Sustainable Agriculture’s Values Help Us in Times of Cultural Crisis
By Carol L. Williams, Executive Director, Southern SAWG
I’m honored to give the inaugural contribution to the new op-ed section of the Southern SAWG Digest. Guests from our board, staff and constituency will offer contributions in future editions. Here, I’d like to reflect on sustainable agriculture as antidote to our current cultural turmoil.
Farming, like most occupations, can’t happen in a social vacuum. Perhaps more so than other occupations, being a successful farmer requires a large number and variety of supporting relationships among people with expertise in a wide array of specialties. These include advisors, salespersons and service providers in financing and accounting, pest controls and fuels, certifications, veterinary care, labor, marketing and sales, farmer learning and education, equipment and repairs, federal and state programs, Cooperative Extension and outreach organizations, and farm succession planning, to name just a few. Successful farming also requires the emotional and psychological support of family, friends, neighbors and an appreciative nation. Unfortunately, mental health among experienced farmers and traditional farming communities is succumbing to economic stressors and the effects of loss and isolation. Depression, suicide and illicit drug use are at epidemic levels among these strongholds of family values (see, The Farmer’s Mind, in Psychology Today).
Connectedness and community are also essential for young farmers, new farmers, veterans entering agriculture after service to their country, historically-disadvantaged farmers, urban farmers, those on relatively small acreages, and those seeking regenerative goals— whether or not they’re certified organic producers. Simply put, sustainable agriculture cannot exist without community. It requires interconnectedness among people, soil, economies, climate, plants and animals, and fosters these bonds at the same time.
Any holistic definition of sustainable agriculture must embrace equality and fairness— among people, across generations, and from place-to-place. Sustainable agriculture calls for sharing of knowledge and know-how among peers and between generations. And, there can be no sharing without caring—for each other, for the land. In this regard too, we have social crisis in agriculture: broken connections between generations on farms, broken connections between people and the land, and broken systems of land tenure. Epidemic rates of land loss are now occurring among Southern black families with severe consequences to wealth, empowerment and identity (see, Kicked Off the Land).
At its core, sustainable agriculture is about values, those that are life-affirming, ecology-honoring, environment-protecting, and supporting of human and animal welfare and dignity. These values are the common ground for farmers and ranchers across the sustainability spectrum. These values offer hope for repair of the broken places in our food systems, in our communities and beyond. These values must be passed to future generations and encouraged in our wider world—our fractured and increasingly divisive world.
As believers in the values of sustainable agriculture are we individually and collectively prepared to resist divisiveness, to help heal fractures? I cannot prescribe the means by which any individual can or should practice sustainable agriculture. Likewise, I cannot say what any individual can or should do to help repair breaches to our collective humanity. As for me, I seek to be an instrument for greater sustainability in agriculture, and thus the well-being of the wider world, in whatever way I can and have the courage to do. I’m compelled to urge others to do the same. Through our individual, intentional expression of sustainable agriculture’s core values we have the surest safeguard for the integrity of the whole.