Have you ever read something a dozen times and because you think you know what it says, you don't even bother to think about it; then one day you read it one more time, something clicks, and everything changes? That happened for me this week (again).
(I'm literally tearing up as I write this from the stands at my son's swim meet, which is only slightly embarrassing as I look around to see if anyone is watching.)
The two industries that represent the physical world
If you step back and think about it, everything we have in the physical domain comes from one of two industries: farming and mining. Every food morsel, microchip, automobile, and textile. Obviously, I'm going to focus on farming and therefore, food and clothing. Not to get overly dramatic here, but when you stop and let yourself remember that most of our food comes from farming, and our responsibility as farmers comes into focus anew, it can feel a bit overwhelming.
Breakthrough at the intersection of farming decisions and sustainability models
You don’t have to be around agriculture for long to realize that farming practices are incredibly diverse and, without geeking out too much, sustainable agriculture models attempt to account for that diversity. I'm not expecting you to feel this in quite the same way (because I have kind of a weird background), but I start to get emotional at the intersection of farming decisions and model output.
For example, think about top soil, which is the natural resource required for both plant and (therefore) human life. The NRCS RUSLE2 erosion model shows that farmers can lose anywhere from zero to eight tons of soil per acre per year, while researchers at land grant universities tell us that farmers can build only 0.25 tons of soil per acre per year.
The stark inevitability associated with the rate of top soil loss is what really hit home for me this week. But it wasn't accompanied with the same sense of helplessness that many problems of similar scale often bring. Instead, it brought a profound sense of purpose and motivation to my work life.
Soil is life
One of my favorite entrepreneurs of all time is Elon Musk (who I got to meet once at a small satellite conference, many moons ago). He applies his physics background to identify natural inevitabilities, in deciding where to steer his technology companies. Although I also have a physics background, this is the first time a natural inevitability has clicked for me.
Soil is a precious, life-giving resource. Conserving it requires both investment and cultural changes among farmers. It is far more likely that soil will continue to erode faster than it can be built and without change, it is inevitable that humanity will run out of life-giving soil.
Farmers are good, the hope of humanity
The dozens of farmers I grew up with and still live among are fundamentally good people. Nobody cares for the land more than they do and we certainly don't need to regulate them. In fact, I would put money down that some share my tears as they read this. Thankfully, we don’t have to approach this topic on a purely emotional level.
Coming off the Sustainable Ag Summit, I feel more passionate than ever about providing software that arms farmers with the data-driven insights they need to understand the relationship between their decisions and the environment. I think that anonymous sustainability benchmark reports could be an important part of the soil loss solution for one simple reason: If any farmer I know could easily see that he lost seven tons of soil per acre last year, while a nearby peer only lost one, I am confident the former would be open (even eager) to learn from the latter. That sense of personal responsibility and love for the land among farmers is where the hope of humanity lies.