The word “sustainability” has become a buzz word, but the truth is, sustainability is not simple. For farmers and ranchers, it looks different farm to farm, crop to livestock. While the specifics depend on who you ask, the definition of sustainability revolves around four key areas: soil, air, water and habitat.

There is a significant number of family farmers in Missouri that are fifth, sixth, even seventh generation farmers. To them sustainability is in their blood; it’s not a buzz word but a way of life.

A recent American Farm Bureau Morning Consult poll of nearly 2,000 registered voters found 75 percent of respondents said they were more likely to say modern agriculture is sustainable with the knowledge that a common goal among farmers and ranchers is to leave the land in better shape for the next generation. Likewise, 72 percent said they were more likely to say modern agriculture is sustainable with the knowledge that many farms and ranches have operated for generations.

The trust people place in farmers is reinforced when they understand what’s happening on farms and get to know farmers.

The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) released its first-ever sustainability report on the agriculture industry this spring. The report demonstrates how farmers and ranchers seek out and implement best practices to manage natural resources and produce food efficiently. Built on key insights from USFRA’s annual research, the report finds consumers best understand sustainability on the farm when farmers illustrate how they are improving the water, soil, air and habitat on their farms.

Farmers use many tools to increase sustainability: GMOs, no-till, terracing, pesticides, grassed waterways and antibiotics are a few that have made great strides in sustainability a reality on Missouri farms.

Indeed, the numbers in the research report are significant and tell a similar story across commodities, nationally.

  • The dairy industry has accomplished a 65 percent reduction in water use, 90 percent less land usage, 76 percent manure reduction and 63 percent smaller carbon footprint in the last 70 years.
  • In the past 50 years, the pork industry has seen a 41 percent reduction in water usage per pound of pork, 78 percent decreased land usage and 35 percent decrease in carbon emissions.
  • Since the 1980s, corn has seen soil loss per bushel decrease 68 percent, greenhouse gas emissions decrease 36 percent, energy use decrease 44 percent and yields rise by 64 percent.

Farmers and ranchers have been working to be more sustainable while being more productive and efficient every year for decades. They haven’t been led down this path by activists or the food industry or consumers, but all three of those groups should understand their demands can affect how farmers and ranchers grow food. Sometimes those demands mean the difference between a sustainable practice and a less sustainable practice. Farmers are adept at growing food in ways that reflect the most sustainable path on their farms. They were sustainable before it was cool to be that way.