By Jim Whitt, Contributing Editor

What does sustainability mean to you?

That’s a question I’ve posed to people I’ve interviewed for a film project I’m producing. Everyone I’ve interviewed so far has been involved in various segments of agriculture. The list includes feedyard operators, dairymen, managers of diversified livestock operations, nutritionists, ethanol producers, farmers, agronomists and various suppliers of products and services to the ag industry.

Other questions I’ve asked include:

  • What have been the most significant technological advancements in agriculture?
  • What are the greatest opportunities?
  • What are the biggest problems facing the industry?
  • What are the critical factors involved in sustainable agriculture?
  • What does sustainability look like?

I modified the questions slightly depending on what area of agriculture the interviewee was involved in. And, as you might guess, the answers differed somewhat depending on their individual perspectives.

If I showed consumers across the country what this group of agrarians had to say about sustainability I think they might be surprised. They would discover that the farmers I interviewed have a deep-rooted love for the land they care for. They describe themselves as stewards of the land who are committed to seeing that land preserved for future generations.

They would discover those involved in livestock production live with the animals they care for. They put the care of their livestock ahead of their own, feeding and doctoring them during blizzards and blistering heat, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

They would learn that none of them will use any more fertilizer, chemicals, antibiotics or additives than necessary — not just because it’s in their economic self-interest, but because they eat the same food they produce and they care for their families just as much as moms and dads in the city care for theirs.

They would learn that of all the critical factors involved in sustainable water is the most critical factor. Without water nothing is sustainable.

They would learn that they base their decisions on proven science and invest in cutting-edge technologies that will enable them to increase production while reducing its impact on the environment.

They would learn that of all the resources involved in sustainability, human resources have the most impact. People are the industry’s greatest asset and its greatest challenge. To be sustainable, agriculture has to get as good at the people side of the business as it is at the production side of the business.

They would learn that people involved in agriculture have laser-like focus when it comes to planting a seed or breeding a cow and doing everything in between that it takes to bring those crops to market. Then they turn around and do the same thing all over again. They have a myopic attention to detail that enables them to be efficient in a business that has little margin for error.

The people I’ve interviewed for this project are experts in the segments of the industry they represent. But they have something else in common — the ability to elevate themselves above the myopia of their own operations and see themselves as part of a much bigger picture. They understand that sustainability requires them to venture outside their silos and collaborate with other segments of the industry. They talk in terms of partnering with others, not in a business sense but as an extended family bound together by a common purpose. They’re not just focused on feeding their families, but are focused on feeding a hungry world.

What does sustainability look like? Everyone holds a piece of the sustainability puzzle. To put that puzzle together the question has to change from, “What does sustainability mean to you?” to “What does sustainability mean to the 10 billion people who will inhabit the earth by the year 2050?” We’ll have to double food production to feed them.

That’s the big picture.

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