What is sustainability? It depends who you ask.

Sustainability has become one of the most widely used words in American agriculture and the U.S. food system. Farmers and ranchers frequently talk about it and how to best incorporate it into their farms and ranches. But the term and concept behi...

(Erin Brown/ Grand Vale Creative)
(Erin Brown/ Grand Vale Creative)
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Sustainability has become one of the most widely used words in American agriculture and the U.S. food system. Farmers and ranchers frequently talk about it and how to best incorporate it into their farms and ranches.

But the term and concept behind it means different things to different people and organizations. Though they all agree sustainability is important, they often disagree about how individual agricultural producers and U.S. ag in general should respond.

Agweek asked a wide range of Upper Midwest farm groups and farmers these questions: How do you define sustainability? Is U.S. agriculture making progress in achieving it?


Here are their written answers, some edited for length.

Jason Walker is communications director of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. (Submitted photo)

Jason Walker, communication director of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota:

"To be truly sustainable, a farm must do three things: Produce enough food, produce enough income for the farmer and leave the land in better condition for future generations. All three must occur for true sustainable farming; the loss of any means sustainability is unachievable. Achieving the final factor, though, will have the most overall impact.

"Low commodity prices and the power of soil health are shifting the paradigm toward a profitable model of continuous cover, crop diversity, less tillage and livestock integration. Farmers see this as a profitable model and have the evidence to prove it. Yet government policy and institutional thinking is way behind, still focused on outdated principles that do not prioritize land stewardship and rely on too many agricultural inputs. SFA knows we can achieve sustainability, we CAN make more money farming with positive environmental impacts, and farmers must powerfully lead the way through adoption of soil health principles."





David Clough, Fessenden, N.D., farmer and chairman of the North Dakota Wheat Commission:

(He has enhanced the sustainability of his farm through technology, cropping rotation and no-till to improve soil and water management).

"As farmers we have always been conservationists. The land is our livelihood. We need it, so we try to preserve it in many different ways.

"We weren't as sustainable when I started farming almost 50 year ago, but we have

changed and adapted and we will keep changing and adapting."





Alexander Smart

Alexander Smart, South Dakota state co-coordinator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, or SARE:

"This is a question that I have been wrestling with for over the last 15 years of my professional career. The word "sustainable" has a subjective meaning for different people. This is likely in part because the idea of sustainability has some measure of time associated with it.

"So what is sustainable? A lifetime, many lifetimes, etc.? Sometimes unintended consequences are unforeseen or not measured, and we think what we are doing is sustainable when it actually may not be in the long run. So what is sustainable agriculture? For a system to be sustainable it must be: 1) profitable, 2) environmentally friendly, and 3) socially relevant."




Julie Schaff Ellingson is executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association. (Submitted photo)

Julie Schaff Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association:

(The response is a shortened version of the organization's beef sustainability policy.)

"'Sustainability' has become a buzzword in the industry, and the definition of sustainability has economic ramifications for all industry segments. The NDSA believes that any definition of sustainability should include economic viability of each industry segment, including cow-calf producers, because a ranching operation that is not profitable is not sustainable; the NDSA also believes that any beef sustainability program should be voluntary, market-driven and science-based.

"NDSA supports the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in leading discussions about beef sustainability with industry partners to ensure that economic viability and production efficiencies are at the center of any programs they develop and decisions they make relating to this topic."




Susan Long, office manager of Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society. (Submitted photo)

Susan Long, office manager of Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society:

"In relation to agriculture, NPSAS members typically view sustainability from an ecological perspective - believing that plants, animals, insects and all living organisms are working together to improve our natural resources. Implementation of regenerative practices, crop and livestock diversity, holistic land management, increasing soil fertility, cultivation of heirloom seeds and enhancing existing resources are just a few ways to preserve food sovereignty while nurturing the health of our planet for our children and their children.

"Consumers are driving the direction of agriculture now more than ever by challenging growers to think about the long-term implications of practices implemented. In order to remain sustainable, growers must meet consumer demand, balance profitability and annually improve the health of the soil so that grains, vegetables, fruits and livestock are healthier for people to eat."




