Re-Introducing Sustainable Agriculture

Re-Introducing Sustainable Agriculture

By Lee Rinehart, 2018

We have neglected the truth that a good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist.

Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural

A craftsman is a master of her work, and has a keen knowledge of tools and processes. More importantly, she has a vision of what the future could be.  Wendell Berry, the patron saint of sustainable agriculture, identifies farmers as craftsmen with vision.  Farmers manage the land and make it better… not just for the now, nor for this or even the next generation, but for the mere health of the land.  Good farmers know the land exists for itself, and for no other reason, and in thankfulness bring forth its goods with care, always with an eye to the land’s resiliency and regeneration.  In other words, good farmers work with the land, not against it.  As humanity’s footprint on the world grows, we must all be good farmers. Our agriculture system must give back to the health of the land, and not sabotage it beneath our feet.

Sustainable agriculture as a practice and as a social movement has undergone many changes since NCAT established the ATTRA Program back in 1987.  From the innovative insights of some good farmers, we have seen the principles of giving back to the land embraced by universities with coursework offerings and academic majors.  We’ve seen food labels and certifications emerge, giving consumers more insight into how their food is grown.  And there has been a concerted effort among farmers, researchers, educators, and corporations to address issues of sustainability in food production, especially regarding soil health. 

The organic movement demonstrates the evolution of sustainable agriculture. The popularity of organic food has increased every year since 1977, when organic sales were $3.4 billion and data on organic sales was first recorded. In 2017 alone, retail sales of organic products in the U.S. rose 6.4% from 2016 to $49.4 billion. (see Maturing U.S. Organic Sector Sees Steady Growth). 

This is a clear success for advocates of sustainable agriculture, an indication that it has moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Yet as more actors in the food industry adopt the organic label, many farmers perceive an erosion of foundational values. “Organic” in many places has been defined as the absence of chemicals rather than the presence of healthy ecosystems and human communities. Many consumers view it as a representation of what they don’t want without a clear vision of what they actually crave in food systems.  In response to a desire to articulate what we’re for rather than what we’re against, many farmers and consumers are rallying to a different approach and a new focus.

An old term is emerging once again to describe this evolution and recommitment to the health of the land and vibrant communities.  Regenerative agriculture, perhaps first coined by Robert Rodale decades ago, shifts the focus from food production to the integrity of the underlying soil and larger ecosystem while supporting rural communities that are thriving and resilient. New labels and certifications that reach beyond USDA organic, such as the Real Organic Project and Regenerative Organic Certified, are entering the marketplace. It is not yet clear whether this will inspire greater consumer support for sustainable agriculture, or whether it will simply muddle the marketplace.

We have seen many successes and some failures from the farmers themselves who are leading the way.  Gabe Brown comes to mind.  Gabe is a North Dakota farmer who has innovated a diverse cover cropping and livestock grazing system that compliments his cash crops while reducing synthetic inputs to just about zero.  Throughout the country, farmers like Gabe are seeing that investing in soil health through regenerative practices reduces costs and jump starts the biology that leads the whole ecosystem to greater health and productivity. 

We need some new indicators of progress to help us realize more resilient communities and ecosystems.  Instead of a near-exclusive emphasis on productivity and profit, what if we added equally important measures of human and ecosystem health? A broader range of priorities could inform a new set of national and local policies that better serve small- and mid-sized farmers and favor agroecological diversification. Such a policy framework would reconsider the current American system of subsidies, intellectual property, and agricultural research. It would support community-led solutions that encourage young and new farmers, promote institutional procurement of locally produced food, and reacquaint consumers with the origins of their food (for more information see the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems – iPES Food – report From Uniformity to Diversity).

Setting goals to restore ecological and community health is leading to a new agrarianism.  This new agrarianism is linked to the idealism that sparked the American imagination from scientists like Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, Booker T. Whatley, Wes Jackson, and F.H. King, as well as more recent writers such as Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver. It includes the young, the old, ex-military, neo-hippies, plain sect communities, business professionals, and food eaters.  People are taking their food system seriously as evidenced by an increase in direct-to-consumer markets, the growth of specialty food stores, the steady increase in consumption of organic foods, and the popularity of beginning farmer training programs. 

There are communities and individuals who embody democratic agroecological principles and are building stronger community cohesion and local self-reliance.  Jerry Brunetti was a crop consultant and the founder of Agri-Dynamics, a consulting service for farmers and graziers, before his passing in 2014.  In his book The Farm as Ecosystem: Tapping Nature’s Reservoir – Biology, Geology, Diversity (Acres, USA, 2014), he reflects on some individuals and communities that serve as reminders that we really do have the power to bolster democracy and food security: the Victory Gardens of World War II that produced 40 percent of the vegetables eaten by the population during that era; the Community Alliance for Responsible Eco-Agriculture in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, comprised of about four dozen farm families that provides healthy foods to approximately 7,000 members, grown sustainably and outside the bounds and strictures of a food safety system that is at times burdensome on small family farms; and Spiral Path Farm, a Perry County, Pennsylvania certified organic farm owned by Mike and Terra Brownback, that grows 40 fruits and vegetables for over 2,200 families, as well as providing food to wholesalers and regional grocery stores (Brunetti, 2015).  These people, and thousands more nationwide, remind us that we can have a more human- and ecologically-centered agriculture.  

Wendell Berry ended his 1977 reflection on agriculture with the words below, and I’ll let his words conclude this article as well:

“[Sustainable agriculture can] give us a new sense of our real unity, our common sharing in the good of health.  It is a rule, apparently, that whatever is divided must compete.  We have been wrong to believe that competition invariably results in the triumph of the best.  Divided, body and soul, man and woman, producer and consumer, nature and technology, city and country are thrown into competition with one another.  And none of these competitions is ever resolved in the triumph of one competitor, but only in the exhaustion of both.  For our healing we have on our side one great force: the power of creation, with good care, with kindly use, to heal itself.”

Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

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