The Future of Sustainable Agriculture

We have come a long way in the 15 years I have been privileged to serve as executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. When I first started, I remember being ridiculed or, even worse, ignored in a lot of public contexts where PASA now is a welcome voice for change. For this we can feel some pride, while also thanking myriad other national groups and personalities who have paved the way, often in the face of withering uphill battles.

As I prepare to transition to a new position in June, my main concern is that we don’t lose the momentum gained over the years. There are a number of critical factors that I believe need to be kept in mind, as follows:

  • Words matter. Though faced with abuse and even cooption of the word sustainable by corporate interests wanting to steal our thunder or undermine the power of our ideals, we must never give in to that. Other words like natural, local, and fresh are similarly threatened, even within our own ranks, but we must never relinquish or walk away from the words that got us here in the first place, even as we develop more descriptive terms, like regenerative, to convey the significance of our vision.

  • All farmers matter. We have heard so much chatter over the years about big farms, small farms, and even farms in-the-middle, which has all been a distraction from the central reality that our food system is rapidly stratifying into two primary production systems characterized by industrialism on the one hand, and a broad category that includes the vast majority of farms on the other. There is really no place in this movement for criticism of any farmers choosing to be consistent with the values of making their farms more economically viable while also taking care of the environment and becoming more socially responsible. We all have room to improve and must find ways to work together.
  • Technology must be balanced with traditional wisdom. I love my modest 34-hp tractor, but realize it does as much harm as good over the long haul in terms of making my little farm sustainable. In a vivid way, I understand that my own practices in producing more vegetables than I really need, and a few livestock on the side, will have peaked at the moment when I no longer need the heavy metal technology, or any kind of off-farm inputs for that matter. I can best do this by accessing traditional farming wisdom that is sometimes centuries old. Technology can be helpful, fun and sometimes inspiring. But we must always remember that there is far more benefit to be derived from the body of indigenous wisdom behind us than from any technological innovation lurking just around the next corner in the future.
  • Diversity is a key to sustainability. I start almost all my public talks with an emphasis on diversity in sustainable agriculture. By this I mean diversity of all kinds, including the types of farms, farming methods, the crops/livestock produced, the farmers themselves and the market venues upon which they depend. This is our chief strategy for mitigating risk and the main characteristic distinguishing sustainable systems from others that depend on lack of diversity for the sake of achieving efficiency. A robust commitment to diversity, and its corollary appreciation for the complexity of natural systems, is a defining factor on sustainable farms that we cannot do without.
  • Cooperation is the other key to a sustainable future. Wherever you find two or more farmers, farm organizations, local communities or even governing entities finding ways to work together toward the common purpose of improving food and farming systems, therein exists an opportunity for sustainability to prevail. However, as sustainable agriculture gained credibility over the years, nothing prepared me for what I have witnessed, more than just a few times, as the willingness of some people and organizations within our own movement to betray, undercut or work at cross purposes with each other. Beyond being undignified, this kind of activity is both counterproductive and self-destructive in a way defying logical explanation. Simply put, for this movement to continue its upward momentum into the future, even the near-term future, we will have to overcome this and find ways of sharing resources and cooperating beyond anything we have imagined so far.

So there you have it, my thoughts about what is most important in considering the future of sustainable agriculture as a movement and a strategy for addressing some of the biggest problems our society now faces. This is certainly not a complete list of factors, but all have struck me in recent years with their ultimate importance and risk of being overlooked.

I also want to add a few words to put my impending departure from PASA into context. I am not even close to being a perfect person, having exhibited many foibles over the years, though I have also had some success in growing this organization and increasing its impact on the world. The future, however, belongs to the members of this whole community, as no organization can succeed based on the work of a single individual or even a small group.

The future is up to all of us, working together to make a better world. And we must succeed, as our children certainly cannot afford for us to fail.

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