Sustainability: What it Means To a Family Farm

Farmer Lee Jones of The Chef's Garden shares his thoughts on sustainability.

Sunset over greenhouses at The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio.

'Sustainability' is one of those words used all over the place and everyone has their own interpretation. Even in agriculture, there’s no widely agreed upon definition, so I think everybody kind of has to create their own sustainable model. On the farm, we define sustainability to encompass three main components: environmentally friendly practices, social responsibility and economic viability. In recent years, we’ve emphasized a fourth, technology, which has a hand in affecting the others.


Environmentally Friendly

Sustainable agricultural practices evolved around leaving land in better condition for future generations. It took into consideration how you cared for the land.  From water erosion to wind erosion, there are ways to manage them using sustainable practices.  For example, if you have a hilly piece of land, water’s going to run down into the low spots, thus eroding the soil into ditches and gulleys, and you lose the land.  Sustainable practices guide us to plant strips of vetch or clover in low spots to hold the land in place.

As a kid, I can recall having to clean soil from the insides of the window sills in the winter from wind moving the top frozen layer and lifting it through the cracks in the window seals. Applying sustainable practices here, we can prevent some of that wind erosion by planting a cover crop in the fall.

There are so many practices to preserve the irreplaceable soil. Not to embrace them fully is irresponsible and shortsighted.

Visualize a plant as an antenna. Different types of plants accept different types of energy from the sun and deposit excess into the soil.  On the farm, we actually do lab analysis on the soil and plant crop specifically based on the deficiencies. It is our belief that God designed a system far superior to anything that we can mimic chemically or synthetically, so we rebuild nutrients naturally by planting cover crops and rotating the land. It’s really about working in harmony with nature rather than trying to outsmart it.


Socially Responsible

Social responsibility is the second component of sustainability, though it’s no less important. We have to think of what kinds of materials we’re using on the land. Is it going to stay in the ground? Will it be passed along to consumers? A very common pesticide that's typically used on corn grown on commercial farms never breaks down. You’re probably eating it in some form, and you will find traces of this chemical in your system. With the potential health hazards of consuming these chemicals, using these types of materials isn’t socially responsible and it’s not sustainable.

Fossil fuel usage and carbon footprint, and how they relate to planting, harvesting and distribution channels — these are all considerations that are still extremely important in sustainable agriculture. But sustainability must consider more than just the land. In our sustainable model, we're looking to preserve and rebuild the soil, and to prevent soil erosion and wind erosion, but we also need to consider the people committed to maintaining environmentally friendly and socially responsible agriculture.


Economic Viability

The third component of sustainability, the one that nobody likes to discuss because it’s the hardest to get our brain around, is that sustainable agriculture has to be economically viable. If we don’t consider real costs of business and we don’t price accordingly, we don't have a sustainable model.

I can go into nearly any restaurant in the United States and find produce in the coolers that the labor was paid $3 a day to harvest. We don’t have any $3 a day laborers here, nor do we want that — it’s not sustainable. We need to be competitive in our pay scales in order to recruit quality people to the farm. If we can’t pay a competitive wage, then it’s not realistic or fair to think that quality people would be willing to stay and work in agriculture. 

Is money the only issue? If it were then we probably wouldn’t have anybody, because it’s hard work and long hours; that’s just the nature of farming.  The people that are here have a core belief that sustaining agriculture and the family farm is important.

In addition, things like health insurance, hospitalization, vacation time, profit-sharing — these may not be as big a deal outside the realm of agriculture, but it's a stretch for a little family farm to offer them. We think valuing people is as important as the land; as important as the carbon footprint. Our sustainability is dependent on having quality people committed to stay and work on the farm.


Tying Things Together with Technology

The use of technology applies toward achieving each component of sustainability. We’re competing against farms that focus on producing cheap food as opposed to quality food, so we believe that it’s imperative to embrace technology. I know it’s kind of far fetched to think about when you’re talking about sustainable agricultural practices, but we believe embracing that technology is the key to a sustainable future in agriculture.

We must incorporate technology into any processes we can, including our food safety program with barcodes that track a product from seed to delivery. It’s about being smarter and more efficient and looking for ways to produce food-safe, quality ingredients in a more cost-effective way.

As technology continues to become more and more affordable, finding ways to apply this at the small family farm level will be imperative. That’s what’s going to entice more farmers to care for the land, attract more people to the industry and make sustainably grown, farm-fresh ingredients more readily available to the consumer.

Farmer Lee Jones is the co-owner of the The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio, a family-owned farm that practices sustainable farming of specialty vegetables for some of the country's most heralded kitchens. He was the first farmer ever to judge Food Network's "Iron Chef America."