The entire notion of sustainability is based on the plain meaning of the word. Unlike words such as “environmental”, “organic”, or even “local”, the word “sustainable” is self-defining. Some folks are saying that it is becoming yet another of these words that get bandied about by all kinds of charlatans and therefore it is losing the impact of it’s true meaning, but I don’t agree. Sustainable can only mean one thing – that the thing you are applying it to is, well, sustainable – able to be sustained! Try to co-opt it, or use it for something else and it doesn’t work. It can’t be re-defined to mean something not sustainable (though some are certainly trying. Greenwashing has some extreme proponents).
So if you would like a really good example of a sustainable system, here is one for you to cast your eyeballs at, located in Lee, NH, about an hour north of Boston at Tuckaway Farm, the home of Cornell graduate and University of New Hampshire PHD candidate Dorn Cox. Dorn grew up on the farm bought by his parents in the 1970’s and returned there after a career in international agriculture and economics.
Dorn is working on a number of very cool things, like developing the best wheat & other grain crops for New England. Most people think all the wheat in the US can only be grown in the midwest, but once upon a time (up to the time of the Civil War) farmers in the northeast grew wheat along with many other crops. By the time the larger combine type mowers were invented, which would allow for economical grain farming anywhere, most wheat growing farms were established in the midwestern plains, and eastern farmers just did not contemplate going back to growing grains. Dorn has proven that grain can be grown profitably in the northeast; Local farms now working with Dorn are now selling flour at competitive prices and he is testing different grass types to refine his economic models further.
But the wheat is not the thing that brings up the sustainability issue. The more exciting thing he is doing is his development of a seed-to-biofuel plan, in which he grows oilseed plants (like sunflowers & canola), refines the oil right on the farm in a mobile refining system he designed and built to create fuel that he then uses on the farm to run his tractors and other equipment. It’s an entirely self-sustaining and self supporting system, which happens to also be on wheels so he can transport it to other area farms to allow other farmers to utilize the same economies to refine their own fuels.
Here’s how it works: He grows the crop, let’s say sunflowers. He has figured out that four acres of sunflowers will yield 300 gallons of fuel at a cost of approximately $1 per gallon to produce. He presses the seeds for their oil while tilling the fibrous plant material back into the soil. The solid by-product (cake) of the pressing is used for animal feed. Nothing is wasted or thrown away! The oil is refined through a multi-step process in a repurposed soda distributor’s panel truck, whose compartments afford the perfect set-up for the multiple refining tanks. The fuel moves from tank to tank by way of compressed air, so no emissions are created in the refining process. It is totally self-contained. Dorn calculates that his biodiesel gives back 3 to 5 times more energy than it takes to create it.
So what Dorn is doing goes beyond mere plain vanilla sustainability. Basically sustainability is frequently seen as a benign, “do no harm” attitude, laudable certainly, and the basis for the positive notion of carbon-neutrality. But why be neutral? We know we have taken too much carbon from our soil & pushed it out into the atmosphere through our heavy use of fossil fuels. Maybe we need to consider reversing the direction of the trajectory we have become so used to. That’s Dorn’s philosophy, pushing the concept to another level, to actually take carbon out of the atmosphere and return it to the soil, using knowledge of plant biology coupled with environmental engineering with a healthy dose of agricultural economics. Dorn is a two-time USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service grant award winner and he is the founder and director of GreenStart, a non-profit whose mission is to share technology designed to promote healthy soil, food and energy. As if that isn’t enough use of his time, he also sits on his town’s energy committee, founded the Great Bay Grain Cooperative and is on the board of the New England Farmer’s Union. He won the New Hampshire Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer Achievement award a few years back. And he works his farm too!