Every decade or so, the rest of the world realizes how cool it is to be a farmer — to be someone with “natural capital,” that is, a steward of natural resources such as healthy soil, clean water, and good air.
In my lifetime, it’s happened a few times in North America, driven initially by music.
For example, in 1969, New York state dairy farmer Max Yasgur welcomed hundreds of thousands of music fans to his gently rolling, sprawling 600-acre farm near Woodstock. Stepping up to the microphone to introduce himself, he tentatively started his sentence with the words “I’m a farmer…”
And the whole place went nuts
Farming’s free-to-choose, free-to-be lifestyle was aligned perfectly with the swelling anti-corporate, anti-establishment movement among young people. Farming was cool. So were farmers.
It happened again in 1985, when Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp organized the first Farm Aid concert. Its mission was to raise awareness about the loss of family farms, and to generate funds to keep farm families on the land.
Country values met rock values met midwest America values. What a mix.
It certainly worked. Farm Aid has gone on to raise $50 million with yearly events and fundraisers, primarily supported by people who think farmers are cool…or, at least, small farmers.
And then again, around the turn of the century, farming became hip when the local food movement was hatched. Everyone with a few acres became a farmer, even though scale-wise they were more like gardeners. Some became self-proclaimed health experts, too. The rhetoric is still sorting itself out. But there’s no question, local food made farming cool again.
In this era, with the drive for sustainability reaching a crescendo, farmers are once again poised to take centre stage
As the current decade arrived, farming gained new respectability when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization declared that the world population would jump to nine billion by 2050. Farmers’ lot in society skyrocketed.They could add the role of humanitarian to their CVs. Farmers have always fed the world. But now they were also tasked with saving the world.
And that brings us to the cusp of 2017. In this era, with the drive for sustainability reaching a crescendo, farmers are once again poised to take centre stage. This time, it’s because of their role as environmentalists, protecting natural capital.
Natural capital is something farmers manage daily. But with sustainability becoming increasingly important to consumers and the food industry, natural capital preservation has become a vital feature for corporate culture, not to mention its importance for consumer acceptance and approval.
Natural capital crept up on the industry, says Cher Mereweather, executive director of the Provision Coalition, a food and beverage sustainability advisory group.
“It wasn’t even on the radar as a trend at the top of 2016,” she says. “But now we’re seeing some real movement by business to report on the role of natural capital in their operations. It’s refreshing. It’s one of the top five trends in sustainability.”
Why the sudden emergence? It’s baffling – Mereweather says it’s been on her radar screen for 20 years, but failed to catch fire broadly until now.
I think it’s because natural capital, as a term, is such an efficient and elegant way to capture the many environmental aspects of agriculture. Farmers have always been environmentalists; indeed, they are credited in many circles as being the first environmentalists. But stewards of natural capital? That’s new.
Mereweather says natural capital management has carried over into the processing sector. Companies are asking themselves how they’re managing natural capital, as questions arise about their use of water, for example, and how farmers are managing the natural capital from which companies get their commodities. Public relations wise, those are good stories for modern farmers who can show how they’re using technology to manage natural capital.
Mereweather says other top trends in sustainability that have emerged through 2016 include public trust, responsible sourcing, rising food costs, and reducing food loss and waste. These all touch agriculture; they cover the economic, environmental, and social aspects of sustainability.
But none say farming is cool – not to mention vital, respectable and newsworthy — like the stewardship of natural capital. Welcome to a new era, and a New Year.