RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Toward Sustainability

Even before the feds defined "organic," many responsible, independent farmers and consumers saw that "organic's" original meaning was being bent. Jailed by ironclad rules, "organic" only describes a piece of what environmentally-sensitive, independent farmers want to accomplish. Seeking another description, some use the word "sustainable."

The word demands explanation. At a hearing of the Missouri Department of Agriculture on the future of farming, one panelist after another pestered speakers about the meaning of "sustainable agriculture." The panelists, mostly agribusiness representatives, want a spin that fits them. These are the guys who defined the word "frozen" as meaning "at a temperature less than 0 degrees" so that they could label their frozen products as "chilled."

For the time being, "sustainable agriculture" has not surrendered.

In the words of Dr. Robert Myers, retired director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Development program of the USDA: "Sustainable agriculture does not refer to a prescribed set of practices. Instead, it asks producers to think about the long-term implications of practices and the broad interactions and dynamics of agricultural systems.

"The challenge is to understand agriculture from an ecological perspective -- in terms of nutrient and energy dynamics, and interactions among plants, animals, insects and other organisms in agroecosystems -- then balance it with profit, community and consumer needs."

As I see it, sustainable farmers address four questions: Are the crops beneficial and appropriate for the ecosystem? Are inputs like seed, fertilizer, and labor from the farm or nearby? Is there a market in the community for the crop? Does the crop make a profit?

The first question is the one we usually think of in connection with sustainability. Small-family-farm-raised veggies and pork, Yes. Chemically drenched rows of veggies with poisons leaching into the water and confined animal feeding operations that poison the air, No. Things that poison air and water are not appropriate for any ecosystem.

Regarding inputs, many crops, including organic ones, are raised using inputs from far away. Fish emulsion fertilizer, which comes from fish farms on the oceans, is not a sustainable fertilizer choice for midwesterners even though it meets organic standards. Composted manure from a nearby sustainable farm or cover crops plowed under are better choices.

The question of markets ties the crop to local culture. Some crops can be raised sustainably, but have no local market. People are eager for chicken, beef and pork. Contrast that to emu and ostrich. They can be raised using local inputs, but their growers have to work hard to find local customers.

The final question, "Does it make a profit?" may be the hardest to answer affirmatively. Note that the question isn't "Does it make enough so that the farmer needs no off-farm income?" Today, farmers, like other people, have opportunities to do many things. Having off-farm income is normal.

The mega-farmers want us to think that off-farm income means a farmer is second-rate. The standard of off-farm income is often applied by mega-farmers as a test of the small farmer's sincerity. Mega farmers want policy makers to believe that small farmers are hobbyists.

The standard of full-time vs. part-time is applied to no other industry I can think of. Would a doctor be criticized for making income from the stock market? Would a teacher be criticized for spending summers at a business job? The most successful mega-farmers I know have sideline jobs. They rent out 18-wheelers, do custom farm work, and sell chemicals from giant sheds on their places.

Truthfully, any student of history can tell you that very few farm families have made 100% of their income from the farm. Farmers have served their communities as preachers, teachers, fiddlers, horse trainers, basket makers, surveyors, blacksmiths, lawyers, politicians, mechanics and all manner of other things, all while maintaining the farm.

And today's mega-farms get a large percentage of their income from government benefits. Honk if you think that's off-farm income.

The sustainable-farming bumper sticker says, "Farm Like You'll Live Forever." Sustainable farming wants to be permanent, surviving gasoline shortages and explosions at fertilizer plants. And, sustainable agriculture wants to reverse the desertification of the soil that is happening now.

Sustainable agriculture wants to preserve the community, and does so by providing education for children who will stay around if they see a future in their home places. On sustainable farms, kids spend the summer pulling weeds, tending livestock, harvesting crops, or going to the market. Their skills turn into new farms and businesses as the kids grow up.

Agriculture education is one place where our schools and universities have let us down. Very few colleges have devoted themselves to teaching sustainability. One commendable example is the Land Institute, founded by botanist Wes Jackson. On his farm outside of Salina, Kansas, Jackson has been experimenting with sustainability since the early 1970s, bringing scientists, interns and grad students together and giving them space for experiments with prairie plants and animals.

The Land Institute has grown to 370 acres, with library, classrooms, kitchens and offices. A giant photovoltaic array collects sunlight to provide some electricity for the offices, and a composting toilet takes care of some of the human waste.

In 1987, the Land Institute purchased a 210-acre working farm where experimenters measure energy intake against amount produced. Farm chores are done with tractors that run on soy diesel. In contrast to the industrial model, Sunshine Farm produces 1.5 calories from each one used.

And, the Land Institute farms smell good!

Contrast that with the program of your state's ag school. If your state is like mine, your ag school is so wedded to the petroleum and chemicals industry that a trip to the research farms leaves you gasping.

Sustainable farming creates sustainable communities where nobody and nothing is wasted. The model sustainable farms and communities, world wide, are the oldest agricultural places of Asia, and Africa. There, family plots of two or three acres have survived for centuries, sustaining human life and culture. How long will the mega-farms sustain us, on their rampage of killing one county after another?

In a sustainable community, the old house is restored. Downtown businesses serve the community rather than chasing tourists with "Ain't We Quaint?" fakery. The harbingers of decline are gambling casinos, antique shops and gift shops.

Reaching toward a life where nothing is wasted is something like navigating a canoe from New York to London. Maneuvering against the ocean current, you know you'll probably never arrive. Still, you need a place to aim the bow.

C.O. Sylvester Mawson, editor of Roget's Thesaurus, 1936, says that the synonyms for "sustain" are "uphold, perpetuate, maintain, preserve ... strengthen, support, fortify, reinforce, prop, bolster ..."

Sounds like farming "like you'll live forever."

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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