What does sustainability mean and other questions

John Oncken
Thirty-five years ago the UN coined the term sustainability as the ability to meet the needs of today, without compromising the next generations' ability to meet their needs. Multi-family, multi-generation farms are doing just that.

Readers of this column seem to like to ask questions. Here are a couple recent queries.

Sustainability has been the watchword in agriculture for several years. The problem is, just what does it mean? Ask any 10 people and you will probably get 10 different answers.

The national dairy checkoff group, Dairy Management Inc., in a recent podcast attempted to provide a logical answer of what the buzzword sustainability means. To address the query, two guests – Dan Peerless who leads sustainable sourcing for the Nestle Co. and Heather Oldani, executive vice president of corporate communications at Dairy Management Inc. were interviewed by Dairy Farmer hosts Alex Peterson, Missouri and J Shipp.

Dan Peerless

“I’m the global sustainable sourcing lead for dairy, meat, poultry, and eggs,” Peerless says. “The main responsibility of that on paper is to define what a responsibly sourced ingredient in those categories is for Nestle. So that includes environmental aspects, human rights, animal welfare, all combined together into one definition. So I monitor and report against that progress. We have a commitment and have established new definitions for this last year. So, they’re a little more robust than the previous ones. And so we sort of reset our commitment to have 100% of our supply chain considered responsibly sourced by 2030. We do have our standards and, sort of practices that we put in place. First of all, it’s important to recognize that Nestle is at its heart, really an agricultural company. But t we don’t own land, and we don’t farm directly.

Some people think being a big farm means the operation is unsustainable. Wrong.

"Seventy plus percent of our footprint of our greenhouse gas footprint comes from the ingredients that we buy. So that’s what we call scope. So I think for us, that’s a really long winded way of saying that sustainability is using our resources and our ability to support the supply chain to align with our commitments and goals. So it is bringing the farmers along and ensuring their viability to meet these environmental human rights, animal welfare types of goals," Peerless added.

Peterson asked Oldani to define sustainability. “As you’ve clearly heard from Dan, sustainability is important to our customers, whether they are global or domestic customers. We know it’s an increasingly important topic for them as they set their own goals,” she said. “But when I take a step back, our overall mission as the checkoff user is to build sales and trust for dairy. And when we look at year over year in the marketplace and the trends that are guiding consumer behavior that are guiding consumer beliefs about dairy and other products, we have seen historically, that sustainability continues to grow in importance for them and this dates back to 2008.”

“So over a decade when we saw that sustainability was rising in importance in global conversations and countries setting goals and pledges and we said, 'You know what? US dairy and specifically dairy farmers need to be a part of this conversation'. And frankly, we need to probably set the record straight on what US dairies' overall contributions are to environmental footprints to climate change," Oldani continued. "And so we invested in research at that time to do just that, to set the record straight to say that as an industry, we have a footprint. But guess what, it’s only 2% of the total GHG footprint that is out there as an entire industry from farm all the way through."

Sustainability also means maintaining proper nutrient levels to keep soils healthy for years to come.

Oldani said DMI did a full LCA assessment which enabled them to start the conversation.

"You know what? We own the 2%, but here’s what we’re doing. And here’s what dairy farmers have been doing for hundreds of years on their farms every day, to ensure that they leave their farm sustainable for the next generation. And going back to the earlier question, I actually was curious as to when the term sustainability was actually coined. And so I did a little bit of digging, and it went back to 1987, I believe when the UN actually coined sustainability as the ability to meet the needs of today, without compromising the next generations ability to meet their needs. “

I like the meaning of sustainable to be Truthfully, I know of only one dairy that I'd call unsustainable: Our next door neighbor who was a full-time welder for a local industry seemed to never use fertilizer, planted crops weeks too late, was letting his barn fall down around the cows and could live in only one room of the many roomed house. Everything was a mess and remains so 50 years later. Now – that's unsustainable!

I'd like the word sustainable to mean: maintaining the land and leaving it better than you found it after the farm moves to a new owner.

Raising tobacco requires lots of hands working hard and putting in long days.

Don't do it!

From a phone call from A.A. ”I read about raising tobacco in Wisconsin. I'd like to do so in Minnessota. How do I get started?

My simple answer is “Don't do it.” Unless you come to Wisconsin and work for an established tobacco grower and buy needed equipment. Unlike most farm crops tobacco requires lots of hand labor done on a precise schedule.

Starting the crop comes from seed raised in beds or plants bought wholesale, planted by 2 or 4 people riding a special machine. After growing about four feet tall, the plants are hand chopped, strung onto lathes and hung in a special shed to dry. About Thanksgiving time the plants are taken from the shed, leaves stripped and bundled and delivered to the buyer.

Growing, harvesting and curing tobacco is hard, labor intensive work.

It's a process learned by experience, not from a book. That's why I say “don't start.” Besides a wide assortment of tobacco products are for sale. That's cheaper and more practical. I know because I spent many days in the tobacco field as a youth and know from experience.

John F. Oncken is at