Reflections by 2008 Fellow Steve van Vleet
To sum up my experiences as a SARE Fellow I will have to give some background history into my life as it pertains to sustainable agriculture. Agriculture has always been a part of my life, from growing up on a fruit farm in Western Colorado to being taught by my father on the farm and in his science class. As a boy I always had the advantage of having fresh fruit in the summer and fresh vegetables in the summer and fall from the garden throughout the growing season.
I never really thought about sustainable agriculture until I had left the fruit farm for college. In college I started working in botany, entomology and chemistry. I transitioned into working on the biological control of invasive plants. During that time my parents leased out the fruit farm to some organic fruit producers. When I would come back to the farm I immediately started to notice change in the diversity of beneficial organisms around the farm (e.g. we never used to have predator insects in the fruit trees and they exploded in population). I began to realize that there must be more effective ways to produce quality crops using practices that hadn’t been used in the past. I still didn’t have the true concept of sustainable agriculture at this time but thought that the practices used would have to take the environment into consideration and the social perception from the public about the food that was produced. After undergraduate and graduate school I worked for many different organizations (NPS, USFS, USDA-ARS, Weed & Pest Control District, private industry—Cyanamid & BASF and finally Washington State University), and I was always looking for the best fit for me in what I thought was a sustainable agriculture field. Shortly after joining Washington State University I became a member of the leadership team for the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) which focuses on sustainable agriculture. I began applying for more WSARE grants and working with other researchers on what were considered sustainable agriculture projects; however, until I became a SARE Fellow I didn’t truly understand the entire concept of sustainable agriculture and its broad reaches. As a SARE Fellow I had one of the best experiences and acquired the greatest knowledge of sustainable agriculture practices in all facets of agriculture. Although I worked in what I thought were sustainable agriculture fields for those past 8 years, my passion for agriculture sustainability was never as ignited and as focused since I became a SARE Fellow.
Improved is: my understanding of sustainability, the challenges agriculture faces in working to become more sustainable while working to feed the world, and the true diversity of agriculture. I have had the opportunity to meet and discuss sustainability with whom I consider to be some of the finest agriculture producers in different but confined regions of the United States. In addition to acquiring a wealth of information and ideas to bolster my Extension programs from the SARE Fellows Program, I have made valuable connections with other Extension colleagues from different regions, including my dear friends Mike Gastier and Richard Brzozowski.” Because of the knowledge I gained as a SARE Fellow and how to truly identify what it takes to be sustainable (Environmentally, Economically, and Socially), I have been able to aid the producers to become more sustainable not only in my small region of the United States but globally throughout the Ukraine, Moldova, Kurdistan, Iraq and Kabul, Afghanistan.
The SARE Fellows program was ever changing as is sustainability when it comes to adapting to that change. At the beginning, I was able to look at agriculture practices and determine whether they were sustainable based on my own knowledge and background. I was then able to look at agriculture practices and determine if they were sustainable based on a defined matrix. Finally, I was able to evaluate agricultural practices as an entire system using not only my knowledge but the knowledge of many Extension specialists in combination with a sustainable matrix (Reading the Farm Program).
The SARE Fellows program is of such importance to me that I have become the national vice-chair for sustainable agriculture in the National Association of County Agriculture Agents (NACAA). I will continue to support and promote the SARE Fellows program that has been so influential in my life. I will also continue in my career to improve agriculture sustainability not only throughout the U.S. but throughout the world.
I want to personally thank everyone involved in developing the SARE Fellows program and for the positive changes it has made in my life when it comes to production agriculture sustainability.