Sustainable Agriculture

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By Richard H. Ruff

    There’s a new buzz-word going around in the country called sustainable farming.
    There can only be one definition of sustainable agriculture. The operator generates enough income to support a family off the land without off-farm income or farmer’s welfare while maintaining the soil fertility, the fences and keeping a young productive herd of livestock plus reducing his debt load.
    After bouncing around the farmers’ fields for 30 years it became obvious which operator was sustainable and who was hiding behind the farm to keep from getting a real job. Farming should not be a job, but a way to enjoy life while making a living comparable to our city cousins.
    The first thing that makes a farm sustainable is productive work, not busy work. Bedford County has 585 farmers who reported on the 2012 Ag-census that their principal occupation was farming, but only 85 reported gross sales in excess of $50,000 annually. This tells me that at least 500 full time farmers in the county can’t possibly be sustainable.
    Since it takes less than 10 hours of labor to produce a marketable calf, it makes one wonder what those 500 do all day. When Dave Kohl started teaching ag-economics at the “Cow College” a Corvette sold for $20,000 which equaled the average income for a family. Thanks to the Federal Reserve for devaluing the dollar, a Corvette sells for at least three times as much today.
    Is the net income off the farm that you reported to the IRS keeping up with inflation or have you squandered all of your excess capitol on “heavy metal,” fancy pickups, over sized tractors and shinny hay equipment which eat away at profit?  Farmers with the “new paint disease” usually have the most anemic pastures, crops, fences and livestock. A farmer who has cheated the soil bank to impress their neighbors with wants instead of needs will never have a sustainable operation.
    In 2012 I invested in 40 trailer loads of poultry litter that generated enough profit to purchase a $40,000 tractor that has yet to return anything on the investment. I was able to write off the tractor to save taxes, but it was no more than the tax break that the IRS gave me on the cost of the litter. The tractor is so nice that I catch myself doing a lot of unnecessary busy work in the air conditioned and heated cab while wasting $3.50 fuel.
    While riding the pickup around the area waiting for my broken leg to heal, it is obvious that too much time is spent in these fancy tractors while very little is spent building fences, spraying weeds, clearing brush or castrating, vaccinating and identifying calves.
    I don’t have to look at a farmer’s checkbook to tell how much money he’s making. The first thing I look at is the pasture. Is the whole farm fenced or is feed being harvested from the unfenced fertilized fields and transferred to a cow exercise lot that some folks call a pasture which has never seen any fertilizer or weed control?
    Another way to tell if a cattle operation is profitable is to count the number of calves on Mother’s Day. May is the month with the most productive grass when calves are generating profit off the tender grass and mama has the most milk. While that sold calf is making a stocker operator money in the valleys of Southwest Virginia his mama is getting fat generating no income until she calves again in late summer. I also observe how many green patches that are created by the urine to determine the stocking rate. Most folks think that the shorter the grass the more calves they will have to sell, but cows need something to eat to create big cow patties and heavy calves. The old saying is “take half the grass and leave half if you want to make a living marketing grass through livestock.” This philosophy will carry the cattle through a drought and a long way into the winter without feeding hay.
    The best advice I ever had about making a living farming was to watch the neighbor down the road who is successful, take his ideas to your operation and improve on them. I also learned a lot from those who sit around the country store and complain that they can’t make a decent living farming and then do just the opposite of what they do.
    If I learned nothing else while spreading fertilizer it was that the operator who cheated the soil or on genetics to pay for unnecessary equipment soon ended up having to find off farm income to support his “new paint disease.” With today’s cattle prices and the high cost of living expenses, if a farm isn’t generating a profit equal to the cost of a new Corvette it isn’t a sustainable operation.