I recently had the opportunity to escape the daily responsibilities of adult life and go back to college for a couple of days. My business partner Darren Benson and I attended a two day short course on Sustainable Agriculture at Colorado State University sponsored by Niman Ranch.
Sustainability is a buzzword in everything from company mission statements to t-shirts these days. When we first learned about the opportunity, we thought the trip would be a fun escape from our daily grind where we could learn more about a social topic that seems to be of growing importance in the meat business.
We expected the typical business event: show up, listen to presentations, gain a few pearls of wisdom, network over dinner and have some fun. Quite the opposite was true. For industry leader Niman Ranch, educating others on topic and how it directly relates to our businesses meant presenting an intensive two day Masters level program covering sustainability from the eco-system to animal production systems. We unequivocally felt like we were back in school!
Topics were approached from an academic perspective, in collaboration with Kraig Peel, PhD., Professor Animal Sciences Department at CSU and director for the Western Center for Integrated Resource Management. Dr. Peel engaged experts from the CSU staff to develop the curriculum which included a combination of classroom lectures and hands-on lab experiences. Dr. Robert G. Woodmansee, Professor at the Department of Rangeland Ecosystem Science, Senior Scientist – Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Dr. Joe Brummer, a soil and crop sciences specialist and Dr. Jay Parsons, an agricultural production economist and risk management specialist were all part of the teaching team.
We were also given homework in preparation for the event. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World by Brian Walker and David Salt and numerous other pre-course white papers were assigned for reading.
A group of parts that operate together for a common purpose or function is an ecosystem. For example, a football team has many players each with a specific role that all must work together to win the game.
In agriculture, a farm is an ecosystem that provides a living to the farmer and her family. In order for the farm to persist, the farmer must preserve the capability of the land he/she depends on to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Ecosystems are all around us, from microbiology to the Earth itself.
We learned that many of the problems we have today with greenhouse gasses, global warming, extreme flooding and vaster wildfires are largely due to a lack of sustainable resilience thinking in historical ecosystems. We also learned these types of problems are all solvable. Desired sustainable ecosystems can be created through coordinated efforts between science, management and policies. In other words, getting people with diverse self-interests to talk to each other is key.
Governmental policies are often made to solve an immediate problem for society by politicians solely interested in re-election by that society. When these policies are made without regard for the larger societal landscape, undesired future problems can occur.
An example of this can be made on the water management policies in the Florida Everglades. While their policies were put in place with good intentions to solve one problem, they unexpectedly created a new problem of cattails taking over the natural flora, which ultimately harmed the wildlife and food chain several years later. Other examples include the Farm Bill and government subsidies designed to help one group of society yet negatively impacting other parts.
It will be interesting to see how the governmental polices related to Fracking will play out with regard to our needs for oil versus food. Hopefully, there will be earnest coordination between the political, governmental and social communities to develop sustainable and resilient policies with regard to fracking.
The best sustainable development practices plan ahead for seven future generations.
The second day we went to the CSU Agricultural Research, Development and Education Center (ARDEC) to study animal production systems in the U.S. and how Risk Management strategies in agriculture are employed.
The facility provides a wealth of opportunity to conduct investigations on agricultural problems using a coordinated and integrated approach of multi-disciplinary expertise. Such problems may include the entire system of agriculture from inputs (land, water, genetic materials) through production, to value added processing.
ARDEC provides faculty, staff, students, agricultural producers, processors, agribusiness representatives, natural resource managers, governmental agencies and others with the opportunity to participate in work conducted on-site with live systems. We toured live animal operations and learned about the ways family ranchers can employ the sustainable thinking concepts on their own family farms.
Our program concluded with the Risk Navigator simulator – it was like a flight simulator for farming. We broke up into groups, and each group had to run a simulated farm for five years. We made simulated production decisions and then saw the impacts of our decisions extremely quickly on the ecosystem, animals and ultimately, the bottom line. We had to raise cattle, grow hay, corn and other crops, practice crop rotation to preserve the soil, and cow/calf operations to preserve the herd. The simulator also threw us unexpected curve balls like drought, too much rain and disease throughout our simulation period.
It was just like being in a flight simulator. Some of us crashed and burned our farms, making fast money in the beginning but ultimately losing money or going bust in the long run by consuming the natural resources to fast. Others did exceptionally well by taking advantage of sustainable concepts and risk management strategies.
I’m proud to say that my group’s simulated farm survived and made a small profit, but I think it was mostly by accident. I personally gained a new appreciation for farmers’ life work, and just how hard they have to work make a living and preserve the farm for future generations.
Going back to college made me realize several things. First, how much I miss it! (How great would it be to have the priorities of a twenty year old again – just going to class and parties?) I also realized how much we take our natural resources for granted in today’s world of immediate gratification, quarterly earnings and politics.
I wish everyone could have the opportunity to fully understand the scope of sustainability and see it for more than just a buzzword.