Can Sustainability and Viability go Hand in Hand?

Last weekend a friend tagged me in a post, asking if I had heard about the group mentioned in this article. “SILT plants seeds for sustainable farms in area” is the headline of this article printed Nov. 13 by the The Daily Reporter.

Reporter Dana Larsen made many great points about how SILT can help veterans involved in farming transition back to stateside life. She also explains how the initiative for locally-raised food crops could help improve water quality and aid refugees. Many “hot buttons” were covered, including the lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Waterworks.

Many of the problems stated in this article are totally untrue! Honestly, many of the issues raised in this article and by the SILT organization have been created – and positioned – to make it look like there is a problem.

Because I’ve written before that we can’t take water issues at surface level, I followed my own advice and did a little more research on this organization and its approach to “sustainable farming.” I learned that SILT launched in January 2015 and boasts of having a “politically diverse” leadership: Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Water Works, which is suing Buena Vista and two other area counties over river water quality; Republican leader Jeff Kaufmann; and Okoboji native and organic livestock producer Kate Mendenhall. Does this leadership structure appear balanced?

Then I dug into the stipulations and requirements of SILT farmers. There are a lot! It left me wondering who can possibly live up to required sustainability guidelines and make a living. How can a farming operation be sustainable if isn’t financially viable?

“In general, for rural communities in Iowa there is no evidence that [farmers] markets create any real sustainable economic activity. The problem with the traditional farmer’s market model is that, while they are a nice social event for successful communities, for the growers they are seasonal, labor intensive and, in many cases, expensive to participate in. No doubt there have been additional economic opportunities, but… participation by the producers is likely more of an important marketing tool rather than an incoming-producing opportunity. In order to build an economically sustainable business model, producers must be able to capitalize on post-farmer’s market sales opportunities,” writes Shane Tiernan in a document about the opportunities and challenges of scaleable, locally-grown food enterprises in Iowa.

To assist local food enterprises, SILT shares resources for beginning farmers. This organization also plans to help match landowners like Mary Ellen Miller with potential producers like Kenn and Ashly Jenkins, who want to farm.

My guiding principle is honesty,” writes Kenn, an agronomy student at Iowa State University. “From being honest to what you do on your land and on the plants you’re going to sell to people to being honest about what you can produce before committing to more, and being honest to the land about what’s sustainable because you want it to be sustainable for generations.”

Another locally grown initiative underway is Global Greens Farm, a partnership with the City of Des Moines and Lutheran Social Services. This partnership allows refugees to supplement their income by planting a 50’ x 50’ plot of land. Advanced market farmers then move to a ¼-acre plot and receive training on crop production, business development and marketing. According to the program website,

“Our food is locally grown and chemical-free. Our food is certified naturally grown. We teach natural and sustainable farming methods and do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. All the seed we plant is non-GMO.”

Why? “Locally produced” by definition doesn’t require a crop to be GMO-free. It doesn’t require it to be certifiably organic either. Organic doesn’t mean the crop was grown without the use of chemicals, and organic foods are not any healthier than conventionally-produced foods. If SILT truly wants farmers to be economically viable, why are they insisting on farming methods like those practiced by small holder farmers in third world countries?

Sustainability is an ambiguous term that means different things to different people. What does sustainability mean to you? Let’s have a discussion!

I encourage you to look into this new organization and give me your opinion. Is this really the future of agriculture in Iowa? Will “sustainable” initiatives really solve all the problems this group believes are bad with the current farms? I think you know my thoughts, but if not, you can bet I will share more about this in a future blog!