Brad Greenway, chairman of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and a Mitchell, S.D. farmer and rancher. (Submitted photo)

Brad Greenway, chairman of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and a Mitchell, S.D. farmer and rancher:

"U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance identifies sustainability as a key issue in earning consumer trust in agriculture. When defining this widely-used buzzword, USFRA research shows that nearly 80 percent of consumers associate sustainability and the environment to air, water, soil and habitat.

"These findings impact our strategy in communicating to consumers that today's farmers and ranchers utilize technology to continually improve their environmental and economical sustainability. Precision farming, GMOs, advanced indoor housing and footprint calculators are a few of the many tools we use to implement and measure sustainability to guide us through our efforts to conserve natural resources and enhance animal welfare."

"Through these efforts on the farm and agriculture's active role in connecting with the consumer, USFRA research shows an increase in the percentage of Americans who strongly trust farmers and ranchers in the United States (we're at 34 percent in 2017 compared to 28 percent in 2016 and 24 percent in 2015)."




Jerry Schmitz, president of the South Dakota Soybean Association and a Vermillion, S.D., farmer. (Submitted photo)

Jerry Schmitz, president of the South Dakota Soybean Association and a Vermillion, S.D., farmer:

"Farm sustainability is producing food, feed, fiber and fuel for a rapidly growing population in a way that is safe for people, animals and the environment; and is perpetually renewable as well as economically viable for consumers and producers. Farmers are constantly seeking new methods and technologies in our effort to be sustainable for ourselves, our society and future generations.

"Agriculture is going in the right direction, but we need to continually evaluate where we have been, the methods we employ now and how we can best serve the world. Our forefathers prepared the seedbed by plowing every inch of soil which led to wind and water erosion, but at the time there was no better method of controlling weeds and preparing a seedbed. Today we employ better methods and with the help of new technologies like biotechnology and precision agriculture, tomorrow looks even brighter."




Paul Overby, a Wolford, N.D., farmer, businessman and conservationist:

"Sustainability for me is a based on Christian stewardship, recognizing that I am responsible for both what I do today and my impact on the well-being of future generations. It means farming in a way that protects, and then rebuilds, soil resources so future families will have a dependable food supply. It means using all available technology we can afford to reduce using fuel, fertilizer, and chemicals while still producing a profitable crop. It also means being a good steward of things I don't make a profit on, such as wildlife and beauty.

"Ag is slowly adopting many precision ag and soil health practices that improve sustainability. But we need to move the short-term profit focus to long-term resource building to truly become sustainable."





Kirby Hettver, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and a DeGraff, Minn., farmer. (Submitted photo)

Kirby Hettver, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and a DeGraff, Minn., farmer:

"In late 2016, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association set a goal for Minnesota corn farmers to become the most environmentally responsible and sustainable corn farmers in the nation. Our definition of sustainability is made up of three equally important elements, all of which relate to and influence each other:


First is people. Our model of sustainability strengthens farms and rural communities while enabling a safe and healthy quality of life for all Minnesotans. Next is planet. Sustainable practices manage and replenish finite resource critical to agriculture, while protecting and enhancing the environment impacted by farming. And finally, profit. Sustainability provides a fair margin of profit for farmers while delivering equitably priced goods to all.

"While commodity prices are impacting the profitability on farms throughout the state, I believe agriculture is moving in the right direction by becoming more sustainable in the areas we can control."





Ben Lilliston, director of Rural Strategies and Climate Change for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis.

Ben Lilliston, director of Rural Strategies and Climate Change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis:

"Sustainability applies to both present and future generations. It protects and preserves the environment (including the climate); is economically viable; and is socially equitable for the connected community.

"Agriculture as a whole is struggling to move toward sustainability. Current market conditions aren't producing fair prices for farmers. Short-term economic pressures make it difficult to invest in long-term environmental protections. Fewer, big farms are less connected to the rural communities they surround. Some farmers and rural areas are going against the grain, moving toward sustainability by investing in systems based on soil health, cleaner water and air, locally owned businesses and the rural communities where they live. They are leading the way to a sustainable agriculture future."





