July 11, 2008

A few years ago the term "sustainability" wasn't bandied about very often in casual conversation. But these days, it's not so rare.

"I think sustainability is a word you hear a lot more now," said Mark Williams, director of the sustainable agriculture degree program in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. "It's tied to a lot of changing things that are happening in our world, in our country, in our state--things like rising fuel prices, things like global climate change. Also there's an ongoing discussion about local food and healthy eating."

As the focus on sustainability is growing, the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture is taking the lead in sustainable agriculture, not only by offering a degree in the field, but with the appointment of a Cooperative Extension Specialist for Sustainable Agriculture, Lee Meyer.

Lee Meyer, an agricultural economist, is one of many experts in the college who is focusing on sustainable areas of research, education and outreach.

"My title has officially changed, and I think that's a great thing about the support that we're getting here at UK," he said. "But there are many of us who are working in sustainable agriculture from different perspectives, and I think this is raising the visibility for a lot of these programs."

One of Meyer's responsibilities is to spread the word about the benefits of sustainable agriculture.

"Sustainable agriculture had a reputation in past years as not being mainstream, as being fringe. And it's not fringe," he said. "It's core to what farmers want to do. When you talk about the basic elements of sustainable agriculture, almost everybody buys into that."

The term sustainability is defined as having three parts: environmental stewardship, economic profitability and social responsibility. Sustainable farming practices take into consideration the health of the soil and its ability to regenerate in order to support crops and livestock for a long period of time. At the same time, a sustainable farm is a profitable farm.

Part of Meyer's and Williams' jobs is to introduce farmers to methods that will increase their profitability. Meyer's background is in marketing. He will introduce farmers to marketing methods that take the long view.

"We've had a market economy in which businesses charge whatever the market can bear," he said. "In a relationship type of economy, things are a little bit different. Success depends on longer term relationships between farmer and consumer, and when those work, then the farmer doesn't have to charge as much as possible at a given point in time. But that also means when the economy turns and prices are low, the farmer's getting a higher than average price. I think we're really experimenting with those mechanisms and how those work."

Williams is using the community supported agriculture program he started at the UK Horticultural Research Farm in Lexington to educate not only students, but growers and consumers as well.

"Our goal in this next year is to expand what we're doing from a community standpoint, doing many more community activities out here, with school groups, with farm groups, with gardening groups," he said. "We want to bring them out here and use this farm to extend what we're trying to teach in the classroom to the community and help to support our local community."

Community is an important part of any sustainable system. According to Meyer, it's all about consumers.

"We need innovative farmers out there to give consumers an opportunity to spend their dollars in a certain way. But if consumers don't change their buying habits, nothing else is going to happen," he said. "You know, the big box grocery retailers are bringing sustainability in to their shelves. To me, what that's saying is that consumers really are changing. These stores have their finger on the pulse of consumers, and they're trying to respond to that. That should be a signal to our independent farmers and smaller retailers and farmers markets that there's that interest too, so they need to be supplying and responding to that as well."

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