What does sustainability mean to you? First of all, it may help to address the word itself. What is the definition of sustainability?

Sustainability can be explained in many ways depending on who you ask and the context in which it is discussed. However, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, sustainability is “everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.” The EPA also states, “To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”

What is Sustainability?

According to Bill Gordon, corn and soybean farmer at Gordon farms, sustainability means something different to a farmer. “…When I wake up I look at that land…I try to do it better than my father and grandfather did it. My sustainability it to take that land and treat it better today than yesterday.”

Sustainability is becoming a rising topic of discussion in the millennial generation, and will only continue to be a rising topic for future generations. Issues around sustainability are becoming more important to millennials today, maybe more so than it has been discussed in the past generations. Clearly millennials want more sustainability. But what does that term mean in regard to farming and ranching? There is not one blanket definition, since sustainability can take shape in different forms and fit into many different sectors of farming and ranching.

Farmers Keep Animal Welfare Top of Mind

One way sustainability can be implemented and discussed is in the issue of animal welfare. However, sustainability is often implemented here more than the consumer knows. Farmers have zero tolerance for animal abuse and strive to prevent the misuse of antibiotics among them. According to Rochelle Krusemark, farmer at Krusemark Farms, a panelist at Food Dialogues: Minneapolis, “there is no sense and no benefit to just feed antibiotics to animals.” Antibiotics in animals are often similar to antibiotics among humans. Antibiotics have to be prescribed to animals and they are only given to the animal when they are sick; sick animals and antibiotic dosage are taken seriously by farmers.

Gordon explains that farmers and ranchers listen to consumers, as he is a consumer himself. But also states, “one thing we’ve [farmers] done poorly is communicate what we do.” There are many process and inspections animals have to go through regarding the antibiotic process. Farms often work closely with veterinarians and, unknown to many, tax dollars partly go toward farm inspections for antibiotic regulatory inspections.

Another way sustainability is often discussed is in terms of feeding the growing population. As the population continues to grow, it is important to not only have enough food to feed them, but grow and produce food in a sustainable and efficient way. In order to take steps toward feeding this growing population, the farm business itself also has to be sustainable. But what does that mean exactly - how can a business be sustainable?

It is important for a business to be preserved throughout the years. This means that farmers must think about the future, instead of simply the present. Another panelist, Steve Peterson, director of Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary & Nutrition Services says this is a very important factor in business planning. “I have a Japanese family that, they think about seven generations out when they do business planning. We don’t do that much here in the U.S. we think about tomorrow or the next week.” Part of this planning for the future involves the land itself. The land needs to be able to continue to be worked and passed through generations in order to be profitable and useful to future generations who will work the farm.

Talk About Food and Sustainability With Someone You Disagree With!

According to Peterson, there are three pillars in sustainability: environmental, social and economics. In the U.S. it is easy to live in one of these “camps,” whether it be what you actually believe or what is more comfortable for you. However, to make sustainability work today it is important for everyone to listen and respect one another’s opinions surrounding this topic. Otherwise nothing will be achieved and the beloved sustainability everyone hopes for will simply be a glorified image.

Sustainability is not something that is achieved overnight. Sustainability is not an end result that will ever be completely accomplished. Rather, sustainability is a journey. Sustainability is a complex topic and encompasses many sectors in the farming and ranching business. Farmers and ranchers have been, and will continue to look for ways to be more sustainable as this issue becomes more at the forefront of today’s concerns.