Tregg Cronin, South Dakota Wheat Commission commissioner and Gettysburg, S.D., farmer. (Submitted photo)

Tregg Cronin, South Dakota Wheat Commission commissioner and Gettysburg, S.D., farmer:

"The term sustainability is being used these days in conjunction with everything from

farming to paper bags.

"Yet, the term means so much more to people who live and breathe it. As a producer, reflecting on the term sustainability causes one to reflect on the direction of their entire operation. Is what I'm doing going to afford my children, and my children's children the chance to build a life off the land I farm? The answer to that question for me lends itself directly to diversity, and ensuring my land and soil are properly taken care of. As our farm manager, Dan Forgey, has often said, 'If you take care of the land, it will take care of you.' For our farm, making sure wheat has a stable place in our rotation is part of keeping our land and soil happy."





Mary Podoll, North Dakota State Conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service (Submitted photo)

Mary Podoll, North Dakota State Conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

"Sustainability is 'the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.' I think the definition should also include enhancement or 'to improve.' Hugh Hammond Bennett was the think tank behind the movement for soil conservation on agriculture lands. He believed in the voluntary approach; 83 years later this approach is still amazingly strong. Being part of the conservation story for 30 years myself, I think that the knowledge we have gained in the past 15 years on soil biology is the 'new frontier' for sustainability.

"NRCS defines conservation as the stewardship of soil, water, plants, air, animals (both domestic and wildlife) in a manner that allows for healthy food and fiber, and in a way that sustains or enhances the resource. Knowledge of land and soil capabilities and risk mitigation are key. If stewardship was easy, we wouldn't have loss of soil organic matter, poor water quality and hypoxia issues; we know a lot - but it's not easy to practice. The new frontier of soil biology along with what we know about dynamic soil properties (chemical and physical) will increase our knowledge and ability to help agriculture build upon conservation practices to enhance soil and water for a bright future."





Joseph Jensen, a Lewistown, Mont., senior majoring in crop biotechnology at Montana State University:

"To answer the question what does sustainability mean to me - I feel that it comes down to four things. Sustainable agriculture needs to be economical, an efficient use of resources, produce high quality products and ensure a good quality of life for the producer. To have a truly sustainable system, agriculture will need to encompass all four of these broad topics. I do feel that agriculture is always moving toward being more sustainable. Producers have to constantly balance these issues to meet their own needs and the needs of the consumers. That being said, I also feel that a truly sustainable system will never be reached. It will be something that producers will strive for and in the end, push agriculture forward in positive direction."




Pete Hanebutt, North Dakota Farm Bureau Public Policy Director. (Submitted photo)

Pete Hanebutt, North Dakota Farm Bureau Public Policy Director:

In the Farm Bureau network, sustainable agriculture means production - under best management practices - meets the needs of the American consumer and the world. NDFB believes production agriculture is heading in the right direction and has been since at least World War I. American farmers currently feed themselves plus other people here and abroad. Research, efficiencies and scientifically improved methods of production have made this possible, and we've maintained the healthiest environment of anywhere in the world."


"American agriculture is sustainable and will continue to be, as long as farmers and ranchers are able to use the tools they need to safely provide food and fiber without government overreach or misguided rules based on an erroneous perception of modern agriculture."



Your definition, please

No two agriculturalists view or define sustainability in exactly the same way. If you'd like to share your thoughts , we'd be happy to share them at . Send your definition of no more than 100 words, along with your name and hometown, to Jonathan Knutson at , by April 30.

Larry Sitter, the now retired Rolette County Soil Conservation district manager, and Nikki Hanretty, soil conservation technician with Rolette County Natural Resources Conservation Service, study 2017 results from the "How Far North Can We Grow?" project. (Rolette County NRCS office photo.)
Paul Overby, a Wolford, N.D., farmer, businessman and conservationist. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)

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