“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

—From “Our Common Future”,  The Brundtland Commission, 1987

 

Since Northerly’s beginning, our goal has been to feed the present without starving the future. This equilibrium is at the heart of everything we do. From the crops that we grow, the methods used to grow them, and the way they’re processed and distributed. And still, one of the biggest questions we get asked is, What does it mean that your oats are ‘sustainably grown’? The most common follow-up question: Are they organic?

 

One of our core values at Northerly is transparency. That means we’ll always be able to tell you where and how our oats are grown, processed, and delivered. So let’s talk about sustainability, organic practices, and why both organic and conventional crops fit into our plan to be kinder to the earth. 

 

What’s in a label? Apparently, not trust.

 

Walk through a grocery store these days, and you’ll see an obsession with categorization and box-checking. We’ve already talked about the difference between natural, organic, and sustainable. We also know the tricks marketers use to make consumers think food is healthier than it is. As a result, many consumers distrust food producers. In fact, according to a study conducted by OnePoll, 53% of Americans feel like food labels are “sometimes misleading.” 11% take it a step further, reporting that food labels are entirely untrustworthy. 

 

Surprisingly, this distrust extends to the USDA certified organic label as well. Only 25% of US consumers reported that they trust the organic label, according to a 2017 study by Mintel. The report went on to show that only 13% of consumers believe organic food undergoes the rigorous regulation outlined by the USDA. 

 

Mintel suggests, “Organic, while relatively clearly defined from a regulatory standpoint, appears largely misunderstood by consumers, suggesting brands could benefit from increasing awareness of exactly what the organic label represents and the strict requirements in attaining the claim.” But does this distrust come from a misunderstanding of what the label means? Or could it be more closely linked to distrust in the farming practices themselves? 

 

The pros and cons of organic farming

 

There’s no denying that the organic movement of the early 20th century made enormous strides for environmental advocacy. It highlighted the importance of soil health at a crucial moment. And it encouraged people to question where their food was coming from, how it was grown, and what the environmental implications were. But, as Forbes contributor Steve Savage, Ph.D. writes, “My problems with institutional organic are not at all about its founding ideals or about organic farmers, but rather about organic’s self-imposed limitations.”

 

Dr. Savage elaborates. “From an environmental perspective, the biggest issue for organic is that it requires significantly more land to achieve the same level of production…I would much rather buy food from ‘land-sparing’ farming systems.” He also notes that though organic farming bans the use of synthetic fertilizers and human-made chemicals, that doesn’t mean it’s pesticide-free—though many consumers assume it is. 

 

“Some of the farming practices that are commonly employed on organic farms are very positive from an environmental perspective,” he concedes, “but those practices are also used by progressive ‘conventional’ growers.” 

 

On the flip side, there are farming practices with excellent “environmental profiles” that don’t fit into organic farming’s rules. These include no-till farming and spoon-feeding nutrients through irrigation. By standardizing organic farming practice, the industry hobbles itself. It’s not that we at Northerly disapprove of organic methods, or think that they’re inherently harmful. It’s that we understand they’re not the best practice for every climate and environment. 

 

Organic vs. conventional farming: a false dilemma

 

It’s a matchup that’s so common we rarely think to question it. And often, the public associates organic with “healthy, natural, and eco-conscious” while conventional farming is seen as “greedy, harmful, and money-hungry.” Similarly, when we think of organic agriculture, we frequently think of mom-and-pop farmers hand planting, tending, and harvesting their crops, while conventional farming is associated with huge corporations. 

 

But the reality is a lot more complicated. For example, this black-and-white view fails to account for the spectrum of progressive “conventional” growers, as well as the sustainable and regenerative agriculture movement. Despite popular opinion, conventional farming has moved, almost universally, to more sustainable farming practices. Through the power of technology, IoT, and smart sensors, farmers are reducing the environmental impacts. Many are even finding ways to be carbon negative (meaning they’re pulling more carbon from the atmosphere than they’re creating. 

