I have been a grandmother only a short time. Others told me about the wonders of grand parenthood, but like parenthood, second hand knowledge never quite approaches reality. For one thing, becoming a grandma has changed how I understand time.

When I was a child, days and weeks lingered. Months seemed endless. Years stretched close to eternity. Now that more of my life is behind me than what remains ahead of me, time flies by at the speed of light. Days, weeks and months pass in a blur. When I was young, I didn’t really believe the year 2000 would really ever exist. Suddenly, that millennial milestone is more than a decade in the past.

Becoming a grandmother, however, has changed my sense of time even more. Instead of looking back at my youth, I am more frequently looking forward beyond my own lifetime and thinking about what the world will be like for my beloved grandchildren. While I have spent my life seeking a way of living that is sustainable, my interest in the “future generations” has recently become personal.

For nearly 40 years, my husband, Terry, and I have farmed organically. We did it because we believed it was the right thing to do. We have grown grains and oil seeds, raised sheep and cattle and sometimes a couple of pigs and a few chickens. We stubbornly hung on through tough years and in spite of skeptical looks from our neighbors and derision from experts. We have enjoyed good years and have seen the exciting changes in consumer awareness of the way food is produced.

I think, however, we have not done enough for our grand children’s generation. The way we farm is not sustainable.

The definition of sustainable agriculture is a subject much debated. The media often asks if “organic” is more sustainable than “local.” Conventional agriculture seeks to define the term in ways that justify and defend current practices from criticism. We each look for scientific and statistical proof that what we are doing can be called “sustainable” as though it is a blue ribbon that we can stick on our product.

I don’t believe any of us get it. Agriculture cannot be sustainable unless it is part of a sustainable system. Organic agriculture has failed to achieve our goal of sustainability because we have not gone far enough. We have failed to work toward a sustainable economy, sustainable energy systems, sustainable distribution systems, and sustainable social systems. We separated those things from agriculture and thought we were doing enough by caring for the soil, avoiding chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, and growing good food.

In the early days of organic farming, buyers and farmers negotiated prices by sitting down together and openly discussing what each needed from their transactions. There were few enough farmers and buyers that everyone needed to be sure that the other side could survive. If farmers couldn’t make a living on what they were paid, the buyers would have nothing to sell. If the buyers and processors didn’t come out ahead, they would not be able to pay farmers or buy from them again.

Then the market grew. More farmers started growing organic crops. More buyers and processors competed for supplies and markets. Buyers and processors had more competition and needed to buy raw products at the lowest price possible to remain competitive and in business. Consumers, spoiled by cheap, subsidized foods, sought ever cheaper and more highly processed organic groceries. The organic movement basically abandoned their alternative model of capitalism. We were side tracked by the “bigger is better,” corporate profit, and extractive economic practices of the world around us.

Neither organic agriculture as we narrowly define it today, or any other current farming practice, is sustainable. We cannot continue to run our farms on fossil fuels, heat our homes by burning ancient carbon, ship our products around the world, and buy consumer goods that are manufactured with finite resources and then thrown away. An economic system that creates extreme wealth by exploiting people and the earth’s resources cannot continue. The future of the earth is dependent on the development of systems of economics, finance, energy, agriculture, transportation, education, and government which work together to recycle and reuse the resources we have left. Agriculture will only be sustainable when the rest of life is sustainable.

We haven’t gone far enough. We have gotten distracted by the glitter of short-term profit and comfort. We have dawdled too long. In a short 60 years, my grandchildren will be my age. They will be grandparents to beloved grandchildren. I know how quickly those years will fly by. We need to radically change how we do business and do it soon–for our grandchildren’s sake.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains