Why Sustainable Farming is So Critical to Our Future: Business Life
Keeping the beef cattle properly fed, watered and healthy is a primary goal
There’s a transformation taking place on farms across the United States.
We produce much of the food grown in the United States through industrial agriculture—a system characterized by larger farms that tend to grow the same crops, typically using chemical pesticides and fertilizers that impair soil, water, air and climate.
But a growing number of innovative farmers and scientists are moving toward a farming system that is more maintainable—environmentally, economically and socially. This system is said to work for farms of all sizes, producing a diverse range of foods, fibers and fuels adapted to local conditions and regional markets. It uses state-of-the-art, science-based practices that maximize productivity and profit while minimizing environmental damage. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that a more sustainable model can be profitable—and can meet our needs long-term.
Sustainable agriculture 101
In agriculture, sustainability is a complex idea with many aspects, including economic (a sustainable farm should be a profitable business that contributes to a robust economy); social (it should deal fairly with its workers and have a mutually beneficial relationship with the surrounding community); and environmental.
Environmental sustainability in agriculture means good stewardship of the natural systems and resources that farms rely on. Among other things, this involves:
- Building and maintaining healthy soil
- Managing water wisely
- Minimizing air, water and climate pollution
- Promoting biodiversity
There’s a whole field of research devoted to achieving these goals: agroecology, the science of managing farms as ecosystems. By working with nature rather than against it, farms managed using agroecological principles can avoid damaging impacts without sacrificing productivity or profitability.
If sustainable farming is to become the dominant model in the U.S., the next generation of farmers needs to be educated about sustainable practices. The good news: this knowledge is being taught on farms across the U.S.
James Gorham is learning the beef farm business from the ground up—literally—through an informal apprenticeship program directed by his father-in-law, Brian Keister, at KeyFarm Premium Beef in Mifflinburg. A key component of this education is the transference of knowledge about sustainable agriculture practices.
KeyFarm’s sustainable farming practices include:
— Planting cover crops and being completely “no-till”—no plowing—which reduce erosion and runoff and enhance soil health and structure.
— Using solar panels that generate 80 percent of the farm’s electricity.
— Planting trees around its streams, to help protect the local watershed and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay; and
— Using GPS-controlled equipment to most accurately and efficiently plant, adjust fertilizer application rates and reduce herbicide use.
These practices are known in many circles “as not only sustainable agriculture, but regenerative agriculture,” says Harry Campbell, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania office in Harrisburg.
The Susquehanna River provides half of the freshwater that goes into the Bay. “So what we do here in Pennsylvania has a profound influence on the health and condition of the Chesapeake Bay, but first and foremost it’s going to affect our local water quality, our local communities and our local quality of life.”
The steers come to the farm as yearlings, from farms located in the hills of Virginia
A total of 600 to 700 head of cattle are raised a KeyFarm each year and the high-quality meat brought to market is sold direct-to-consumer and as “commodity beef” through grocery stores.
Gorham has a 2010 B.S. degree in plastics and polymer engineering technology from the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, has worked in an oil field and for snack packaging and consumer goods companies, and learned carpentry and other hands-on skills from his father, Jim. So he knows how to think creatively, analyze and solve problems, plan and schedule, run equipment, and use power tools.
Currently serving as manager of KeyFarm, Gorham is working closely with his father-in-law to move the farm from the third generation, Keister, to the fourth—Gorham and his wife, Mary, who has fond memories of growing up on the farm and helping her Dad. But Gorham wasn’t raised on a farm, so he has a lot to learn, even beyond the sustainable farming component:
— When to plant feed grains and cover crops, when to fertilize and how much, when to harvest.
— Which cattle to buy. How to mix their feed. Keeping them properly fed, watered, and healthy. Knowing when they’re fully conditioned.
— Marketing and selling the beef.
— Making sure all the work gets done in a timely way. Using heavy equipment safely and efficiently. Managing the farm financially.
Gorham is learning many of these skills from his father-in-law, who learned the business from his father. The informal apprenticeship, which started in April 2018, is a great way to learn, Gorham says, “because it’s one-on-one. And that is something that’s good for me, [because] I’m more of a hands-on person. It’s nice because Brian does have the wisdom and insight that I don’t, whether it’s when to plant, when to sell beef or when to sell your cash crops.”
The apprenticeship is an ongoing, flexible process where each lesson is a stepping stone to the next, Gorham says. Because farming is cyclical and includes many different activities, he has to learn certain things at certain times, and “I can’t get it all at once.” While Gorham is “more of a schedule person” and Keister is more flexible, they’ve both adapted to each other’s styles.
Gorham likes working with his father-in-law because they have a good relationship, they communicate well and they both feel a strong emotional connection to the farm and a shared commitment to bringing the farm into the next generation.
Groups like the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture in Millheim and the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce in Shamokin Dam say that farming apprenticeships are vitally important, because they transfer knowledge to the next generation; provide motivated and committed workers for farms; help keep today’s farms economically viable; and support environmentally sound farming practices.
“Whether the format of an apprenticeship is formal or informal, the goal is really to provide a guided pathway for training aspiring farmers,” says Melissa Cipollone, communications strategist at PASA.
Since 75 percent of today’s beginning or aspiring farmers under 40 did not grow up on a farm, Cipollone says, “Aspiring farmers need to have hands-on knowledge to steward the land and run a financially viable business. Apprenticeships are sort of taking the place of the [traditional parent-to-child] transfer of knowledge between generations.”
Bob Garrett, president and CEO of the GSVCC, says that apprenticeships in many skilled-job fields are a growing trend and are well suited to agriculture. While university agricultural colleges and high schools with vo-ag programs in the state do a great job of teaching agriculture, “A lot of that is classroom-theoretical. This is boots on the ground, boots in the mud if you will.”
Farming apprenticeships ensure that agricultural knowledge “goes on forever,” Garrett adds. “That’s the best agricultural preservation program there can be.”
KeyFarm’s focus on creating high-quality feed for its animals, making sure they are well cared for, and selling them when they are properly conditioned, results in high-quality beef with a lot of marbling — intramuscular fat that provides excellent flavor. Available at the farm and at farmers’ markets in Lewisburg and Bellefonte, 95 percent of KeyFarm’s product is graded prime or choice. (USDA’s beef quality grades, in descending order, are prime, choice, and select.)
Gorham takes pride in the consistently high quality of KeyFarm’s beef and likes to quote one of his regular customers: “Unless you’re shopping in a specialty market, it’s nearly impossible to find this kind of quality at any price.”
Alan Janesch is a writer, editor and communications professional based in Lewisburg.