By Greg Wolf
Sustainability is a word we have all seen quite often, and it has become a buzzword in recent years. By buzzword, I mean it is often highly charged with emotion, but usually with a meaning that is ambiguous, or at least variously defined. In practical terms, however, the term sustainability is all about continuity over time--over the years and through generations--maintaining (and usually, growing) whatever is it we are talking about. Beyond that definition, the subject about gets too big to grapple with, at least in this column.
I have most often seen the word sustainability associated with natural resources--water, soil, the entire Earth--and that is an appropriate association. At the same time, I would suggest it also needs to include business, either a business or all business. For it seems impossible to sustain a resource base outside of successful business. This presumes we are talking about a capitalistic rather than a command economy, of course, but even stating that presumption illustrates how the term sustainability gets big fast, and loaded with a lot of political, philosophical, and even religious connotations.
There is actually a third area of sustainability that I want to speak of as well that I believe surpasses the first two, and that is human beings. I think it goes without saying that the first two are irrelevant without people, but I'm not really writing about sustaining the actual physical lives of people as much as sustaining human relationships, the web of bonds that tie people together in myriad ways that can be immensely satisfying, yet also often perplexing and challenging, and I might add, fraught with peril. I remember an older wife and mother telling me one time regarding marriage that "it is hard, hard work--but is some of the most fun work you'll ever do." That is not a bad description of human relationships of all kinds. It might not be very romantic to use the term in marriage, but sustainability actually relates there as well in my definition.
At its most basic level, agriculture is all about working with natural resources, and I include soil separate from land in a small attempt to acknowledge the incredible life contained in soil itself, in addition to the features of land. And so it should go without saying that agricultural producers are resource managers, and have a vested interest in sustaining, and even growing, their resource base. Their role is not extraction of a finite resource, but rather profitably managing a dynamic and living resource. In a very real sense our industry is about providing food to people, via natural resources and energy from the sun. I'm going to admittedly avoid most controversy about whether or how sustainable our industry is overall, and simply state that viewing agriculture at its most basic level helps bring at least some of the controversy into focus. Since agriculture as an industry at its most basic level is about profiting (and I'm talking here about "increase," not just dollars, although those are essential too) from natural resources, it is imperative that those in agriculture have an interest and a focus on stewardship of those very resources. As a whole, I believe we do.
Business sustainability is closely related, yet distinct, because it involves the elements of capitalism--ownership, and management. Profitability is one measurement of success in generating an increase from a growing natural resource base. It is certainly possible to profit from the cannibalization of a natural resource, but it is equally certain that natural resources cannot be sustained without profitable businesses associated with them. Certainly this gets very philosophical, but I would only add one caveat to the above, and that is given the assumption that we are living in our day and time, on an earth with over seven billion people living on it. Business sustainability requires more than just profitability, it requires continuity of management over time, and that involves people--and brings me to the final area of sustainability I wanted to touch on.
"People sustainability," as I alluded to above, includes growing bonds of relationship. No business can be successful without them. These include relationships among managers, between ownership and management, among members of multiple generations. They also include relationships between producers and others outside of the operation--other producers, bankers, vendors, and neighbors. But the relationships that include family I believe are at the heart of a successful business, whether or not all of the people are directly involved in the business--husbands and wives, children, and extended family. These relationships matter the most for two reasons.
First, I believe these relationships matter most simply because they matter the most--in other words, in the grand scheme of life the relationships that are the closest to us have the highest value to us. They provide the highest satisfaction, the greatest sense of meaning and purpose, and the strongest forward movement when they are thriving as they should. Next, the quality of the relationships involved has a dramatic impact on the performance of the people involved, and therefore the business. Sadly, we have found it to be true time and again that a lack of sustainability for a family business in agriculture has less to do with natural resources, and less to do with business management, than with human relationship.
Editor's note: Greg Wolf is a consultant with Kennedy and Coe, LLC (www.kcoe.com) and works to help clients of the firm navigate toward better returns in all areas of their businesses. He is based in the firm's Pratt, Kan., office and can be reached at 620-672-7476.