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Show me an ‘unsustainable’ farmer

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  • "Sustainable" is wearing out its welcome from overuse. What is the antonym of sustainable? Unsustainable? Still looking for that unsustainable farmer who is even now farming in this “sustainable” age. Let me know if you find him or her before I do.

There are certain words that seem to float around forever in this addled brain.

“Smarmy” is one. The late Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert, called me smarmy in a well-crafted letter of disagreement about something I wrote. I cherish his letter.

“Curmudgeon” is another of my favorite words. Turfgrass guru Steve Cockerham, who is also superintendent of agricultural operations at the University of California, Riverside, hung that moniker on me many years ago. It seems to fit.

“Thwart” is another word that has rolled around in my brain for years and shows up in my writing probably more than it should. It is a funky little word that is spelled funny and pronounced awkwardly. Maybe that is why I cannot shake it.

“Serendipitous” is another one. It is used by my wife when she inquires about my driving sans GPS or a map. “Are we lost are just having another serendipitous experience?” she will inquire.

There is another word that used to have substance with me: “Sustainable.” However, it is wearing out its welcome from overuse.

It is bantered around in agriculture today far too freely for my liking. It is a buzzword that has become a dud in my dictionary.

Sustainable has come to imply that there are those who farm correctly and those who do not. When we use words, there are synonyms and antonyms. We all know the antonyms of smarmy, curmudgeon, thwart and serendipitous.

What is the antonym of sustainable? Unsustainable? When sustainable is flippantly sloshed around in a farming dialogue, the implication is unless you are “sustainable,” you are “unsustainable,” on the edge of demise. Several years ago Barry Bedwell of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League uncovered at least 27 different definitions of sustainable.

I have yet to find someone who can define and identify the dastardly “unsustainable” farmer. Presumably, he or she is the man or woman plundering and pillaging the environment for ill-gotten economic gain. I am still looking for that farmer who is even now farming in this “sustainable” age. Let me know if you find him or her before I do.

In my dictionary, if you are successfully and profitably farming today you are protecting your environment. You are a sustainable farmer.

It is puzzling to hear people talk about correcting the errors of the ways of today’s farmers, the same ones who continually improve crop yields and crop quality. You cannot do that unless you are an environmentally sound farmer.

Can farmers do better? We all can improve and farmers continually demonstrate that they are improving the way they farm. With each farmer interview, I am amazed at how far farming has advanced in California in the more than 30 years I have been an agricultural journalist here.

I would consider every farmer I have interviewed over the years a sustainable farmer. I await the opportunity to interview the unsustainable ones.

Discuss this Blog Entry 9

Chet Hetrick (not verified)
on Feb 22, 2012

It might be smarmy to say agriculture has been producing food & fiber for the last several thousand years and will continue to do so for all time, but that is the inconvenient truth for all those who use the buzz word sustainable. Enough said! Thanks Harry for confirming these facts.

Sean O'Loughlin (not verified)
on Feb 23, 2012

Any farmer who has to purchase over 60% of his/her inputs is an unsustainable farmer.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 22, 2012

How about "stupid" or "blind as a bat?" Both seem to fit. Show you an unstustainable farmer? Look out your window...oh, sorry, you are blind as a bat.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 22, 2012

You thought processes remind me of a superficial coach who cheers on a his team blindly while they get slaughtered on the field instead of giving them some better plays. I drive the valley everyday and see unsustainable farming out both windows. The fact that in this day in age, with all that we know about agriculture, ecology and health, and we're still strip farming, over-tilling, planting GE crops, hosing our food down with Round-up and pesticides, killing off all co-beneficial microbes, all while pollluting our water and air, as well as our bodies. That is what I define as unsustainable. It is not sustainable because soon the soil will be too poisonous to plant in, the water to toxic to drink and the air too polluted to breathe, and it will all be too expensive to remedy. I'd like to pretend everything was 'okay' too, but the reality is that their are farmers out there who refuse to accept that maybe we've been doing things wrong, and instead of encouraging them to accept change, you'd rather perpetuate that 'good ol' boy' mentality that no one can tell us how to do something better. Great job, I'm sure our grandkids will be thankful for your attitude.

