Sustainable agriculture has grown beyond a fringe movement to a concept that is embraced by an increasingly diverse group of stakeholders. Although there are many positive aspects to this growth, the sustainable agriculture message has become somewhat diluted, in part through appropriation of the term by a broad array of special interest groups. The goal of the “Building Capacity and the Voice for a Stronger Sustainable Agriculture Movement” workshop at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s 21st Annual Farming for the Future Conference was to examine the current situation and craft an inclusive message to promote agriculture that is environmentally sound, profitable, and supports communities.

To address this issue, a panel of four leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement were asked for their thoughts on how the sustainable agriculture message can be strengthened.

Brain Halweil

The first panelist, Brian Halweil, is a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, where he co-directs the Nourishing the Planet project and writes on the social and ecological impacts of food production, focusing on organic farming, biotechnology, hunger and rural communities. Halweil also chronicles food communities in and around New York City and edits Edible East End and works on other Edible Communities publications from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and orchard and raise oysters. “Above all,” Halweil stressed, “we need to get beyond the negatives (e.g., certain practices or types of farms are bad) and focus on the positive aspects of sustainable agriculture.” According to Halweil, “The issue is not black and white, we need to be inclusive and move away from extremes. We need a more nuanced message about incremental change. We need to provide farmers and consumers with realistic and concrete steps that they can implement into their lives to help them to transition to a more sustainable behavior.” As an editor of Edible East End, Halweil finds that it is effective to present a message that balances hedonism (delicious, local, sustainably-produced food) with environmental and community consciousness to entice readers to think about the benefits of a more sustainable agriculture to both the individual and for the local community.

Stacy Miller

The second panelist, Stacy Miller, is the Executive Director of the Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening farmers markets across the United States so that they can serve as community assets while providing real income opportunities for farmers. The mission of FMC is “to strengthen farmers markets for the benefit of farmers, consumers, and communities.” Miller works with managers, farmers, economic developers, and others in the farmers market sphere to cultivate an environment of sharing: ideas, assessment tools, success stories, obstacles, and other resources. She stressed the importance of having farmers tell their stories, emphasizing: “We need to get the word out about our shared values of traceability, trust, diversity and capacity in the sustainable food system. Farmers markets are an ideal place for farmers to share their stories with customers because they bring together and balance product, people, place and process. Farmers markets put a human face of the food production process.” Farmers can be leaders and speak beyond “the choir” in other forums, for example public health conferences. She also strongly believes that the sustainable agriculture community should deliver its message with humility and humor. Said Miller: “We need to be self-critical, self-disciplined, and dedicated to continuous improvement.”

Scott Exo

The third panelist was Scott Exo, who at the time was Executive Director of the Food Alliance, based in Portland, OR. Since 1998, the Food Alliance has operated a voluntary certification program based on standards that define sustainable agricultural practices. Farms, ranches and food processors that meet Food Alliance’s standards, as determined by a third-party site inspection, use Food Alliance certification to differentiate their products, strengthen their brands, and support credible claims for social and environmental responsibility. Exo agreed with the other panelists in the need to keep the message positive. He pointed out the special need to spread the sustainability message to and motivate mid-sized farms, which he believes are more stressed than small and large farms. According to Exo, “Mid-size farms and ranches are declining because they are too small to be served well by commodity markets and too large to be served well by direct markets. These farms and ranches can prosper by producing and selling high-quality, differentiated food products.” Exo also suggested that sustainable agriculture organizations need to leverage resources from institutions and agencies, e.g., NRCS and land grant universities, because they are viewed as authorities by conventional farmers.

Steve Warshawer

The final panelist to speak was Steve Warshawer, the owner of MT Enterprises and the Enterprise Development Manager for La Montanita Cooperative, an Albuquerque based, 4 store consumer owned grocery chain. Warshawer founded and operates Beneficial Farms CSA, and Mesa Top Farm, utilizing the latest techniques for soil and water conservation, green energy production, and direct marketing. He also founded a collaborative and pooled marketing and distribution system of premium eggs and vegetables under the name Beneficial. He coordinates the Food Safety committee at the Wallace Center and is a member of the New Mexico Cattlegrower’s Association and the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. According to Warshawer, “The most important thing is to never demonize another farmer. We need to take a ‘what can I learn’ attitude of sincere interest, rather than a ‘why don’t you’ attitude. We learn more from people that we disagree with than from people who agree with us.” He warned the audience, “Don’t judge, it’s very hard to take constructive criticism from someone who is judging you.” Most farmers do what they do to survive in a very difficult business. Warshawer thinks the focus of conversation with farmers and ranchers should focus on the customer. Most producers care about their customers and want to help their customers get what they want. The panelists agreed with Warshawer when he said, “Each small change can have a ripple effect that contributes to sustaining land, communities, and farms.”

Posted: August 28, 2012 at Penn State Extension