Farmers can not only offer new innovations and advances in farming practices, but importantly, an understanding of what approaches have worked and not worked over decades and even generations of diligent trial-and-error on a given piece of land. Yet many farmers are not inclined or encouraged to document their experience in formal academic format that has come to be the respected standard for knowledge among decision-makers.
Many analyses, including the bulk of the NRC report, take a literature-based approach, which typically (and often inadvertently) ignore or downplay farmers’ experience and knowledge. One byproduct is that decision-makers in our society tend to overlook farmers as experts, and they get subjugated in broader decision-making processes. It may be that sustainability cannot be achieved until farmers are understood as agricultural experts in their own right and broader solutions truly integrate practitioners and their knowledge systems.
The NRC report correctly acknowledges that the loss of local agricultural knowledge is a key barrier to sustainability in farming systems. True sustainability will require a recognition and acceptance of a diversity of agricultural knowledge systems. As core actors in any kind of agriculture, farmers must be placed at the center of proposed change models, in coalition with representatives from throughout the model supply chains and food systems that foster healthy food systems more broadly.
As Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems for the 21st Century indicates, different people—agricultural producers included—emphasize different aspects of sustainability. True sustainability requires all four goals to be met. It is to farmers like the ones profiled in the report, especially those who have scored high on all four sustainability goals, that we should look to in order to move U.S. farming to greater sustainability. Not only do farmers like these offer up valuable practices, but they hold important value systems and worldviews that are essential underpinnings for agricultural policy, as well as society as a whole.
What would it look like to truly place farmers like these at the center of agricultural policy and production systems for the 21st Century? How can we build collaborative decision-making models that better integrate farmers and communities into policy decision-making?
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