Sustainability may be a word you’re hearing more and more these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s a new concept. Farmers have been incorporating sustainable practices into their operations for years.

How else would multigenerational farms exist and stay profitable today?

“You could make an argument that any operation in existence for more than a generation or two is sustainable,” comments Chad Lee, Ph.D., an extension agronomist at the University of Kentucky. “These farms must be doing something successfully to remain profitable.”

Even so, the word “sustainable,” and its many variations, conjures up different ideas and emotions among farmers, and not all of them are positive.

“Recently, the term sustainability has made many farmers nervous,” says Lee.

Some believe sustainability requires drastic change. Some think it will take major investments. And others see sustainability as a fad that’s here today but will be gone tomorrow.

While it’s true that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” version of sustainability across operations and climates, the other truths about sustainability are that it’s achievable, worthwhile and here to stay.

The changing world of sustainability

The majority of today’s grade-school students will eventually work in jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. That means for every little boy or girl who dreams of becoming a farmer, firefighter or football player, there are at least three more kids who will grow up to be something that was never a Halloween costume.

This can be an overwhelming concept to think about, but it’s also very exciting. Our world is evolving every day, and every day, new opportunities to improve our ways of living present themselves to us.

Without advancements in new technology, we wouldn’t be able to produce nearly double the amount of crops per acre than was possible 40 years ago. But with new opportunities come new challenges. For instance, growing more soybeans on less land presents new demands to remain efficient and profitable.

An answer to help manage these demands is one job that was not yet invented several years ago: a sustainability-certified crop adviser.

“Creating an opportunity for certified crop advisers (CCAs) to specialize in sustainability began as a response to the consumer, the public and the food companies,” says Luther Smith, director of professional development and business relations for the American Society of Agronomy, the Soil Science Society of America and the Crop Science Society of America. “These groups have made their demands of becoming more sustainable very public. So we came together to develop a specialty to help focus on these needs.”

Launched two years ago with funding from the soy checkoff, this program includes training modules, performance standards for certification and an exam to show that the CCA meets performance indicators. Once certified, the CCA can work together with the farmer to help identify ways he or she can incorporate more sustainability practices.

Meeting the growing demand of sustainability

Incorporating on-farm sustainability practices will become increasingly important in the future.

“We’re on the front-end of this wave,” says Smith of the CCA sustainability certification program.

“It’s going to keep growing as major companies come together to focus on sustainability.”

Field to Market is a great example of organizations doing just that.

An alliance of the supply and value chains, Field to Market’s goal is to meet the demand for sustainably grown commodities. McDonald’s, General Mills, Kellogg’s and Walmart are just a few major brands that are members of this alliance, showing their dedication to continuous sustainability improvement.

This level of involvement

is a testament to the future of sustainability. “Companies are demanding green chemistry now,” says Greg Gibson, president of Synalloy Chemicals, a chemical producer and toll manufacturer. “In our business, we see exceptional growth of soy as a key raw material in products like lubricants and polyols. And with soy’s stable, competitive price, replacing petroleum with soy gives our customers the benefit of offering green chemistry without raising costs.”

Brands like Unilever and The Coca-Cola Company are just two examples of companies committed to making the sustainability switch. Both brands pledged to purchase 100 percent of their product ingredients from sustainable sources by 2017 and 2020, respectively.

Commitments like these impact U.S. farmers by increasing demand for sustainable soy.

And while increased demand affects the long-term profitability of U.S. soybean farmers, increasing on farm sustainability efforts can also have a more immediate return.

“Reducing water use and fuel consumption are two ways farmers can improve their environmental sustainability,” says Smith. “But these are also ways farmers can improve their financial sustainability.

A CCA who specializes in sustainability can identify these cost-saving practices to reduce expenses while also helping the farmer document the practices so he can market his sustainability down the road.”

Together, these factors make it so farmers can’t afford not to be sustainable.

Profiting from sustainability

“If you’re not sustainable, you’re not going to be around very long,” says Gene Stoel, a soy checkoff farmer-leader from Minnesota. “Sustainability means doing a little bit of everything to make the profit you need to stay in the business.”

And staying in business should be one of your main priorities.

“Your job is to sustain your livelihood and your family,” says Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in risk management in agriculture. “You accomplish that through the longevity of your farm.”

But while most U.S. soybeans are grown in a sustainable manner, because end users have options, continuous improvement is a must.

“I believe sustainability will eventually become the standard everyone works toward,” says Smith. “Companies will soon be able to become even more selective about where they source ingredients.”

Staying competitive in this changing landscape will require increased commitments to sustainability from U.S. soybean farmers. What it won’t require are massive overhauls to production practices.

Lee points out that many of the practices farmers are already instinctively doing to make their operations run smoothly also make them sustainable.

“I would argue that ensuring a high yield makes a farmer sustainable,” says Lee. “Precision ag, soil tests, superior weed control. These are all sustainable practices.”

Of course, there is always room for growth.

“Reduced tillage or no-till is a practice that can have a major impact,” offers Lee. “Becoming more diligent with scouting and spraying fungicide based on disease risk also improves sustainability.”

Sustainability innovation starts on your farm There’s no question that U.S. soybean farmers are sustainable. In fact, most U.S. soybean producers participate in certified and audited voluntary sustainability and conservation practices, according to the U.S. Sustainability Assurance Protocol. There’s also no question that U.S. soybean farmers are innovative; so how we farm sustainably will continue to progress and change.

“Just think about what advancements in technology allow us to do now,” says Stoel. “Precision equipment lets us apply products exactly where we need them. This not only maximizes the effectiveness of those products but also helps lower our environmental impact. To me, that’s been a very important step.”

But it will take implementation of these innovations – like precision agriculture and new seed technologies – to improve your farm’s sustainability.

That’s why farmer adoption of new technology is one of the checkoff’s primary goals.

“Don’t resist change,” advises Stoel. “It’s important that we embrace innovations to continue improving. I know that just because I do something a certain way, it doesn’t mean there’s not a better way out there.”