Sustainability more than a word

As thousands of farm families demonstrate, sustainability is a way of life in Western agriculture.

Published on September 7, 2017 10:18AM

Albert and Eugenia Voss in the 1940s. Their Oregon farm was founded in 1853.

Courtesy of Jeannette Voss

Albert and Eugenia Voss in the 1940s. Their Oregon farm was founded in 1853.

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“Sustainable” is in the eye of the beholder. These days it appears almost everywhere, letting consumers know that, well, the producers are sustainable.

But what does that really mean? Is it one of those squishy words like “natural,” or does it have a tangible meaning?

One definition of sustainability we like is from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California-Davis.

“The goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” according to the program. “Practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity.”

That makes sense. If a farmer or rancher messes up the land, loses money and treats workers unfairly, he or she won’t last long in business.

Conversely, if a farmer or rancher is a good steward of the land, makes money and treats workers fairly, he or she will be in business a long time.

Over the years, we’ve found the vast majority farms and ranches to be sustainable by any measure. In the West, farm and ranch longevity is often measured not just in years or decades, but in generations. It is common to talk to farmers and ranchers who are the third, fourth or fifth generations on their family operations. We’ve lost track of how many individual farmers we’ve met who can measure their experience in decades. Having a half-century of farming experience is not all that unusual.

By our lights, they don’t need anyone to tell them they are sustainable. All they have to do is look at the family photographs to see how many generations have successfully operated on the same farm or ranch.

A couple of items we published during the past several weeks stand out in any discussion of sustainability.

The first was about a 164-year-old farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Joseph and Elizabeth Voss arrived in the Oregon territory from Wisconsin, covering the 2,000 miles by wagon train. They started their farm in 1853, six years before Oregon became a state. Since then, Voss Farm has raised a variety of crops, including cattle, sheep, grains, berries, fruits and Christmas trees.

The Vosses’ descendants, Jeannette Voss and Julie Edy, still operate the farm, growing cereal grains. It was honored this year as a Sesquicentennial Farm by the Oregon Century Farm and Ranch Program, a partnership of the Oregon Farm Bureau Foundation for Education, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Oregon State University Archives.

It is one of 39 sesquicentennial farms and 1,200 centennial farms recognized in Oregon.

Another item we noted was about a wheat farm in Eastern Washington. Marci and Lonnie Green operate Green View Farm Inc. near Fairfield, Wash. Marci is also vice president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. The caption on a photo about a media tour of the farm noted that their son, Jordan Green, is the seventh generation of farmers in the family. He and his brother, Derek, who’s still in college, are carrying on the family tradition on the 5,500-acre farm, which was homesteaded in 1878 by Rufus and Cordelia Kegley.

Yes, that’s seven generations, and in all likelihood, there will be more to come.

“We work hard to be environmentally sustainable and economically sustainable, too,” Marci Green said. “That’s what we strive for, is to have the opportunity for them to continue in farming.”

As the Vosses and the Greens — and more than 100,000 other Western farm families — demonstrate, sustainability is a way of life.


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