Published Feb 8, 2017

What Sustains Us — by John Gilbert

By Tamsyn Jones

John and Beverly Gilbert, of Iowa Falls, are the recipients of the 2017 Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award from Practical Farmers of Iowa. The award is granted each year to an individual or couple that has shown exemplary commitment to sustainable agriculture, generously shared their knowledge with others and been influential in efforts to foster vibrant communities, diverse farms and healthy food.

The award was presented to John and Beverly on Friday, Jan. 20, during Practical Farmers’ 2017 annual conference. Each shared comments with the audience upon accepting the award. What follows are John’s remarks. To learn more about the Gilberts and why they were chosen for the award, click here.

Beverly and John Gilbert accepting the 2017 PFI Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award

Beverly and John Gilbert each shared remarks with the audience upon accepting the 2017 PFI Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award.

“What Sustains Us” — by John Gilbert

There are those who say sustainability has been so co-opted it no longer has much meaning, and while I often concur, this is one situation where it still has real meaning. What makes this recognition a real honor is the members who make PFI the organization it is. The sustainability award has meaning because for more than 30 years, the members of this organization have always walked the walk. Thank you.

I’d like to take a couple minutes to talk about an aspect of sustainability that’s not well recognized. That is, what is there about what we do, about how we do it and why we do it that sustains us…that keeps us going through good times, and especially the not so good times? And I’m mainly talking about what sustains us beyond the physical. Whether you want to consider it emotional or psychological or spiritual, is not as important as realizing those of us in sustainable agriculture have something that much of society is lacking, and which many people – on some level –  are seeking.

There are those who would try to describe that thing with words like determination, dedication, drive, perseverance or grit. But like so many things in sustainability, the more you try to describe it, the less you understand it. It’s something you know when you see it, much like we know what in our daily lives gives us meaning. Like we know when we’re inspired, or what can leave us in awe. Like we know what makes us proud, or what we’d truly miss if it were gone. These are personal things we experience, but that experience can’t really describe to others.

But there are things we take from these experiences we can share – we can pass on. For instance, from our partnership with nature we gain an understanding of our role in the cycle of life; we’re kept honest and humble, and constantly reminded our sense of dignity depends on having respect and compassion for all life.

From our connectedness to our work, our families, our heritage, our communities we get a grounding, an understanding of what is really important, confidence in our own abilities and faith in the people around us.

From our understanding of home as a familiarity with a region, an area or a farm as a place of both living and livelihood, we get a rootedness, a sense of belonging, a feeling of security and the knowledge that we have control over our destinies.

These are the sort of things we need to find a way to pass on. How? That’s an answer we all need to find together, but I can tell you one thing: The industrial ag folks intent on co-opting sustainability won’t be doing it. For starters, I might suggest we all keep a mental tally of how many people our efforts affect each year as a way to better understand the reach of work.

And I suggest we heed the lines from Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet” where we’re told:

“There are no unsacred places
There are only sacred places
and desecrated places”

We need to find the reverence to appreciate the gift we’ve been given to spend our lives working with a system as magical and mystical and awe-inspiring as the one that sustains our species…and much of life on this little orb.

And we must always have the humility to remember our calling is to take care of that system, not to take credit for it. And so, with great humility, on behalf of my family I accept your honor.