The concept of sustainable agriculture, a movement that emerged in the late 1980s, continues to evolve. Sustainable agriculture was addressed by Congress in the 1990 Farm Bill, but a definition easily understood by consumers and producers remains elusive. As the term becomes more used by the media and interested parties, perceptions about sustainable agriculture become more diverse and confusing.
A host of third-party certification programs has sprung up that will verify a farmer’s "sustainability," and there is growing interest by retailers to promote "sustainability" in the produce department.
The Good Fruit Grower recently asked growers what sustainability means to them.
"To me, sustainability means controlling my business in an economically viable way that allows future generations to take over," said Guelich of Omak, Washington. "To be sustainable requires consistent labor," he said, adding that the majority of costs involved with tree fruit production evolve around the escalating cost structure of labor. Costs of petroleum-based products are also escalating, he added.
As profit margins continue to erode, he believes that industry must find some way to partner with the retail side. "I don’t see the devaluation of the dollar or economic stimulus helping our industry," he said, noting that growers are working to be more efficient and are renovating orchard systems.
The 2008 season was the first year that Guelich, who grows 200 acres of apples, pears, and cherries, was certified organic for some of his crop. "There was no additional margin for organics this past season," he said. "I love farming, and love the lifestyle," but he wonders if his two sons will be able to be involved in the future. That’s the real test of sustainability, he concluded.
Sustainability equates to profitability and being able to continue farming in the next generation, said Lyall of Grandview. Lyall grows Concord grapes, apricots, cherries, and apples in the lower Yakima Valley and in Mattawa.
"I look upon agriculture as the conversion of hydrocarbon into food," he said, adding that the price that farmers pay for petroleum-based products drives everything—labor, mechanization, fertilizer, chemicals. "Nitrogen and petroleum energy is the currency of farming. In the long term, if Americans continue spending more for energy than the rest of the world, then U.S. agriculture will decline." He believes that a cap and trade system for carbon credits would be disaster for the tree fruit industry.
Lyall notes that the irony of the sustainable movement is that a farm in existence for five years can go through a certification program to be deemed "sustainable," and yet a farm that has continued for more than 50 years may not be considered "sustainable."
Methow Valley, Washington
Fourth-generation family farmer Stennes believes that the availability and cost of good farmland is quickly becoming the biggest barrier to agriculture sustainability. Stennes oversees production of 250 acres of pears, cherries, apples, plums, and pluots for Stennes Orchards in the Methow Valley, Pateros, and Okanogan. The Stennes family has been growing tree fruit in the Methow and Okanogan valleys of Washington since the 1890s. About 60 percent of their production is now certified organic and sold under the label of Cascade Crest Organics.
"The districts we farm in attract large numbers of tourists year round, and that is leading to the reality of many vacation homes along the rivers where tree fruit used to thrive," Stennes said. "With the option of selling high-priced lots, growers have less incentive to keep their land in an agricultural use."
Stennes added that as the U.S. population increases—it is expected to double in the next 90 years—there will be conflict between having land to house people and having land to feed them. "Owning farmland will prove to be a smart investment in the future," he said.
The continued availability of labor is the most important issue to the future sustainability of tree fruit, said McLaughlin of AgriMACS, Inc., an agricultural management and consulting service managing about 2,000 acres of tree fruit and grapes in Washington State’s north central and Columbia Basin regions. The company also leases and owns about 150 acres of tree fruit.
"About 60 to 70 percent of our input costs are labor," McLaughlin said, adding that the company keeps about 40 key employees year round and hires up to 1,500 seasonal workers to prune, thin, and pick. "Our biggest fear is if the electronic verfication of workers is enforced. We are in big trouble then."
In the late 1990s, he worked for a large financial company with investments in tree fruit production that wanted to electronically verify the legality of its work force at hire. "It nearly shut us down. We had eight properties with no employees. We eventually got word back out that verification would not be done, but it almost screwed up the entire harvest."
He agreed that the term "sustainable" is difficult to define to the consumer. Farmers are the ultimate stewards of the land, he said.
Michael defines sustainability as "the ability to remain in the industry and remain profitable," and said one of the keys will be to have an adequate labor force available. "If we don’t resolve that, nothing else matters."
Also important in keeping growers profitable is the continued ability to sell fruit, particularly internationally, he said. "If our production is going to continue to grow, our markets have to continue to grow."
Michael said there appear to be some good marketing opportunities around the world.
"The number of people in China and India alone who have joined the middle class in the last ten years is something in the order of 200 million people. Somebody needs to be there to provide them with the things they want, and that needs to be us.
"The other things we deal with—like regulatory issues—we can deal with those," he added.
"The rules will continue to change and we can adapt. We can live with just about anything that gets thrown at us. But we can’t adapt to an inadequate labor supply, and we can’t sell to inadequate markets."
Gebbers Farms was founded by Gebbers’ great-grandfather Dan Gamble a century ago. "I think we are sustainable now," he said. "If you’re surviving to this date, you are pretty sustainable."
It’s a goal of the family to have future generations carry on the business. A fifth generation of the family is working in the company now, but Gebbers expects that family succession will be one of the challenges to its sustainability in the future.
Another key to sustainability is ensuring that your product is viable for your buyers and is competitive not only with tree fruits from other regions or countries but with other foods that consumers might buy instead, Gebbers said.
"Are we going to produce the variety and quality of product that’s viable and sustainable, that reaches out worldwide to all of our customers? Hopefully, we’ve been progressive enough to update varieties, equipment, and technology to keep pace with our customers