Two decades ago, it seemed that not a month went by without some farmer or another challenging the term "sustainable agriculture." Farmers wrote letters to editors in farm papers asserting that there was no definition for this ridiculous term; it meant whatever a person wanted it to mean. In fact, then as now, sustainable agriculture advanced straightforward principles - of elevating environmentally sound, economically profitable and socially responsible agricultural systems.

Various farmers and more than one agricultural researcher buttonholed me back then to say that agriculture had to feed the world and this fanciful approach undercut agriculture's serious responsibilities. Some perceived sustainable agriculture as anti-technology and opposed to change. It was a contentious time in agriculture, born of the farm crisis - the terrifying hemorrhaging of farmers during the 1980s - and the growing awareness of environmental damage from many federal agricultural policies.

Into this hostile climate was born the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last week. Farmer groups frustrated with the College of Agriculture's lack of serious attention to sustainable agriculture worked with the Legislature and sympathetic faculty to create the center. Early on, the center forged relationships, breaking down barriers that divided agriculture unnecessarily, and for doing so it has drawn praise. Roger Cliff, chief administrative officer for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, told me earlier this year that "the center has served the needs of a very diverse Wisconsin agriculture well over its 20-year history." As an example, he described its role in "pioneering integrated pest management techniques, which are now an integral part of mainstream agriculture in this state."

During that same 20 years, growing numbers of conventional farmers stopped attacking sustainable agriculture practices and began adopting ones that increased their profits and worked in their circumstances. New government programs encouraged innovation and rewarded sustainable practices. Farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture networks exploded in number. Lenders impressed by the premium prices paid for organic foods more readily lent money to farmers for practices such as rotational grazing. It began to seem that the binary thinking of earlier decades was yielding to practical imperatives.

So it was disappointing to see the strongly defensive reaction of some agricultural interests when UW-Madison's Chancellor Biddy Martin approved Michael Pollan's book "In Defense of Food" as UW's first "Go Big Read" project for cross-campus reading and discussion.

Pollan spoke Thursday night to a packed audience of more than 8,000 and participated in a formal panel exchange the next day with two farmers, a UW-Madison agricultural student, and an audience filled with questions.

Pollan focused his talk largely on ways that nutritional science has favored an American diet linked to astronomic rates of obesity, heart disease and other diet-related diseases. Nonetheless, it was clear that the audience and other panel members reacted more to his previous book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which criticized environmental and social impacts of industrial agricultural production.

Panelist John Vriese, who runs a 2,500-head dairy in northwest Wisconsin, described his farm's two manure digesters, experimentation with adding flax to his cows' diet to increase omega 3 fatty acids in their milk, and other practices he has adopted to address climate change, keep nutrients from his farm out of waterways, and benefit eaters of his cheeses. Susan Lampert Smith, a UW-Madison lecturer and science writer, described her family's much smaller farm near Mount Horeb and ways that their farm depends on larger neighbor farms.

Pollan drew an important distinction between criticism and attacks. He said while he criticizes aspects of the food and agricultural system and the premises and rules under which it currently operates, his purpose is not to attack Wisconsin's $59 billion agricultural industry or the individual farmers within it.

In the end, this much-contested event demonstrated three important things: that agriculture is complex, that sustainability can occur on all scales, and that agriculture profits from thoughtful engagement rather than one-sided attacks or defensive responses.

Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is a member of the state Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

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