Sustainable – More than meets the eye

McDonald’s recently announced that they would commit to buying sustainable beef by 2016. Additionally, meat processor JBS recently introduced more sustainable hamburger with Wal-Mart in Brazil. When one hears these stories they question what do they mean by sustainable? Commonly when people talk sustainability they think “green”, if it’s green it is good for the environment – it must be sustainable. However the concept of sustainability encompasses more than just the environment and its natural resources. Fellow UNL Extension Educator, Jessica Jones, at Insights for Sustainability, and I invite you to explore what sustainable means to you.

Sustainable? I think it is safe to say we all think we know what sustainable means. Does your definition include green, healthy, organic, or all-natural? What about stable, viable, generational, profitable?  According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, sustainability is defined as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (International Institute for Sustainable Development).

People need natural, financial, and human resources to meet their needs. Natural resources help to meet our basic needs like air, water, food, and shelter. Financial resources in our society provide us the ability to buy needed goods and services. While human resources provide us knowledge needed to meet our needs and the social interaction needed in our lives. These resource types form the three components necessary for sustainability: environmental, economic, and social.

To think about sustainability one must think about the world in which we live as a system that includes intertwined environmental, economic, and social parts that interact. The goal of being sustainable is having a healthy system which functions infinitely without detrimental changes to its health. Preserving the system’s health means protecting the quality and quantity of the natural resources, providing opportunities for people to prosper, and growing vibrant and resilient communities.

Below are three examples of farm and ranch families continuing to work towards sustainability. 

Kelli Loos, 5th generation rancher

Kelli Loos: As a fifth generation rancher, sustainability is important for our family and has been for years. While the term and its definition are often controversial, they take on different meanings depending on the particular agenda of the person you are talking to.

I don’t think that regulations and government infringement on personal property rights are the way to achieve real sustainability. I believe that since the day ranchers built fences and had to feed their cattle on the grass inside their fence, they have been continually working to improve that natural resource. As a kid I remember the hours we spent with Dad in our pastures chopping musk thistle and cedar trees to keep our pastures clean and able to grow good grass because we had a neighbor that didn’t control his weeds. My Dad carefully managed the moving of the cattle so no area was never over-grazed. He wanted to make sure that grass would come back even better the next year. While I probably didn’t understand at the time why he was so meticulous about these practices, it all makes sense now. He wanted to make sure that the land was better when he passed it to his kids than it was when he got it from my Grandpa.

Pasture management is much the same but also very different than it was 100 years ago. As stewards of the land, we continue to learn and develop the tools we have to make the best use of our resources not only for the short-term but for years into the future. Thanks to careful management, many ranchers have been able to maintain their cow herds even through drought years because they have planned ahead and developed strategies to address these challenges of Mother Nature. It is not just our way of life, it is our living and our legacy. It means that much to us!

Ranchers aren’t the best stewards of their God-given natural resources because of any law or government program. They do it so that the land and legacy they pass on to their children is one that will continue for generations that far outlive them.

Kelli’s parents and her daughters.

Lacey – both her Mom and Dad came from farming and cattle families.

Lacey Heddlesten: Sustainability is a fantastic “trendy” word that is being heavily used in the marketing industry in this day and age. However, when you ask a farmer or rancher what that word means, you might get various responses, but they all boil down to one common theme. It’s our way of life; it’s just what we do. Coming from a multi-generational farming operation in Western KS, Lindsay asked me to write a little bit for her blog about sustainability.  I feel as though I’m one of those “lucky kids”, I grew up with farming all around me as far as the eye could see. Both sides of my family (Mom and Dad) were involved in farming and cattle operations, both were multi-generational, going into the 4th generations. Both sides of my family have changed with the times when they deemed it necessary, but the core values of what the farm was founded on, and the type of work ethic, financial responsibility and moral obligation to uphold that Farmer’s code has never changed. 

Being raised the way I was, has 100% affected the person I am today.  I’ve seen my share of family farms disappearing around our area as well, so how did my family survive this trend of family farms drying up? How were they able to be “sustainable”?  These are my thoughts. Although, it seems farmers and cattleman get a bad rap in social media as being a bunch of rednecks wearing overalls and sideways caps and a piece of straw in their mouth, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Well maybe the overall part (right Grandpa?).  Farmers in this day and age that are part of a multi-generational farming operation have mastered the art of sustainability. Farmers are individuals with incredible passion for what they do, and they are 100% aware that the agricultural industry has no choice but to be sustainable in order to make the world go round, in order for life to continue to survive and thrive. Farmers have to be incredible businessman to maintain their farms through the years of extreme hardship, because not every year do they end up “in the black”.  They have to be able to stretch a dollar to where it needs to be. They have to be able to make their own decisions and not rely on others to do that for them.  Farmers do look out for #1, but you can bet your life’s savings that if you were in need, they would be right there to help you out too. The network that a farmer builds within his or her lifetime is a big one, and a tight one.

These are just a few of the “big” points that have made my family’s farm “sustainable”.  Now, I will admit, I’m not currently out working on the farm alongside my mom and dad, but I can tell you I’m still in the agriculture industry, I’m still applying those lessons learned to my current job.  And I’m currently working like hell to get my family moved back out to the farm so my son and daughter can be raised in that “farming community” just as I was.

Wheat Harvest 2013 040 (2)
Wheat harvest in Western Kansas featuring four generations!

Getting my hands dirty with a little gardening.

 Lindsay Chichester: In my personal definition of sustainable, I would certainly include the word generational. The ranch I was born and raised on in Northern California has been in my family since the early 1900’s! My sister and I are the 4th generation, while neither of us live there now, I know we will continue the tradition. While many things have changed over the years, like fences, facilities, efficiency of waterways, and the kind and type of livestock raised, there are some things that have not changed. Those things are work ethic, family values, responsibility, and resource management. A 15 hour work day was not uncommon; dinner at the table as a family was expected; feeding and caring for your livestock before you ate was the norm; conserving water, responsibly applying pesticides when needed, and managing livestock grazing systems were essential traits to learn as stewards of the land.

While I worked harder than most kids growing up, could beat most of the boys at arm wrestling, and regularly had manure on my shoes I would not change a thing. It was and still is a wonderful lifestyle and I hope to raise my children with the same ethics and values, as well as love and responsibility to the land and the livestock instilled in me on the family ranch.

Wedding Photos3 134
Family photo on my wedding day. Nothing more scenic that an outdoor wedding at the family ranch.

I hope these examples have provided you with a wider viewpoint of sustainability – maybe sustainability from 10,000 feet? It is more than just a buzzword for local, green, or natural, but also includes family, values, generations, and stewards of the land. Next time you see a farmer or rancher, see what sustainability mean to them. I think it may surprise you!


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