Posted by: J Nyman | August 23, 2008

The Sustainability Equation: Calculating Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture refers to the ability of a farm to produce food indefinitely, without causing irreversible damage to ecosystem health. Two key issues are biophysical (the long-term effects of various practices on soil properties and processes essential for crop productivity) and socio-economic (the long-term ability of farmers to obtain inputs and manage resources such as labor).

– Sustainable Agriculture as defined by Wikipedia

Today, John and I were interviewed for a short video profile about our farm.  Hopefully, it will introduce us to more people who are looking for animal friendly, sustainable meat.

While Jennifer, our interviewer, was setting up her camera, we got to talking about sustainability.  We were trying to decide if our farm could truly be considered sustainable.

Pasture Buffet - Hard to see, I know, but on that wagon is freshly cut clover and grass.  Everyday, we bring it to the sheep and pigs so they can eat fresh without being eaten themselves.

Pasture Buffet - Hard to see, I know, but on that wagon is freshly cut clover and grass. Everyday, we bring it to the sheep and pigs so they can eat fresh without being eaten themselves.

Obviously, there is a point where a farm can clearly not be considered sustainable.  Genetically modified plants, chemical application with wild abandon, confinement housing for animals.  These are all pretty much unsustainable.  But there is a middle ground that is hard to pin down.

For example, there are farms that are widely celebrated for their sustainable farming practices where the farmers feed conventionally grown grain (in small quantities).

So, the farms feeding the grain are considered sustainable due to their animal welfare practices among other things but the farms growing the grain – spraying pesticides, herbicides etc… – are clearly not.

Where does that leave a farm like us?  We grow our own grain in a not completely organic fashion and feed it to our nature-imitating animals.

Photo Credit Leah Hennel/Calgary Herald (borrowed from the Ottawa Citizen website)
Photo Credit Leah Hennel/Calgary Herald (borrowed from the Ottawa Citizen website)

Speaking of nature-imitating, animal welfare issues surrounding housing are another a part of sustainability (or not).

Here at J. & C. Nyman Farms, we endeavour to raise pastured animals.  Our chickens are definitely pastured and we have yet (knock on wood) to have any threatened by wild life.  The sheep are another matter.

While we would love to have our sheep roaming the range in a truly pastured, nature-imitating way, it simply isn’t realistic considering the predator pressure in our area.  This spring, we even had to start closing the sheep in the barn at night, not just keeping them in the barnyard.  We lost 4 ewes, including our best mother hands down, right at the backdoor of the barn.

One could argue that being a coyote’s lunch is what would happen in nature and they’d be right.  This is where the grey area in sustainability can be clarified a little.

When thinking about whether we’re sustainable-enough (my neurosis about ‘not enough’, I know!), I often forget the second part of the definition.  We, as the people running the farm, have to be able to sustain ourselves so we can keep running the farm.  Otherwise, it won’t be sustainable, will it?  So, if the animals that we raise to sell are coyote food instead or if we choose to buy feed that is too expensive to recover the cost when selling the meat, we’re going to go out of business.  Not sustainable.  There needs to be a balance.

So, Jennifer, while standing next to our wagonload of green chop (read: pasture on a buffet), came up with a great equation.

Ideals + Reality = Sustainability

That made perfect sense to me at the time.  Since having pondered and writen about it here, I’d have to add something.

Ideals + Current Reality = Sustainability

I added the word ‘current’ because, as an example, we may not always have the predator pressure we do now.  We will also, one day, finish building superior sheep pasture fencing, best the steep learning curve regarding growing organic but not budget breaking crops and be done with the many capital expenditures that have kept John working off the farm to fund the farm.

Reality is always changing but if you strive for the ideal within the confines of the current reality, you’re likely to come out with something like sustainability.

So, are we a sustainable farm?  Absolutely.  More and more everyday, in fact.

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