastructure right at the moment that the bottle feeding of fossil fuels ends. That model may as well be you and me.