Sustainability — it’s a word you have heard more often in the past decade. Within the last two years a mention can be found several times in every edition of this publication.
But what is sustainability?
It’s farming, Prairies-style.
As a capital-intensive business with inconsistent returns and oft-needed recapitalization, prairie farming is almost exclusively a multi-generational, family business. The barriers to entry are so high that new operators from outside can’t get in. Finding investors willing to forgo regular, competitive financial returns is difficult except for relatives already tied to the land and for specialized lenders.
Farming’s very existence is based on the principles of sustainability. Otherwise it couldn’t have gotten this far.
Sustainability is more than a word in agriculture. It’s a book. The ability to pass a farm to the next generation or keep it operational at all is different for every part of society that claims an interest.
Consumers — our fellow citizens and taxpayers — are looking for sustainability in terms of an environment that is not degraded and that treats animals well, though not at the expense of higher food costs or increased taxes.
In exchange for farmers’ abilities to meet these needs, however they may be defined and measured on a sliding scale, farmers will be allowed to continue their businesses with limited public policy interventions and over-regulation.
Sustainability to the commodity buyers means that producers are always available to sell into the market at the current price, independent of their costs of operations. These buyers will absorb some short-term price volatility but not for long because their investors often lack the flexibility that can be found at the primary producer’s level.
This also applies to transporters and food processors. They too can feel the pinch when consumers choose to shift their habits in the face of higher prices or inconsistent supplies.
It all leads back to the farm and the public perception that farmers are traditionalists and are often slow to change, in part due to their multigenerational structures.
Yet nothing is further from the truth. Farmers are constantly embracing change and adapting to it. They have had no choice.
As price takers with limited risk management abilities, they are required to take on inflexible capital responsibilities, the kind typically limited to larger-scale operations such as mines, transportation infrastructure or factories. The latter entities generally are able to amortize those costs over less than a single generation.
Today’s farmers would consider themselves fortunate to fully pay for their land during an average career.
For prairie farmers, just reaching milestones such as 2007, when a series of the 15 worst price and production years since settlement were behind them, shows how they were able to adapt and remain sustainable.
Grain farm size grew 40 percent and livestock herds in some cases doubled, all while producers were simultaneously adopting new grazing techniques, reduced tillage and continuous cropping and boosting barn sizes and technology.
In any other industry, a shift in technology and size of that magnitude is referred to as step-change. In prairie agriculture, it is just farming. To the rest of the world, it should be called sustainability.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.