Farmer of the Future: Exploring ‘sustainable’ farming


May 16th, 2012

By Jessica Naudziunas, Harvest Public Media

Columbia, MO – It seems every farming operation today professes to be “sustainable.” We may not know if that’s true until decades from now, but farmers’ choices today well may provide a game plan for tomorrow.

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The farmer of future will grow food and raise animals with tomorrow in mind. They’ll know contributing to the food supply is not enough. If the soil, air and water they use to produce food is damaged, good luck feeding anyone.

Dan Howell, a farmer-rancher in Marshall County, Kan., is experimenting with his land like an idealistic young farmer. (Photo by Jessica Naudziunas, Harvest Public Media)

That’s the idea, anyway, behind “sustainability” one of the big buzz words in agriculture today. It’s all about making sure natural resources are not depleted or permanently damaged so that we can farm into the future. But how best to do this and who’s really making the commitment for the long term?

Unlike with the organic label, you can’t be certified “sustainable.” So many people have come up with their own idea of the word.

There is a five-part definition, courtesy of Congress no less. But it’s a little complicated and vague, covering everything from enhancing environmental quality and using resources wisely to keeping a close watch on the farm finances. Part E reads: “Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

How do you interpret that?

Howell used to farm commodity crops on all of his land. Now, he has diversified his farm. (Photo by Jessica Naudziunas, Harvest Public Media)

“These are the kinds of questions that a lot of people can spend a lot of time debating and looking at the fine detail,” said Rob Hedberg, national director of the of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE).

Farmers have studied the fine detail, picking and choosing sustainable methods as they please. The consensus, though, seems to be that farming sustainably is not organic or industrial, it’s a mix of all of the good practices from each.

“Sustainability is a journey,” said William Powers, a farmer in Lincoln, Neb., and director of the Nebraska outpost for the SARE program. “Sustainability goes beyond something that is written down.”

Sustainable farming speaks directly to educating the individual, Powers said, but the big idea behind agriculture in the U.S. for so long has been “grow food, at any cost to the environment, to communities, to farmers themselves, to feed the world.” Though, as hard as the industrial agriculture model works to reach that goal, Powers said, when he looks around he doesn’t see a well-fed world. The town nearest his farm has people who go hungry.

The Powers family owns Darby Springs Farm near Lincoln, Neb. (Photo by Jessica Naudziunas, Harvest Public Media)

“So if that’s the goal, they’ve failed,” Powers said. “It’s just not an obtainable goal in my opinion. A growing population needs to learn to feed themselves, to be able to live for themselves and that’s going to be sustainable.”

Dan Howell, a farmer-rancher in Marshall County, Kan., agrees.

Most of his 1,500+ acres once yielded strictly row crops, milo soybeans wheat the classics in Kansas. But at the age of 60, Howell is experimenting with his land like an idealistic young farmer.


“Years ago when I wanted to farm more crop ground, I went through the farm crisis of the 80s, and that was really ugly,” Howell said. “I am wanting to be a little closer to shore than farther away.”

Howell said he no longer uses big equipment or fertilizer on his land, and for the most part, the farm runs itself. He said he’s sustainable because he works with the land, instead of manipulating it to work for him.

“I don’t like buying $3 and $4 fuel,” Howell said. “So, these are things that I can do to buy less of it and still be productive.”

Changes have come in the form of a high tunnel, a young fruit orchard, and a shiitake mushroom grove built into an old cluster of trees. He sells his cows to other farmers and his produce to the local school system. Instead of living in a barn, or a small grazing field, his docile Hereford and Angus cows rule the rolling hundreds of acres around them.

“In society today, we don’t have a real strong sense of accepting diversity in agriculture,” Howell said. “I’ve had several friends, and good people, but they say Why don’t you let me rent that ground and plant and grow corn and soybeans, instead of running cows on that ground?’ They thought I had fallen off a rock fence or something.”

But, Howell said, when making a decision about the type of farm he wanted to run, he looked to the future and knew, after decades of planting soybeans, that it could not sustain him, or his family for very long.

Editorial note: You can’t feed the growing world population without farmers. But there are serious questions today about who will take on the job a few decades from now. Farmers are getting older, and technological, cultural and political forces are bringing immense changes to those who build their lives around the land.

In this weeklong special report on “The Farmer of the Future,” Harvest Public Media and NET News look at how some of those forces may play out over the next few years. Tune in every day this week for radio reports, culminating Friday, May 18th with the NET News documentary “Hispanic Farmers on Broken Ground,” airing on NET1/HD at 7 p.m. CT.

Harvest Public Media, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, reports on issues of food, fuel and field across the Midwest.

