Sustainability that Protects Profits and the Planet


Jack Payne

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I can talk all day to policy makers and the media about how important farming is. But I don’t live it. So when I recently visited an editorial board, I brought someone who does.

Farm Bureau member and vegetable farmer Chuck Obern is the 2019 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Florida Farmer of the Year, nominated by Florida Farm Bureau Field Services District Representative, Eva Webb. Chuck drove back and forth from his C&B Farms in Clewiston, met me in Fort Myers and visited the News-Press. Our mission and message: To explain that farmers can offer solutions to climate doom instead of being blamed for it.

Chuck brought decades of street cred to the conversation. A 1979 graduate of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Chuck looks the part of a guy who lives off the land. He wore blue jeans, muddy shoes–and the pièce de résistance – a farmer’s shirt with a Gator logo on it.

He told the story of how he has long taken measures to lock carbon in his soil. He was composting before composting was cool. He took loads of yard waste from municipal haulers–waste that was headed toward a landfill–and diverted it to his fields.

These days he’s doing a lot of experimenting with microbes. His hypothesis is that the right brew of microbes in his soil can help plants absorb more nutrients so less of them seep into an aquifer or get released to the atmosphere.

He doesn’t have scientific evidence to back his claim, but Chuck and one of my soil microbiologists have been seeking funding to run formal experiments on his land and his treatments.

Chuck’s folksy, awe-shucks delivery disarms skeptics so that his wisdom can challenge people to rethink what they believe about farmers. It was an important hour spent countering the narrative of farmers as climate villains, or at least adding context to it.

Toward the end, Chuck was asked where he saw himself in five or 10 years. Chuck looked surprised. Five years? With all the threats to agriculture, Chuck said, he can’t see past next season.

At the same time, he’s looking decades into the future. He wants his son, Boots, to run C&B, and then his grandkids, and maybe even his unborn great-grandkids after that. So he’s trying to take care of the land however he can.

He left them with an important message: He can’t take care of the environment without taking care of his bottom line. Chuck is at that intersection of sustainability that protects profits and the planet simultaneously.

I’ve been preaching this for years. But Chuck’s been living it, and now he’s talking about it.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.