Stephen Colbert (not verified)
on Feb 23, 2012

To: "Don't Have the Huevos to Sign It",

I am sure that you have spent your whole life in production agriculture and are well qualified to pass judgement on Harry. Therefore, I have to assume that you are just plain stupid rather than ignorant. Agricultural production has allowed us to go from a few scattered across a wide geography to many individuals interacting and living together in much smaller areas. Food producers have been facing and overcoming ecological and societal roadblocks to increases in yield for a few thousand years.....thankfully over the objections of people like you.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 22, 2012

Sure the word is overused, and yes, much of the green revolution has become a cult.
But part of the reason you don't see many "unsustainable" farmers is because the "unsustainable" ones go out of business.

Many growers in the minority I meet in seven states (we can refer here to them as the "future unsustainable farmer") don't care about taste, or quality. They have told me point blank that all they care about is selling a crop that pays the bills.

However, as the consumer becomes more educated on taste, quality, nutrient density, and the human anatomical effects of glyphosate and fungicides, things are changing.
(Do some research and prove to me that glyphosate is good for our bodies.)

As the consumer demands with her pocket book the finest grown foods, then yes, you will see "unsustainability", as growers who fail to compete will fail.
Do some homework and you will see mills already denying GM grown cereals. (Whether or not the lawsuits fall in the favor of the grower or not, we are beginning to see "unsustainability" realized by growers who think they can grow a crop without knowing for sure whether or not the market will purchase that crop.)

A "sustainable" grower who cares about "sustaining" his enterprise, will produce a crop where the price exceeds the increasing costs to produce.

GM free, organic, chemical free and the like are looking more "sustainable" every day, especially considering the intellectual and technological advances in fertility and production without the use of chemicals.
(Grow a stronger, healthier crop and you don't need to spray; it's been proven.)

Until you've personally seen the balance sheets of conventional operations teetering in the red and have personally been in seven states and have seen large scale organic production occuring more profitably and with higher quality and higher yields than typical conventional operations and until you fully realize that most U.S. housemoms with a computer and a brain wants to feed her kids any food grown with chemicals, than you cannot fully understand, nor will you fully realize "sustainability."

Currently, the USDA is working to define "sustainable." But it's the free market that will realize the term.

Sure, we all die eventually whether organic or conventional, but to fight against the market is to commit suicide.

Derek Moffitt (not verified)
on Feb 22, 2012

I agree that all farmers are sustainable as defined in this article, but I think it is also a disservice to suggest that all farmers are equal in this area as long as they are profitable and protecting of their environment. The general public views this word primarily in relationship to environmentally friendly practices. With that view you could debate this subject 50 different ways. Example: As a high density olive grower, I can produce several times the end consumer product as a traditional olive orchard with equal to or even less inputs(land, labor, water, fert, and pesticides) along with fewer total carbon outputs. An argument can be made that the input/output ratio is a way of defining how "sustainable" a farmer is. It does not necessarily mean that the other farmer is not sustainable. Here is one of the problems, recently talking with a purchaser from a local natural foods store, he stated that he wants to support "sustainable" farming practices and therefore has frowned on the high density olive orchards. His definition of sustainability was based around using more hand labor vs. mechanized equipment. Oh how frustrating. He really is the end consumer in many ways and was educated by another farmer on traditional vs high density olive farming. One as sustainable and the other as not. I believe we should talk more about our efficiencies as our way of describing sustainable practices. Land Use Efficiency, Water Efficiency, Fertilizer Efficiency, Pesticide Efficiency(if you use), Fuel Efficiency (hand labor has to get to the job site and I have not had a laborer ride his bike to my field yet).

Farmers all need to carry the mantra we are all sustainable, it's just to what degree or efficiency...

Sean O'Loughlin (not verified)
on Feb 23, 2012

Any farmer who has to purchase over 60% of their
inputs is an unsustainable farmer.

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