Friday, May 15, 2009

Sustainable Agriculture...Is It Possible?

I find it ironic that the federal government is defining the term “sustainable” for agriculture; the same government that is unable to live within its means and is making it more difficult for agriculture to be sustainable.

Agriculture can only be sustainable when the following exists: product can be grown and sold for a profit; profit from sales allows for re-investment and improvement; and agricultural land can be kept in production

First, the profitability of production is dependent upon two critical factors, input costs and value at time of sale. Relative value of agricultural commodities has not increased at the same rate as the value of other goods and services. In 1964, a rancher could sell ten 750 pound calves or 105 tons of wheat and be able to pay for a new pick-up; today it would take 85 calves or 370 tons of wheat. American society is enjoying cheap, safe and healthy food, while the farmer and rancher continue to be paid relatively the same price as they received 50 years ago. Add on top of that, the continued rise in input costs. Equipment, power, labor, fertilizer, transportation, fuel, veterinary services, taxes, and fees, have all increased, while the value of the product has remained stagnant, thus continuing to shrink the profit margin. Farmers and ranchers have to continually upgrade and expand in order to remain profitable, seek off-farm supplemental income or make the heart breaking decision to sell out.

Second, because of the ever shrinking profit margin, it is more and more difficult to invest in the necessary improvements to remain efficient and operate successfully in very competitive global market. Every additional regulation and restriction, implemented by the government, upon the farmers and ranchers, increases the cost of production and reduces the competitiveness of American grown and produced products in the global marketplace, resulting in an even smaller profit margin. Once again, the choice left to the farmers and ranchers is to expand, seek off-farm supplemental income or sell out.

Third, never ending environmental regulations and restriction, and pressure from urban sprawl further tightens the choke hold on American farmers and ranchers. Once productive and environmentally beneficial, family farms, ranches and orchards are now housing developments, strip malls and non-productive buffer zones, due to the continued spread of our population and failure by our government to recognize the vital environmental importance of farm and ranch land. Despite historical cohabitation and symbiotic relationship between agriculture and the environment, public policy is systematically destroying the environment, their source of nourishment and threatening our National Security. Public policy does not lend itself to promoting the sustainability of agriculture.

It is important to remember that just because a farm or ranch is “organic” does not mean that is sustainable. More often than not, organic farms and ranches face an even smaller profit margin than their conventional counterparts. While they may see a potential for higher product value in niche markets, they also often have lower comparative yields per acre, and higher labor costs, negating much of the increase in value. Also, in the current economic situation, studies indicate that the average consumer will still purchase the item that costs less, thus the niche item is moving off the shelves slower. Organic and conventional farmers and ranchers are facing the same challenges to remain sustainable.

Unfortunately, there is no “magic bullet” that will fix this downward spiral of agricultural sustainability. Public opinion is against “corporate” agriculture, which while it may be “owned” by a corporation, it is managed by families and has grown to remain profitable. Public opinion is for family farms and ranches, but it continues to pass initiatives, legislation and adopt policies that are forcing families to sell out. Public opinion is for a clean environment and abundant wildlife populations, yet they continue to force family farmers and ranchers off their land, only to create non-productive buffer zones or develop it. Until the importance of agriculture is genuinely recognized by the public, sustainable agriculture that can meet the United States and the world’s demand for food is not attainable.

Agriculture (this includes forestry) naturally provides the largest carbon sink in the world. Agriculture naturally provides and enhances habitat for wildlife. Agriculture provides our food, clothing and shelter. Without agriculture, we would not exist.

It is time to stop biting the hand that feeds you.

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About Me

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Jeff Fowle is a fourth generation family farmer and rancher from Etna, California. He and his wife Erin and son Kyle raise registered Angus cattle, Percheron draft horses, warmbloods, alfalfa and alfalfa-grass hay. They also start and train horses for riding, jumping, and driving. Their family run ranch has incorporated many environmentally beneficial and water efficient technologies and management strategies. Jeff attended college at Colorado State University for two years and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for four and earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Science. Following college, he worked in Washington State for a year as a herdsman for BB Cattle Company and then returned to Etna, California in 1995 to own and operate KK Bar Ranch and Siskiyou Percherons. The latter was started by his grandfather, Clarence Dudley, who devoted much of his time to the Percheron Horse Association of America, specifically to developing their youth education program.