Sustainable Farmer

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

When a consumer demands, and a farmer claims, that a farm is sustainable, what do they mean? Lots of ink has been spilled, research funded, and advocacy groups formed over the last forty years to answer that question. Garth Youngberg and Richard Harwood wrote in 1989 in the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture: “We are yet a long way from knowing just what methods and systems in diverse locations will really lead to sustainability…In many regions of the country, however, and for many crops, the particular mix of methods that will allow curtailing use of harmful farm chemicals or building crop diversity, while also providing economic success, are not yet clear.
The stage is set for challenging not only farm practitioners, but also researchers, educators, and thefarm industry.”

Four decades on, the sustainable challenge is driving significant change in the farming industry. In our online member meetups, many use “sustainable” to describe their growing practices. Here’s how one of our members, John Greenwood who co-owns JNJ Farms with his wife Jan in Macomb, IL, first described sustainable in his farm’s marketing materials when he was just starting out.

“JNJ Farms takes great pride in producing locally grown safe and nutritious food for our customers. We use sustainable practices and don’t use pesticides on our produce. We grow our plants using non-GMO seeds. The production and management techniques we use help us avoid problems with insects before they cause damage to our crops. We can assure you that the produced raised at JNJ Farms is safe for your family. We eat what we grow. If we wouldn’t eat it, we wouldn’t sell it!!!”

John now points out, however, that it doesn’t capture the most important aspect of sustainability for a farmer – profitability. “To me sustainable is making a profit and being able to farm next season.”

While sustainable farming draws cheers from an increasing number of consumers demanding”fresh” and “local” and “nutritious” food, they have to realize it comes with a price, and they have to be willing to pay it.  You can’t have sustainable farming unless those doing it can afford to stay in business. .

Congrats to John for managing to figure out the right balance to sustain his farm business for 5 years. And congrats to his customers for making it worth his while. Here’s to the next 5…


Long Haul Farmers

Full Spectrum Sustainability

SF photo fb sustainable farm sign b


Long Haul Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Reporters who really dig into the local food movement ask, “Will this time be different?” We don’t know the answer. But those who do the research find that the long term track record of volunteer-based gardening efforts is not good, and the amount community gardens contribute to the food supply has never amounted to even a rounding error. Gardening advocates try to strengthen their case with the statistic that during World War II US Victory Gardens produced 40% of the country’s food needs. But the fact that these gardens went fallow after the war ended can hardly be claimed as proof of concept.

In the end success is defined by staying power, not growing power. It is easy to inspire people to grow food, and it is easy to help people grow food. What’s hard is to keep them doing it, in significant volume, over the long haul. Unless there is a way to keep lots of people committed and productive, this good food revolution will go the way of Victory Gardens – a temporary fix to get through challenging times that disappears as soon as economic and social conditions improve.

Observers of professional farming admit to the same challenge. Kelvin Leibold, farm and ag business management specialist at Iowa State University, is quoted in a recent article entitled “Challenges Facing Beginning Farmers” on “All of my life, people have been saying we’d run out of farmers. The big issue today isn’t getting more people started. It’s keeping those who started in the last 10 years profitable enough to stay in ag.” Mr. Leibold was talking about large scale farmers, but it’s a challenge we all share.

That leads to a point about SPIN-Farming that continues to be missed. SPIN not only makes it easy for new farmers to get started by removing the 2 big barriers to entry – land and capital – it also increases the chances of long term success. How many new farmers are defeating themselves by following the old model and being forced to give up, when they might otherwise have succeeded if they weren’t initially overburdened
financially by debt and operationally by large acreage and overhead?

As we have said before, what makes this time different is the financial incentive. So while we are focused on shortening the distance from farm to plate, let’s be sure we also help new gardeners and farmers go the distance. One way is to teach them how to make growing food pay.

SF photo prices on sign Mooseview Farm


This time could be different if the enthusiasm and interest in local foods leads to the establishment of businesses…

SF photo staying power

that have staying power. Peer-to-peer online networks,which provide ongoing support and continual professional development can help. SPIN-Farming is unbound by ideology or the status quo, and is market-driven.