After 12 years in this business growing along side the local markets, watching other farms come and go, developing and then outgrowing 2 farms of our own, Travis and I think a lot about what it takes to keep our farm going for the long haul. At the first realization that we had outgrown the farm and house we had recently finished building, that the future of our operation would have to be on a third farm, we also realized the opportunity to re-envision our path. How could we ensure that ours would not be the next farm to fold for farmer exhaustion, unbalanced finances, or failure to secure our niche in the shifting marketplace? We need some baseline kind of sustainability that is as resilient as possible.
The word "sustainable" gets bandied about quite a lot in this kind of agriculture. Most of the time, we use it to draw a contrast between the smaller scale, ecologically and ethically minded methods and the "conventional" approach to food production. But "sustainable" is a problematic catchall for the wide variety of diversified small farms because it is so unspecific. Its such an easy and effective keyword for locally-minded small farms because we automatically ascribe a wide array of meanings to the term. And while most farms are sustainable in one sense or another, as consumers and even farmers considering our own operations or trying to learn from each other, we readily project all the other possible kinds of sustainability onto anyone under that big grand umbrella; "Sustainable". Perhaps we are so disgusted by conventional farming and eager for wholesome alternatives, I don't know, but I am as guilty of this as the next person and I think this projection is why so many people try to farm and eventually abandon the project- one kind of sustainability does not naturally bring about all the other necessary kinds of sustainability.
There are so many smaller ways that a farm can be sustainable without also having the long term, all encompassing kind of sustainability that makes businesses multigenerational, ecosystems self-sustaining, quality of life well-balanced. A farm can have excellent environmental sustainability by rotating the uses of their land and employing all of the value of their renewable resources, but if the business isn't profitable or the farmers are working themselves to exhaustion and family life is troubled, it would be hard to call that farm "sustainable". Likewise, there are plenty of profitable farms that neglect the ecological or community impacts of their operations and we wouldn't call those sustainable. Successful, long lasting farms will have all found their own routes to a fully balanced version of sustainability. What could ours be?
The many challenges of creating long-lasting economic, ecological, and community sustainability are what keep me up at night, make me crunch every number then look for more to crunch, pour over all kinds of books in the late hours of the night, and rise before the sun to tend the ever growing herd of animals in our charge. I want the work we do to be good. Not just satisfying, or delicious, or even inspiring. I want every day to be a meaningful part of creating a safe, beautiful space that is fully sustainable. I want the business to be strong and self-supporting so that my children or some other inspired young person can take the helm some day. I want the ecosystem to support a tremendous diversity of living things free of outside inputs. I want a broad, strong community to find communion in the space and products of the farm. How the heck do I accomplish this fantastic ambition?
We need a deep, wide-ranging plan so this 1,000 mile journey can be taken in little, daily steps. As you may have suspected, we have been working for the last two years on just such a plan.
Next up: Building the Road as We Walk It