There was a time when eggs were eggs, beef was beef and grapes were red or green. Eating locally meant going to the restaurant down the street. Now, farming isn't even just farming – it's industrial or sustainable. The former most often involves planting single crops, using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, tilling and shipping products long distances to market.
On the next page, learn why it is important to know where your food comes from.
Knowing Your Food
Sustainable farming has developed as an alternative to the industrial methods that tend to focus more on profit than preservation. Many industrial-farming practices can leave the land drained, eventually unfit for cultivation. Additionally, these practices may disregard animal welfare and tend to establish an unbridgeable gap between growers and consumers. You don't meet the farmers who grow your food when it's industrial-grown.
In sustainable farming, eggs are free range, beef has no added hormones and grapes are, in almost all cases, pesticide-free. Often, you can even shake the hand that picked those grapes.
The sustainable method is gathering speed as more and more operations, typically small-scale and organic, convert to the more Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, grower-friendly mode of operation. Some people practice sustainable farming in their backyards or community gardens.
Community is actually a significant component of sustainable farming, which is more of an overarching social philosophy than simply a farming method. The idea, at its most basic, is balance: Sustainable farmers grow food and raise livestock in natural conditions, using biodiversity and farm wide recycling of inputs and outputs to produce food that is healthy for everyone and everything involved in the process. These farmers typically sell in local markets and meet their consumers face to face.
Sustainability is, in clichéd but accurate terms, about the circle of life.
In this article, we'll see how sustainable farming attempts to meet its ideals. We'll look at methods involved in the process, check out the resulting benefits and find out about some of the challenges facing the approach.
If you plan to farm sustainably, you'll most likely be applying well-established techniques rather than state-of-the-art farming methods. Read on to learn more.
Sustainable Farming Methods
Think of sustainable farming as a living loop, the farm as an ecosystem: In this context, removing all naturally occurring life from a given piece of land and replacing it with a single crop or animal doesn't make a lot of sense. Instead, sustainable farming implements growing practices that support a naturally thriving environment, beginning with biodiversity.
Sustainable farmers incorporate not only multiple crops but also trees, shrubs and animal life that help those crops to thrive. They might plant a type of flower that attracts beneficial insects or cultivate plant life that tends to repel harmful bugs. Trees and shrubs can help fend off erosion, and a diverse biological population can help keep the soil nutrient-rich and discourage weeds and disease without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
Sustainable farmers cultivate the soil using natural means. They actively encourage a community of microorganisms that enhance fertility and work to establish a balance between pests and predators that keeps potential hazards under control. Sustainable farmers practice minimal tilling so they preserve this natural balance. Cover crops protect the soil during the off-season, and crop residue is left on the ground so all those nutrients return to the soil for next season. Regularly rotating crops helps keep the soil fertile for future generations.
Water Protection and Conservation
To the end of keeping the water supply clean and abundant, sustainable farming dictates the use of calculated irrigation and catch crops, which prevent minerals from washing out of the soil, in order to keep nutrients in the soil and out of groundwater. Tree and shrub root systems help prevent runoff and erosion in order to conserve both water and soil, and where crop lands meet bodies of water, buffer areas are established so farming activity does not adversely affect a water supply.
That sustainable farming would benefit the land is perhaps no surprise. The concept directly opposes environmentally damaging, industrial farming practices. But the "sustainable" in sustainable farming isn't only about the land.
On the next page discover some of the benefits of sustainable farming!
Benefits of Sustainable Farming
Lets take a look at some of the benefits of sustainable farming.
You Are What You Eat
Certainly, the Earth is the core of sustainable agriculture. The environmental benefits are pretty clear: A reduction in chemical contaminants, cleaner water supply, system wide recycling, long-term viability of crop land and a system that continually renews itself – with the help of human stewards. The humans aren't only the stewards of the system, though. They're also prime benefactors.
Evidence suggests that food grown without synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers is more healthful. Typically, sustainable farms are also organic farms, and organic food has no added growth hormones or agricultural chemicals that are potentially detrimental to human health.
Humane Living Conditions
There's more to the equation, though: the social side of sustainability. A key component of sustainable farming is humanity. This means, for one, humane treatment for animals: Chickens can roam, cows graze in pastures and animals live free from indoor containment. But humanity is not only for livestock; it's also for people. The sustainable method aims for fair wages and good living conditions for everyone working the land, so they can live free of government subsidies. The goal is not only for the food but also for the entire process to be sustainable.
Another crucial aspect of sustainability-as-way-of-life is community. Sustainable farming wants to reconnect food consumers with food growers. In the sustainable system, people know how and where their food is grown, and they respect and value the process. Farmers and consumers engage in a direct give-and-take: They are providing for each other in a very real way, which encourages mutual respect and a sense of community.
Those consumers typically are willing to pay a bit more for sustainably grown food because the philosophy of sustainability is important to them. This allows growers to earn more suitable wages than they may earn in a large industrial setup.
It all seems idyllic, but where "pay a bit more" is concerned, challenges arise. Sustainable farms face potentially lower output, greater labor requirements and the likely need to sell their output for a higher price. To achieve the profitability necessary for the quality of life that is part of a sustainable ideal, farmers must seek out appropriate markets for their goods. They need markets where sustainability and community connections are valued.
Sustainable farmers must put forth effort and marketing talent, and they must consider the possibility of taking a financial hit during a conversion from conventional to sustainable. But in the long run, evidence suggests sustainable methods can be at least as profitable as non sustainable ones, possibly more so.
And in sustainable agriculture, the long run is pretty important.
- Earles, Richard. “Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction.” National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. 2005. (July 28, 2010) http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/sustagintro.html
- MacRae, Rod. “Definition of the term ‘Sustainable Agriculture'.” Ecological Agriculture Projects. 1990. (July 28, 2010) http://eap.mcgill.ca/sustain.htm
- Sustainable Table. “Introduction to Sustainability: What is Sustainable Agriculture? (July 28, 2010) http://www.sustainabletable.org/intro/whatis/