8 Responses

  1. Buggy Ridge Farms says:

    The farmer of the future will need to learn to farm with fewer chemicals, and less fuel and fertilizer as those inputs will be in short supply and too costly in 50 years. Unfortunately, we are not teaching this group of future farmers fast enough nor are there enough people that want to farm. Our system is set up now to support commodity based agriculture. Ag schools are being funded by ag business conglomerates and chemicals companies.
    Our lack of future farmers will come to a head in 10 years as the average age of farmers now is near 60. They are typically not physically capable of farming outside the cab of the tractor anymore in a more sustainable fashion that is not based on “heavy metal” and large debt.
    Hearing Monsanto advertise on NPR as the “sustainable farming” company turns my stomach. They have really destroyed the concept of sustainability by advertising this way and with their production of artificial mutations. I used to sell their seeds and chemicals and was a huge fan of Roundup at one time. No longer! We went conventional and no chemicals have been used on our farm in over 8 years. We do not have organic certification nor do we intend to get it. My mentality and path forward now is very similar to the farmers featured in this article. We grow grassfed beef and Heritage breed hogs and also recycle their manure into the soil to grow various fruits and vegetables we can sell at the local farmer’s market. We make a good living and our health is excellent from eating such nutritious food.
    We need to return to the type of farming we did prior to the 1940’s with smaller equipment, smaller farms and many more farms located near where the farm products will be marketed. And, we need to abandon our export market mentality to be truly sustainable in another 50 years. Remember that every bushel of corn exported also exports an average of 1 bushel of top soil with it and uses many gallons of water for irrigation. How long can we afford to do this? Our soil and water is part of our national security and being able to feed our population. Healthy soil and clean water are our most important natural resources.
    I can just imagine all the many young and middle age farmers out that want to just cringe for my previous paragraph! They have been taught to get big or get out their whole lives as I was coming out of ag school in the late 1970’s. Organic or sustainable farming was not taught where I went to school. Many farmers are too young to remember vibrant rural economies with numerous mom and pop businesses thriving while supporting many millions of small to medium farms we had up until the mid-1970’s. Many rural communities and lifestyles have vanished and appear as ghost towns around the country. Something has truly been lost in our country in the transition to monoculture, mega farms and CAFOs.
    About 1% of our population now farms. It was nearly triple that number when the first Farm Bill was written in 1985. One has to ask the question whether the government’s involvement with agriculture has really helped looking at these numbers. With 1/3 the number of farmers we had then, I would say they have made things worse.
    I am 58 and nearing retirement after being in ag business and conservation work for about 35 years. I have been fortunate to work with some of the very best farmers throughout the USA and also unfortunate by working with some of the very worst. The best farmers have always had some livestock to recycle nutrients back into healthy soils teaming with soil life. They practice rotational grazing, crop rotations, maintain their fencerows, woodlots and do not look for the quick solutions or large profits. The worst farmers tear out all their fencerows, small woodlots; have no animals and typically have 2 year rotations or continuous row crops. They put little back into their soil and it shows. Erosion is rampant and as bad or worse as in the Dust Bowl days. It is time to begin getting the train back on the track so to speak. We cannot continue being derailed much longer. Millions of starving people worldwide will be the result of our current system in the coming decades.

    • Jerry Crew says:

      Sustainibilty has absolutely nothing to do with “organic” which is the complete antithesis of sustainability! Rampant erosion is evident because of tillage! A mono-crop of continuous corn no-till is more sustainable than any “organic” system. The only rotation more sustainable is continuous meadow. Good luck with that!

  2. Tim Gieseke says:

    I appreciate the perspective and the need to define sustainability. The farmer of the future will have one thing in common with the farmers of today and yesterday; they will be guided by market signals. In fact, they will have this in common will all economic participants. Whether you work for government, NGO or your own business you have a ubiquitous market signal as the core of your direction. If that is not true for you, then you have figured out how to live outside the economy and good for you. For agriculture to move toward a sustainable industry as a whole, then activities associated with sustainability must have value. period. One method to mend our economy is through Symbiotic Demand; an economic force that has yet to be put into place. It is illustrated at:

  3. Bobbi Aguero says:

    As a new farmer, I am glad to know that this is the direction that farming consciousness is moving. It feels good and the more I learn the more I realize I need to know.

  4. Jerry Crew says:

    Obama is a term to explain the destruction of the USA!

  5. Francis Shaxson says:

    Concerning ‘sustainability’: below is a quote from p.716 of ‘Biological Approaches to Sustainable Soil Systems’, edited by Norman Uphoff + ten more (2006) (ISBN 1-57444-583-9): Chapter 50 (written jointly by all the editors) – entitled ‘Issues for more sustainable system management’ – contains the statement (on p.716):

    “Of particular importance for sustainable agriculture is the enhancement of soil water-holding capacity and drainage. This is very dependent on the kinds of soil biological activity that lead to better particle aggregation, creating soil that can be both better aerated and infused with water at the same time”.

  6. Greg Gerritt says:

    That Jerry Crew can with a straight face say that monocrop corn is more sustainable than soil building organic practices says he must own stock in Monsanto. His statement on the president also shows how little awareness he has.

    My state is having an agricultural rennessaince. We have 50% more farmers than 10 years ago. Nearly all of them organic, and thankfully nearly all of them focused on providing healthy food to our own communities. No one in my neighborhood is going in to farming to mono crop with chemicals.

  7. Greg Gerritt says:

    As I continued reading SWCS conservation newsbriefs it pointed out how much erosion was going on in corm fields in the midwest this year. So much for sustainable corn mono culture.

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