The phrase is gaining traction as farmers and ranchers work to do right by animals, the land and their agricultural heritage – and consumers, meantime, increasingly want to know where their food comes from and how it’s raised.
But what does “sustainable agriculture” really mean, and what are the critical production practices associated with the approach?
“It’s not just term to make people feel good about a purchasing decision,” said Kraig Peel, an assistant professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and director of the Western Center for Integrated Resource Management. “Sustainable agriculture refers to practices that can be carried into the future – so you’re improving the land, improving animal welfare, and improving producer profitability. The last point is important because we want farmers and ranchers to stay on the land, enjoy quality of life, and continue producing food.”
To promote the concept and specific sustainability production practices, Peel and colleagues with CSU’s Western Center for Integrated Resource Management are holding a first-time Sustainability Short Course this week for Niman Ranch, one of the nation’s best-known purveyors of high-quality natural beef, pork, lamb, eggs and prepared meats.
About four dozen employees and customers from across the country will attend the two-day training for Niman Ranch, which is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay area, with key operational offices in Denver. Niman Ranch sources its products from some 700 independent farmers and ranchers in the United States, and sells branded products to grocers and restaurants, including Chipotle Mexican Grill, Snooze an A.M. Eatery, Sprouts Farmers Market and Whole Foods Market.
“The ultimate goal is to think about sustainable agriculture and to formulate an expectation throughout our organizations, so we all start to have a common expectation about sustainable agriculture,” said Jeff Tripician, executive vice president for Niman Ranch.
Tripician said Niman Ranch has long valued humane animal agriculture and requires that suppliers adhere to well-defined protocols for natural production. After taking a class in sustainable agriculture at CSU, Tripician wanted to expand his company’s value system.
“We hope to foster an understanding of the complexity of sustainable agriculture, to understand what we do – and what we should do,” he said.
The Sustainability Short Course will draw from multiple scientific disciplines and will start from the ground up: with a focus on soils, water, carbon and nutrient cycles. That’s important, Peel said, because ecology is at the root of sustainability.
Course participants also will learn about animal production systems in the United States, as well as managing risk in agriculture; they’ll even learn about insurance and pricing tools.
Contributing to the short course will be faculty members from the CSU Departments of Animal Sciences, Soil and Crop Sciences, and Agricultural and Resource Economics.
“I hope our participants will have a better understanding of sustainable agriculture from the ground up, so they aren’t just selling a cut of meat but understanding what it takes to produce that cut of meat – and that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it,” Peel said. “This is a growing need and a growing concern.”
Among its educational programs, CSU’s Western Center for Integrated Resource Management offers a master’s degree in integrated resource management; an online option is available. For more information, visit www.wcirm.colostate.edu.