Sustainable Agriculture

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)

The concept of sustainable agriculture, or agriculture that strives to preserve natural and community resources, has been around almost as long as agriculture itself. Long ago farmers learned, often the hard way, that over-working their fields led to a breakdown in soil fertility and ultimately, converted a once productive field into a dead zone. In some cases, this led to starvation, and even contributed to the downfall of entire civilizations.

Today, industrial agriculture is largely responsible for putting food on our table. Early in the last century, millions of people around the world were starving because of a shortage of food stores, particularly grains. Thus, the world embarked on what is popularly referred to as the Green Revolution. Over the last 60 years, through the increased use of large scale mechanization (thanks in part to plentiful and inexpensive hydrocarbons), synthetic fertilizers (again by virtue of hydrocarbons), chemical pesticides, and, more recently, the development of pest- and herbicide-resistant crops, industrial agriculture dramatically increased crop yields and helped meet the growing global demand for food.

However, increased agricultural production came at a high price. Nutrient depletion of topsoil, contamination of groundwater and surface water by fertilizers and pesticides, pesticide-related illness, the decline of family farms, continued neglect of the living and working conditions for farm laborers, and the disintegration of economic and social conditions in rural communities are some of the negative effects born of industrial agriculture. Recently, attention has focused on the increasingly expensive and depleting hydrocarbon resources (natural gas and oil) necessary for producing synthetic fertilizer and powering massive industrial farms.

Sustainable agriculture is an alternative to these environmentally harmful and in the long term, potentially economically unviable, practices. Sustainable agriculture is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as an agricultural production and distribution system that: (1) integrates natural biological cycles and controls, (2) protects and renews soil fertility, (3) optimizes the management and use of on-farm resources, (4) reduces the use of non-renewable resources and purchased goods, (5) provides an adequate and dependable farm income, (6) promotes opportunity in family farming and farm communities, and (7) minimizes adverse impacts to health, safety, wildlife, water quality and the environment.

Crop rotation is an example of a sustainable farming practice that integrates natural biological cycles and controls. Crop rotation breaks up pest and disease cycles. Recently, it has been discovered that longer crop rotations are even more beneficial because the pests and diseases can fully “burn out” leaving the field pest- and disease-free. Much like home gardeners in the residential setting, farmers can reduce pesticide use by providing habitat for beneficial insects, and planting species that encourage natural pest control. A thin strip of habitat at the edge of a field can attract enough beneficial insects to help control pests on the entire field.

Traditional farming involves tilling the soil in order to remove weeds, mixing in soil amendments like fertilizer, shaping the soil into rows for crop plants, creating furrows for irrigation and preparing the soil for seeding. This practice often leads to soil compaction, loss of organic matter, degradation of soil aggregates, death or disruption of soil microbes, arthropods, and earthworms, and soil erosion where topsoil is blown or washed away.

No-till farming protects and renews soil fertility and avoids the above problems by leaving the soil intact. In no-till agriculture, crop residues are left in place to decompose in the field allowing nutrients to feed back into the soil. The result is healthier, more fertile soil. Another valuable benefit to no-till is that carbon, a greenhouse gas and a necessary ingredient of soil fertility is kept in the soil, as opposed to being emitted into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming. Indeed, agricultural fields can be excellent carbon sinks.

The practice of no-till is not without its drawbacks, however. Often special and expensive farm equipment must be purchased, putting a financial burden on farmers. Also, no-till can drastically change weed composition. As an example, more perennial varieties may infest a field, causing a recurring problem that can encourage dependence on herbicides. However, because no-till provides a much less friendly weed bed than tilling, no-till reduces the rate of weed propagation over time.

Re-using composted animal manure as fertilizer instead of synthetic fertilizers is one way farmers can optimize the management and use of on-farm resources. This practice also reduces the use of nonrenewable resources and purchased goods. Another example is using bio-diesel, a fuel produced from the oil-bearing seeds of crops including canola, soybeans, and sunflowers, as opposed to burning conventional diesel to run farm equipment.

The growing demand for organic food has provided many farmers with an excellent business opportunity, because consumers are willing to pay a premium for the organic label. The organic movement is helping to provide an adequate and dependable farm income for many farmers. Niche farming, or the production of exotic specialty produce on request for a single customer or a group of buyers, is also making agriculture profitable. Because the specialty crop is not commercially available, the farmer can get a premium for the produce.

Citizens buy strawberries at a local farmer's marketConsumers can get locally raised food by shopping at the local farmer’s market or purchasing a share of the yield from a nearby farm. Both practices are part of a growing movement that is supporting local farmers and providing them with a niche in their local community. The farmer saves money on transportation costs; less travel time means fresher food for the consumer! Local buying by consumers also helps promote opportunity in family farming and farm communities by enabling farmers to stay in business and pass on their knowledge and experience to the next generation.

Federal, state, and local government agencies play a key role by helping farmers minimize adverse impacts on health, safety, wildlife, water quality and the environment. Conservation districts and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service work together with farmers to minimize the environmental impact of agriculture. These agencies develop conservation plans for agricultural operations. They also offer cost-share programs that provide financial assistance to farmers who employ best management practices and protect natural resources. Other agencies like Cooperative Extension and the Farm Service Agency (FSA) sponsor or conduct seminars on equipment safety and new conservation methods and technologies.

So how can we as consumers encourage sustainable agriculture? First, educate yourself on the food you purchase. Where does it come from? How is it grown? And don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. For instance, if your local supermarket doesn’t carry organic beef, ask them to sell it. Shopping at local farmer’s markets, joining a food co-op or subscribing to a consumer supported agriculture program where farmers deliver a basket of their harvest to you, are additional ways of encouraging sustainable agriculture. You can even practice sustainable agriculture methods in your own home garden plot or while tending that single tomato plant on your patio.

Adopting sustainable ways of growing food can help make us and our environment healthier. Our decisions about how we buy and grow our food will shape the lives of generations to come.

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