Economics part of ‘sustainability’ (Editorial)

(Sept. 13, 2016) Farmers are asked to do a lot more talking these days.
It’s not the typical coffee shop chit-chat in the morning or the post-meeting catch up with friends.
They are being asked to do more. It’s telling their story to people who don’t farm.
The request is coming from food companies who hear from more and more people who want to know where the products originate and how they are grown.
Those companies then turn to farmers for the answers or tell them what they think is needed to meet consumer demands and expectations.
A big part of that story is “sustainability.”
For a lot of farmers, the word’s use, overuse and misuse has been aggravating.
It’s been a buzzword in the corporate business world for years, but it’s not a new concept for farms that have continued to operate for multiple generations, proving the farm’s sustainability not with talk but with long term action.
“We just didn’t discover sustainability, we’ve been that way.” said Nancy Kavazanjian, a Wisconsin farmer and chairwoman of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance who led a workshop at the Maryland Commodity Classic in July, training farmers on communicating sustainability. “We know we need to be sustainable in everything we do.”
It’s not enough to tell someone you are sustainable, they want to know how.
They want to know the story behind the food they are buying, she said, how it’s grown, who grows it and what farmers do to be able to keep farming.
It’s a story farmers have been able to tell for as long as they’ve been in agriculture and one only they can tell, but they need to pull it off of the bookshelf more often.
“With sustainability, here’s something where we can be on the offense,” Kavazanjian said.
That can be tough, however, when consumers don’t know exactly what the word means to them.
Based on a survey the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance conducted in 2015, half of all respondents weren’t able to say what sustainability means to them, but indicated it’s important.
Half of those who were surveyed were Millennials ages 18-34, along with consumer food connectors, or those very active on social media platforms on food issues, and members of the general public.
Half of the Millennials who were surveyed are parents.
With sustainability meaning different things to different people, it’s easy to understand farmers’ frustration with the term.
For farmers, the definition is pretty clear. “Taking care of the resources and maintaining a viable business,” Kavazanjian said. “I think that’s the way most farmers look at it.”
But one problem is that is not necessarily how the public looks at it.
From the survey, what consumers care most about is the environment around the farm — the soil, the water quality and quantity, the air and the habitat in general.
Then, maybe, they agree economics is important.
Along with the frustration of the public’s lack of understanding that without a profit, farming can’t be environmentally sustainable, there’s an opportunity to teach, to be the main voice they hear and make the connection, to help shape the narrative about sustainability in the minds of consumers.
“For those who hate the word ‘sustainability,’ the concept, properly understood, is actually our friend, not our enemy,” writes Gregory Bloom, owner of meat brokerage company, U.S. Protein, in his blog, The Meat Business. “Many large businesses and associations now have a sustainability department. It should be a good thing, as long as the social and environmental components don’t overwhelm the economic component by putting producers out of business.”
That’s where the training comes into action, not to feed farmers a script on what to tell people, but to help farmers identify the aspects of their life and farm they might see as ordinary, but would fascinate the non-farmer and take a big step in getting them to know farmers inherently protect the land but can’t do it losing money.
“Numbers, facts and figures, That’s not what resonates anymore,” Kavazanjian said. “Sometimes just the smallest comment can make the biggest difference.”
Kavazanjian said the July training, sponsored by the Maryland Soybean Board, seemed to energize many in the workshop to think more about how to show their non-farming neighbors that sustainability is at the core of what they do.
Many asked how they can schedule another workshop for their local group to get more farmers telling their story.
That’s good to hear.
The passion for sharing with someone what their job on the farm is all about also fuels the farm’s sustainability.