Environment, economy, and equity – the three words that have long served as the basic tenets of sustainable development in the U.S. Without question, attention to three core elements is due, in no small measure, to the seminal report of the World Commission Environment and Development (commonly referred to as the Brundtland Commission report) titled, Our Common Future. Released in 1987, the document deﬁnes sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report outlined the three vital components of sustainability: (1) environment: the conservation and enhancement of the environmental and natural resources base; (2) economy: the development economies that focus on long-term economic stability and the wise use of resources; and (3) social equity: addressing the basic quality of life needs of all people (i.e., health, education, participation, equity) while remaining accountable to the critical needs of future generations (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). In the context of agriculture, the quest to introduce and implement sustainable
development strategies was intended to counter the expanded presence of large, industrial agricultural enterprises – ﬁrms whose activities were deemed to be harmful to human health and the environment. Horrigan et al (2002:446-48), for example, outlined a host of problems resulting from the practices of large-scale agricultural ﬁrms, including: (1) damage to the environment as a result of widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides; (2) soil/land degradation; (3) depletion of water resources due to reliance on irrigation; and (4) use of nonrenewable fossil fuels to support the food production system. The sustainable development eﬀort began to take hold with the introduction of the Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture program in the 1985 Farm Bill, a program that became the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program in the next (1990) Farm Bill (Berardi et al. 2011; Jordan and Constance 2008). As captured in the language of the 1990 bill, sustainable agriculture was conceived as an integrated plant and animal production system that would satisfy food and ﬁber needs while improving environmental quality, ensuring the eﬃcient use of natural resources, and maintaining the economic viability of farmers and communities (Berardi et al. 2011; Chibulka 2009). In essence, SARE was designed to align with the three legs of sustainability referenced in the 1987 Brundtland Commission report – economic
proﬁtability, environmental stewardship, and improved quality of life (Tanaka and Bhavsar 2008). Are there visible practices that have emerged as a result of the expanded interest and
commitment to sustainable development? The simple answer is yes, and they include such on-farm strategies as crop rotation, no-till/low-till farming, soil management, nutrient management, rotational grazing and integrated pest management (Horrigan et al. 2002). For those with a concern with activities beyond the farm gate, some of the important eﬀorts have included those designed to link producers and consumers through farmers’ markets, reduce the presence of food deserts through the launching of urban gardens or community supported agriculture programs, engage a broad array of people and groups on local food policy councils, create local and regional food systems and promote honest dialogue on food system challenges and conﬂicts with the use of deliberative or study circle strategies (Gillespie 2010:10). These latter strategies embody what Lyson (2004) has coined as “civic agriculture” – agriculture that is embedded in the community and as such, helps build and maintain trust between producers and consumers (Carolan 2006). Despite eﬀorts to invest in the tripartite components of sustainability, Tanaka and
Bhavsar (2008) found that the “quality of life dimension” of sustainability was given limited attention by researchers and practitioners engaged in SARE funded projects. For instance, they discovered that only 11 of the 174 projects (or six percent) funded by the Southern SARE over a span of 15 years were directly focused on community quality of life. It is this unbalanced project funding portfolio that prompted the Southern SARE program to forge a new collaboration in 2002, one that would link its sustainable agriculture development work with the community and economic development work of the Southern Rural Development Center. Since both regional entities operated in the same geographic area of the South, it appeared sensible to work in tandem to strengthen the community quality life portfolio of the SARE program.