Contributing to the Social Side of Sustainability

These series of posts are the result of agricultural sustainability research paired with on-farm interviews conducted by The Clark Group, LLC with 12 farms utilizing some of these practices. 

People & Community

The contribution of farms to the economy and their community is another key component of sustainability.  This is the “economic” and “social” side of sustainability; that is, ensuring the health and wellbeing of employees and community.  Farmers often view both their employees and community as critical resources for sustainability.

Contributing to the Economy

Agriculture is an important part of the economy of the United States – both rural and overall.  This has been especially true the past few years when much of the larger economy has faced slower growth while agricultural commodities have performed well.  The total value of net farm income in 2009 was more than 62 billion dollars.[1]  U.S. agriculture is responsible for 16 million jobs – not just on farms, but also in cities and towns across America.[2]  Plus, according to the 2008 U.S. Agricultural Census, there has been a 49% growth in sales from farms directly to consumers since 2002—representing $1.2 billon that stayed in local communities and produced direct economic benefits.[3]  

Providing Quality Jobs

Many consumers would be surprised to hear that large-scale farms often provide well-paying jobs.  Employee compensation for labor on U.S. farms in 2009 totaled more than 24 billion dollars.[4]  A 2009 survey from the Ohio State University Extension Service found that Ohio farms were paying an average wage + benefits compensation rate of $14.42/hour to farm workers — and that's just an average!  In addition to above-average salaries, the farmers interviewed for this project often offer an array of top benefits to employees such as:

  • a work vehicle
  • on-farm housing
  • healthcare plan
  • flexible work hours to allow for attending family events
  • some share of that year’s harvest or other bonus structures to help employees see direct rewards tied to the success of the farm operation and employee safety 

Supporting Community

While difficult to quantify, a best-kept secret is that farms and farm families often give back significant contributions to their communities in terms of both jobs and revenue but also donations of both dollars and effort.  Nationally, there are efforts like Farmers Feeding the World – which gathers donations from farmers which go toward providing gifts of livestock and other food assistance to poor rural farmers in developing countries.  Last year alone, this effort contributed over $1 million to Heifer International.5

But often it is hard to really understand what community support — both domestically and internationally can mean by looking at a set of abstract numbers.  To help provide some context, let's look at what some of the farmers involved in TBL Commodities are doing on this front.

Many farm operations provide significant donations to local schools, hospitals and community colleges.  Of the farmers that participated in this project, there was a wide range and depth of contributions.  Below are a few of the most noteworthy:  

  • Volunteering – many TBL members volunteer their time and money to support local schools or as members of their school board.  Some support their local community college or provide scholarships for ag-related careers. Almost all members provide in-kind contributions to community events such as auctions and festivals while also hosting schooll educational visits. 
  • Buy Local Policies - Many members have created a "buy local" policy as part of doing business.  This means that whenever possible, their operations purchase needed items from local entities rather than from out of town where the cost is likely lower.  
  • Expanding Opportunities in Rural Areas - One member has been part of running a family foundation that focuses on providing scholarships to non-traditional students living in rural areas.  By focusing on expanding the opportunities of those who live in rural areas rather than students who move away, this foundation is helping to build up rural communities.  Another member crafted an extremely generous scholarship program for the children of employees with the operation for 5 years or more.
  • Contributing to Critical Infrastructure – One member provided significant resources to the local rural hospital which helped enable life-flight services to surrounding rural areas. This member and others have also given signficant amounts of money to local community colleges to help build up the resources that can train rural residents
  • Food Support – A member helped start a food backpack and pantry program to send food home with poor children in their backpacks over the weekend, since for many of these kids, school lunches are their main access to food.  The pantry also works with local churches and is a source of food support for poor rural residents.

It is hard to quantify efforts like those described above.  Farmers like those involved with TBL Commodities often don't talk about the charitable works they do for their neighbors — or about the generous benefits they provide for employees.  Getting credit is not why they do these actions, and that, of course, makes their actions all the more generous.  But in an age where people increasingly want to know — or think they already know, what is involved with agricultural production, it becomes important to begin to share these types of actions with the larger public and to consider them an element of a sustainability plan.  Beginning to quantify this type of soft capital will also be a key element in helping those who asses U.S. agriculture's sustainability compared to other countries.  Indeed this kind of generous support and interaction with the surrounding local rural communities is a critical part of what sustains many rural towns today and it is an important part of what will be needed to keep rural America vital into the future. 


[1] USDA Economic Research Service.  2009.  Data Sets / Fact Sheets: United States.  Farm Financial Indicators.  http://www.ers.usda.gov/statefacts/us.htm.

[2] Senator Stabenow.  2011. 

[3] As cited by: American Farmland Trust.  “Growing Local: Helping Communities Grow Local.”  Online at http://www.farmland.org/documents/AFT_GrowLocal09.pdf.

[4]As cited by: American Farmland Trust.  “Growing Local: Helping Communities Grow Local.”  Online at http://www.farmland.org/documents/AFT_GrowLocal09.pdf.

[5] For more information, see Heifer International at www.heifer.org 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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