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What is "Sustainable" for America's Farms?

Updated: Jul 24, 2022

Sitting out on the front porch of our farm house, I look out on a typical, but quite amazing, scene. Across the gravel road there is a stand of corn reaching out as far as the eye can see, tidy rows of plants exactly the same size, their wispy tassels rocking this way and that in the breeze. Every plant a vibrant green and adorned with an ear of corn, and although we have had barely an inch and a half of rain in July (and none is expected for the foreseeable future), the corn shows only few signs of struggle or despair.

Despite the bare ground, the neighbor's corn looks great

The neighbor has been to check this field less than a handful of times all summer, visiting early in the season to make sure the weeds were under control and ordering up a giant sprayer to stop the few that existed. And when the end of the season arrives, the neighbor—like all the farmers who planted corn this year—will spend a day driving a combine around the field harvesting, filling semis with grain and trucking it off to the local elevator or to a grain bin to store until the optimal price for the grain arises. A check arrives after the sale of the corn or soybeans or wheat, and the farmer is free to spend the winter in Florida, worrying about next year’s crop.

Our straggly corn

Contrast that scene to the straggly rows of sweet corn in our garden. Some of the plants are just now growing as tall as I am, others top out at my belly button. Beside them, white moths are busy laying eggs on my broccoli and the green beans almost didn’t survive the army of flea beetles that arrived to celebrate their birth. Hours and hours are spent in the garden each summer - weeding, nurturing plants, mulching and harvesting. Because we don’t use chemical sprays, everything has to be done by hand or with the few organic sprays that deter pests, at least for a few days.

Even if we had a successful year, the corn teeming with sweet ears of goodness and snappy green beans galore, what exactly would we do with the excess produce? Where would we sell it and to whom? How would we have the time to grow food, harvest food, wash it, cut it, and refrigerate it; find customers, market to them, take orders, pack orders and deliver said food to their doorstep, where increasingly they want it?

The neighbor's corn from inside the stand

Often, those who do not farm think about the problems that exist in agriculture as a long list of environmental or social issues. Polluted water is one hell of a problem here in Iowa, for example, as is agriculture’s impact on carbon sequestration and the erosion of our valuable topsoil. The people hired to pick our food often work in terrible conditions and there are sizable global concerns in producing “food” void of nutritional value, concocted into soda or mac and cheese to fill bellies and make huge profits. Obesity and diabetes are common problems in our communities, as are related diseases like Alzheimers and heart conditions.

But if you ask farmers what keeps them up at night, they will share with you a very different set of problems in agriculture. High on the list is making a living—or at least breaking even (neither of which happen much of the time). Equally important is having a reliable and consistent market. Knowing what products you can sell, where, and to whom allows a farmer to plan accordingly and keep control of their checkbook. Third, sustainability is critical, not only in the environmental sense, but on a more personal level. How will I be physically and mentally strong enough to do this job day after day, year after year? And how will this farm survive financially and ecologically, generation after generation?

In other words, there is no doubt there are huge macro-level issues in farming. But in finding solutions to them, we need to address the real-life, farm-level problems farmers are most concerned about.

These days, most farmers try to produce as much product as humanly possible (even if it does not taste as good as other varieties or have as much nutritional bang for the buck) as a solution to their issues because, the theory goes, it is only with a lot of volume that one can make a profit. Convenience and ease— like many things in American culture—are also highly prized. My neighbor is virtually guaranteed that come the end of the season, he will be able to quickly and easily sell every last grain of corn if he wants to, the crop shipped off the farm and a resulting check deposited soon after in his bank. And because he only has to visit his farm three or four times in the entire season, energy is freed up for many farmers and their families to work in town at a more profitable professions (ones that offer health insurance).

Goats, eating invasive weeds.

John and I move our cattle and goats daily. Temporary fences are put up and taken down, watering systems moved and solar fencers installed. Then we come home to figure out who might purchase our beef, goats and hay (and sometimes green beans and tomatoes, in the small window when we have them) and how to get it to them.

Creating a farm that functions as close to Earth’s natural systems as possible is a primary goal for a regenerative farm like ours. Yet it has occurred to me more than once that “sustainable” farming has a sustainability problem—the time and energy required of the operation, coupled with any kind of established distribution system…well, it is a hell of a lot of work, so much so, that the ability of this style of farm to continue to exist 20 or 50 years down the line is downright questionable.

When I look out at the tall, organized corn of my neighbor in the glowing light of the evening, what I see is an attempt to give structure to the messiness of agriculture, to create a “system” in which a product can go from seed to belly in one streamlined process. Growing corn and soybeans—while questionable for the climate, farmer wallets, our soil and our waist lines— is a “solution” that helps guarantee some peace of mind for those that grow it.

At the same time finishing beef on pasture aims to improve the soil, feed our communities and sink carbon in the ground for the long haul, but is fraught with headaches of labor and marketing, distribution and cold storage.

It is not enough to propose to pay farmers to grow cover crops or sink carbon if we also want people to farm sweet corn and peppers, apples and cherries at smaller scale where the soil and the trees can take priority. If we want the most nutritious food, grown in the best possible ways [and make no mistake—the growing practices do matter when we are talking about nutrition, a topic I will get back to in upcoming articles] there have to be parallel universes of processing and distribution available to lure more farmers into doing things better.

As California grows drier, there is a real need for Iowa and other fertile states with water to really “feed the world,” with products that not only fill bodies but also nurture them. Let's make it possible for farmers to get into that game, and stay there.

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