"Sustainable agriculture" is a much kicked-around term that seems to mean different things to different people.
Some groups would like you to believe that to be sustainable, farms should only grow crops organically, produce locally grown food, have grass-fed animals and you do your own processing of the products. That idea is unfair to the majority of farmers in this area and across the United States who produce most of our food.
When we look at farming, or any other business, to be "sustainable," it first has to be profitable, provide an income that pays the bills and provides a decent family living.
In agriculture, a couple of other things enter into the picture. The farm operation needs to be concerned about the environment and use practices that preserve and improve the soil and water.
Today there is also a "social" aspect to farming. That is, farmers are concerned about the impact of their farming operations on their neighbors. They think about such things as trying to avoid dusty, noisy operations next to the neighbors or being alert to traffic on busy roads.
When we take a look back, local farmers and others in this country have practiced sustainable agriculture for years. In 1944, it took 26 million cows to produce 14 billion pounds of milk in the U.S. Today, it takes only 9 million cows to produce 22 billion pounds of milk. That's 85 percent more milk from one-third the cows.
Also, across this country the dairy industry has reduced its carbon footprint by 63 percent since 1944. And fewer cows means less livestock waste to dispose of, which is highly regulated today.
Dairy farms have become much more efficient and more sustainable through practices such as improved genetics, better feeding practices and excellent care and management.
In one way, they are a bit too efficient. They continue to produce just a little more milk than we consume in this country, and that tends to keep their farm prices down.
While we don't produce a lot of pork in this area, pork production today in this country is far more efficient, environmentally sound and productive than 50 years ago. Recent studies found that hog production has increased 29 percent over 50 years with a 39 percent smaller breeding herd. Today, it takes just 4.4 pounds of feed for one pound of gain compared to 6.6 pounds 50 years ago.
Pork producers can produce 1,194 pounds of pork per acre of land compared to 326 pounds 50 years ago. They have reduced their carbon footprint 35 percent per pound since 1959.
Crop growers have their positive story to tell. They have reduced the loss of valuable farm soil by 70 percent per bushel of crops over the last 20 years, according to a study done by a coalition of producer organizations and conservation and environmental groups. Corn yields are up 41 percent with a 37 percent decline in per-bushel land use.
All these figures point to the job farmers have been doing to practice sustainable agriculture. Currently, one problem is causing concern about crop conditions this year. That is extremely dry weather lack of rain. The situation locally and in the Midwest is serious. Without rain, we are all going to be paying more for what we eat this fall and through next year. And farmers will "lose their shirts" economically.
We all have an interest in farming even if we don't recognize it. Our family farms that grow our food are important to all of us. Support your local farmers market or grass-fed producers but remember that most of your food will come from the larger family farms that practice sustainability.
Parker is retired from the Ohio State University and is an independent agricultural writer.