Ag at Large: Farmers playing the word game

California’s farmers communicate using their own “word game,” forcing the farm population to learn new terms and new meanings for old items. (Courtesy of

Whether they know it or not, farmers in California especially are playing a serious word game, one in which others make the rules and still others interpret them. Winning will be a challenge.

Ever since “gee,” “haw,” and “whoa” were standards in farm talk, language off the farm has been changing, and forcing the farm population to learn new terms and new meanings for old items if it wants to communicate with the rest of the world, or even the rest of the country.

The dilemma is especially complex for California’s up-scale growers because so many different food products are produced in its lush valleys and coastal plains. Each commodity carries its own terminology through the chain of commerce to eventual consumer.

The farm community is learning the old cliché that “words means things.” Part of the learning process is awareness that their meanings change, and can be different at different points in the path to market.

It is also strategic to know that some groups and individuals are intent on giving their own interpretations to words. Subtle changes in meaning can occur, and then work their way into written documents and regulations before the farm community learns the new meanings.

Rather than producing a new lexicon, analyzing just one word provides an understanding of the issue. The word “sustainable” and its extended form “sustainability” serve to outline the dilemma.

The word “sustainable” has become a linguistic football, partly because it has such a comforting and welcome connotation. We hope that much in our lives will be sustainable, maybe last forever without change, something we can count on, something that will not deteriorate.

Forces and influences outside of agriculture have woven the word sustainable into the language describing certain crops, certain activities and certain uses. As it is becoming accepted, rolling off the tongue easily, new and precise interpretations are being offered. They can be, probably are, different from the widely accepted meaning. Whoa!

Unfortunately, some groups or organizations are ready and willing to distort or change the meaning of a word to their own advantage. It might have happened already with the word “sustainable.”

A recent news report tells of an organization of young people with remote ties to farming dedicated to explaining farming’s mystique and appeal to those who have no connection with it.  Incidentally, these youngsters seek to redefine or at least clarify certain words and terms that apply to farming.

Apparently, the word “sustainable” or “sustainability” will be one of the words this group will tackle. Others, not necessarily friendly to farming, have provided a troublesome re-definition that implies that being sustainable includes a strong element of human relations. That is reassuring and reasonable, but absolutely wrong.

The earlier re-definition was provided by a labor oriented group, opening the door to union affiliation as an element of sustainability. Nice try. The opposite is true. Much of farming’s sustainability has occurred, and occurs now, because the restrictions and obligations imposed by union membership don’t exist to hinder progress, development and continued viability.

It is troubling that a few crops and agricultural industries in California and elsewhere have “taken the bait,” have fallen for the re-definition of the word “sustainable” because they believe such identification will increase acceptance of their product. That may occur in the short run.

However, in the long run, we’re better off reminding ourselves that words means things, and that supporting and emphasizing their true meaning makes it easier for us to understand each other. It makes our relationships more sustainable.

Don Curlee
Don Curlee is your man when it comes to Agriculture. His Ag Alert column in our publication is sure to inform you on what you need to know when it comes to the agricultural industry.