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Sustainability Pressure = Farmer Opportunity

The word “sustainability” can be frustrating for farmers. Especially when it’s framed by the public and a supply chain that prefaces it with “more needs to be done.” It’s understan

dable. Raised on a dairy farm and having worked with farmers for decades, I know that farmers are sustainable as a matter of course. They have to be to continue to pursue their passion for raising food – caring for the animals, the land, the air, the water and their crops.

During a panel I facilitated at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual convention, “Sustainability Spotlight and Perspectives from the Food Supply Chain and Beyond,” I had a chance to ask questions of several stakeholders across the supply chain about sustainability and to explore how we as a food system can define sustainability and work together to solve challenges.

The panel was diverse: an Oregon tulip and hemp farmer, representatives of Bayer Crop Science and Tyson Foods, and a spokesperson for the Environmental Defense Fund – an NGO known to put pressure on the supply chain to reach environmental objectives.

Despite the varied backgrounds, the panelists were in agreement that everyone has the opportunity to say, “we support sustainability” detailing their individual journeys, setting benchmarks and defining their specific paths forward. It will be different for everyone – but, in the end, it results in progress toward the same goal.

They also agreed that farmers have a unique opportunity to drive the sustainability conversation.

Authentic Effort

Given the uniqueness and complexities of players in the supply chain, each has to carve out its sustainability niche – whatever that is – to continue to make progress and communicate transparently for the benefit of the entire marketplace. On the farm, depending on the type of crop grown or animal raised, sustainability approaches will be very different.

Unfortunately, regardless of the practice, the panelists agreed wholeheartedly there’s no silver bullet. So it’s OK if you don’t have it all figured out; sustainability is a long journey that can’t be solved overnight. The public doesn’t expect perfection – but they do want to hear that you have an eye on improving over time, that you’re making an authentic effort. Telling stories of significant improvements throughout your time as a farmer is impactful to those who don’t understand the complexities of farming – nor the many examples of advancements that make today’s agriculture more sustainable than even a few years ago.

As Callie Eideberg, director of government relations for EDF, said, “We know we don’t have all the answers, but we do have the opportunity to make the commitment, engage in ways that are creative, and then, through the complexities that surface, work together as a team to figure these things out.”

I equate it to being a mom. As a parent, I have a commitment to raise my kids in a way that’s going to empower them to thrive. I don’t have all the answers for every situation that comes my way, but I do have a commitment to do what’s right. That’s the heart of farmers. That’s the heart of the food system. So as long as we can talk about what we’re committed to and understand the path to get there may not always be straight, we still have the opportunity to have conversations with consumers throughout the process to share our journey and our learnings.

Message to Farmers

At the end of the event, I asked panelists, “What would you ask of farmers as it relates to sustainability and telling their story?” Among the takeaways:

  • Bayer – Focus on solutions and be an active voice and driver of outcomes. That’s where you can have the greatest impact. Be willing to share your stories, which are best coming from you.
  • Tyson – Leverage the power of collaboration, to make sure that your position of power is actually infiltrating the food system.
  • Farmer – Please just tell your story. Talk about your sustainability commitments, talk about what you’ve already achieved and how you’re assessing progress to show there’s a plan in place.
  • Environmental Defense Fund – Be on the offense. You’re in the position of power to make marked progress. You have the opportunity to decide what makes sense for your operation – what makes sense for the ground you farm, for the animals you raise.

Overall, there was a clear message that collaboration is key to impacting sustainability – working together, particularly with those who grow and raise our food, to forge partnerships instead of simply mandating changes on the farm that in the end may not promote true sustainability.

Even in our short time together on that stage, progress was made. After the panel was over Jon, the farmer, admitted to Callie that when he saw EDF was participating, “My hackles went up.” He was a bit leery about the NGO joining in the discussion. “But now I want to hug you,” he said, expressing a change of heart because the tone and messages shared were unexpected and very positive for today’s farmers.

If the panel was any indication, when you gather all food system parties around the table to talk about their values regarding sustainability and the best path forward, progress is possible. There was a genuine sense of “we’re all in this together.”

It’s a wake-up call for the entire food chain, and for farmers in particular, who can have a powerful story to tell and are in a position to lay the foundation for a truly sustainable path forward.

Roxi Beck
Consumer Engagement Director