What Is Sustainability? Part One in a Series

Telling Your Story

Farms must be profitable to be sustainable

Published on: March 15, 2013

Sustainability is a hot topic, and was a major theme of the 2013 Commodity Classic.  As described in one session, "ask 100 people what 'sustainability' means and you might get 100 different answers." Maybe we can flesh out the answers here and in the next few articles in this series.

Although the term sustainability generally refers to environmental impacts, the reality is that a farm also has to be profitable to be sustainable.  One Hundred Meals recently highlighted a few farms which by popular definition would have considered their farms sustainable. However, the blog goes on to discuss that although it met all the popular criteria, these businesses were not profitable. 

"Perhaps it's just time that we the consumer realize that hanging one's shingle out that reads, 'sustainable farm' is not a free ride to monetary success.  Given the consumer's general unwillingness to pay more for foods, the case is likely the opposite," writes blogger Grant Kessler. "There is nothing about a farm with sustainable farming practices that inherently makes it 'bound to succeed'".

The challenges described above are familiar.  Some farms will overcome obstacles that they face and become successful and thrive while others will not survive.  One thing that is almost certain, in the early phases of the business, the farm will be subsidized from elsewhere. 

In many traditional farms one or both spouses might work off farm until the business reaches a level that is profitable enough to support the business, then cover family living expenses.  Some farms may always have a spouse who works away from the farm to provide funds for family living expenses or benefits such as health insurance.

Traditional agriculture has had its own fair share of challenging times, and at the end of the day, a farm's entities must be profitable to be sustained.  Otherwise, the business is living off of equity elsewhere. 

I'd encourage you to think about your definition of "sustainability." If someone asked you how your farm is sustainable, what would you say?  Next week, we'll continue the discussion of sustainability.