 

The sustainability difference

 

We’ve talked a lot about what it means to be a sustainable farm. For us, sustainability is about growing better food (see also: more nutritious), while being kind to the earth. It’s also about supporting local communities and economies. The final piece of the sustainability puzzle is the idea that, to continue doing social good, businesses must stay profitable. And that includes farms. These three values—people, planet, profits—inform every decision that we make. 

 

The key to the whole sustainability concept? Locality. The same set of growing practices, economic practices, and business decisions won’t benefit every community. Instead, we use data and analytics to determine best practices on a case-by-case basis. This adaptability gives sustainability its edge. 

 

The Union of Concerned Scientists say it best when they write: 

 

“The system has room for farms of all sizes, producing a diverse range of foods, fibers, and fuels. And it’s adapted to local conditions and regional markets. It uses state-of-the-art, science-based practices that maximize productivity and profit while minimizing environmental damage.”

 

In other words, farming with an eye for sustainability lets us use science and data to guide decisions, rather than following an arbitrary set of practices. 

 

For example, cover crops

 

The cover crop movement is gaining momentum as well as mainstream popularity. They often get promoted as a remedial pill for a variety of farming issues—from soil erosion to nutrient depletion. However, unconditional acceptance of cover crops as the be-all-end-all fails to account for expenses, weather, management, geography, and overall results.

 

For example, on our farm in Canada, which only experiences one growing season, they’re the fastest way to bankruptcy. And profitability is one of the main pillars of sustainable agriculture. 

 

Des Moines farmer, Roy Arends, reemphasizes this in a recent interview with Farm Journal’s AgPro. Potential cover benefits cannot escape geography, according to Arends. He draws a sharp demarcation line at US 20: “North of those boundaries, you just don’t have much growing season left for covers once you take off your main crop. We are too far north for the consistent results we hear about in other places. In my area, I’d say less than 20% of farmers support covers. I’d say 10% are fortunate enough to have a situation conducive to covers, but I promise you even those farmers are very conscious of the expense.”

 

If we were to start farming on the East Coast or in the Pacific Northwest, we’d have a whole new set of considerations impacting how—and what—we’d be able to grow sustainably. Perhaps in those environments, cover crops would be a practical solution. But for now, the risks outweigh the potential benefits. 

 

Growing with the climate in mind

 

And it’s not just about how things can be grown in different climates. It’s also about what can be grown. One problem with conventional farming has been a mind-over-matter mentality. After all, if there’s a will, there’s a way. 

 

If a farmer wants to grow wheat (either because it’s got higher sales demand or is worth more money on the market), then he’s going to grow wheat—whether the conditions are conducive to or not. As a result, we see wasteful use of resources, applications of more fertilizer to support healthy growth, and often an uptick in the use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides to protect the crop from things that it has no natural resistance to. 

 

Luckily, we’re beginning to see this mindset fall by the wayside. Today’s farmers want to work smarter, not harder. We’re starting to understand the economic and environmental benefits of working with rather than against nature. 

 

Why Northerly grows both conventional and organic crops

 

When we founded Northerly, we had a simple mission: to grow better food for more people. And, as we know from countless studies, the healthiest diet consists of whole foods that people actually want to eat. Northerly’s customers have made it abundantly clear that they want to eat organic oats. 

 

Unfortunately, the climate in Canada just isn’t conducive to responsibly and sustainably growing organic oats. That’s why we’re working on launching an organic farm near our headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. In preparation, we’re learning more about the area, the climate, and the communities that we’ll be feeding. Because of the arid environment, crops grown in Arizona are at lower risk for pests and disease. This makes it easier to adhere to organic practices while still being kind to the earth.

 

Conclusion

We’re incredibly excited about this opportunity to offer you an organic product. We’re even more excited that we get to do so while keeping sustainability and responsible resource management at the forefront of everything we do.  

sustainability, what does it mean to be sustainable?