Sustainable agriculture can essentially be described as the practice of farming ecologically. Rather than focusing only on the economic viability of the crops, sustainable agriculture also involves using nonrenewable resources effectively, growing nutritious foods and enhancing the quality of life of the farmers [source: Department of Agriculture].
Besides the obvious benefits, sustainable farming also allows farmers to transform their farms into giant recycling centers. They can turn crop waste and animal manure into fertilizers, use crop rotation to enrich the soil and reroute rainwater to fuel the irrigation system. Not only does this save money, but it also conserves natural resources. Sustainable farming also lowers the need for chemicals and pesticides, and it makes the transition to a more organic, clean farming process a lot more feasible.
But how exactly can you turn your farm into a sustainable one? It all starts with a few conscious changes. In this article, we'll look at 10 things you can do, starting with crop rotation.
10: Crop Rotation
Crop rotation is probably the oldest and simplest system used to maintain the health of soil. While it might not seem so to the non-farming community, crop rotation has a logical order, chosen so the crops planted today can help replenish the nutrients that the previous crops depleted from the soil. In most cases, the system is simple: Plant grains after legumes or row crops after grains. In others cases, it's more specific, such as planting barley after wheat to maintain soil fertility and reduce erosion and weather damage.
According to the experts, one of crop rotation's biggest advantages is that it can prevent the transmission of disease [source: Peel]. Bacterial tilt, crown rot, tan spot and a number of pests, such as septoria, scab and phoma, can be deterred easily by rotating crops. Because most of these diseases and pests affect a specific type of crop, you can eradicate them by switching to a different crop in your next rotation. For example, net blotch, which infects young seedlings and causes them to turn brown and die, affects mainly barley. By planting wheat or rye in your next rotation, you're ending the spread of the disease.
9: Crop Diversity
To help protect their crops against disease and pests, farmers can plant variations of the same species, getting seeds from different growers to ensure small but important differences among the plants. These variations ensure genetic diversity, which makes the crops stronger. For example, if 10 varieties of corn are planted at the same time, mixed together, chances are a pest attack won't affect all of them, reducing the need for pesticides and cutting down on crop loss. This in turn results in less financial distress. Unfortunately, crop diversity as a sustainable practice has been on the decline. For example, the variety of peas for sale in 1903 exceeded 400. Today, 96 percent of the pea crops grown in the United States come from just two varieties [source: Oregon State University].
8: Integrated Pest Management
Integrated pest management is just what the name implies: the combination of different techniques to create an effective pest control system. Monitoring and identifying pests is the first step. Not all pests need to be eliminated. Some don't cause major damage to the crops, and it might make more financial sense to just let them be than to start a large-scale battle to exterminate them. Prevention is also part of integrated pest management. By using techniques like choosing pest-resistant crops, rotating crops and using beneficial insects, the risk of pests settling in is smaller. When it's time to attack pests, targeted spraying is best. This means not only spraying the specific areas that are affected, but also using chemicals that target only one specific pest and don't put beneficial insects or other wildlife at risk in the process.
7: Attracting Beneficial Animals
One of the best ways to get rid of pests and harmful insects is to invite in their natural predators. Bats and birds are the two most obvious choices. Both typically stick around if they have a place to nest, and that usually means farmers will need to build some type of artificial shelter in the form of wood boxes or small sheds. The next step in organic pest control is to ensure that beneficial insects also stick around. Ladybugs, beetles, green lacewing larvae and fly parasites all feed on pests, including aphids, mites and pest flies. Farmer can buy ladybugs and other beneficial insects in bulk from pest control stores or farming supply shops, then they can release the insects on and around the crops or manure and let them set up homes on their own. Before long, they'll be feeding on harmful insects.
6: Soil Fertility
Keeping your farm's soil healthy is essential, as crops get most of their nutrients directly from the soil. In fact, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, farm sustainability depends more on soil than on any other factor, including human help and intervention [source: Sullivan]. That doesn't mean farmers can't do anything about the health of their soil, though. In fact, a number of techniques are available to help improve its health. Tillage practices, which consist of plowing, turning and airing the soil, have been around for centuries and are still as useful as ever. Many farmers leave some crop residue on the ground before they till to add to the richness of the soil. Adding organic matter, such as manure or cover crops, can also help the soil. Other organic compounds that can be added to the ground as fertilizers include alfalfa meal, wood ash, animal byproducts, rock and mineral products, and alumino-silicate materials.
5: Managed Grazing
Managed grazing is basically a livestock rotation that moves animals to graze in different areas. This is essential for many reasons. Moving the animals means they'll have access to different pastures, which means they'll get a variety of nutrients and less exposure to parasites and dust. Livestock need to eat a diet that consists of legumes (40 percent) and grass (60 percent) to maintain optimal health [source: Ekarius]. Managing their grazing by moving them around will ensure better exposure to a variety of plants, and it also means less erosion because you don't have the animals tromping over the same area of land over and over. Managed grazing also helps with weed control and soil fertility: The manure left behind will serve as a natural fertilizer.
4: Physical Removal of Weeds
While this might be impractical for large farms, smaller crops can easily be taken care of without the use of chemicals. Hand removal is labor intensive and usually only reserved for specific areas machines can't reach or where the crops are too fragile. Most of the physical removal of weeds is done through the use of agricultural machinery or tools. Mowing and grazing are especially effective before weeds produce seeds. Not only does this prevent the weeds from reproducing, but the weeds can also become mulch if not removed. Burning old crops is also an option, but one that should be approached carefully. Not only can burning damage the soil and the local wildlife, but it's also dangerous to the workers.
3: Management of Water
There are two major problems in water management in farms: the poor performance of irrigation systems and water waste. The best way to manage water usage in farms is to choose native crops, since these will be more used to the local weather and able to stand longer periods without rain. Selecting drought-tolerant crops is also key for farmers who live in dry areas. The next step in the effective management of water resources is to have an efficient irrigation system in place, because inefficient systems can deplete rivers, degrade soil and affect wildlife.
Limited irrigation is a practical solution for sustainable farming. Mulch and other cover crops can help retain water so the soil stays moist longer. It's also possible to set up a system that collects rainwater and feeds it into the irrigation system. Some farms even set up recycling systems so they can reuse municipal waste water for irrigation.
2: Growing to Sell Locally
Grow and sell in the same town, and you won't have to worry about the pollution created by having to transport, package and store crops. Growing and buying locally is key to sustainability, as it enriches the community, minimizes energy consumption, and protects air and soil quality. That's even before the food-packaging industry adds the plastic and paper waste required to store and transport the food safely. Growing and selling locally also encourages farming in a small scale, so you can have faster turnovers. This in turn pushes more money into the local economy, benefiting the buyers and eventually the farmers again. According to the consumer program Sustainable Table, small farms that work and sell locally are also more likely to engage in local business, buying seeds, farming products and equipment from local businesses and producers [source: Sustainable Table].
1: Use of Alternative Energy
While solar and wind energy are well known, there are many other ways to harness energy from alternative sources. Some forms of alternative energy depend on the location of the crops. For example, hydroelectric power might be an option for larger farms near a source of running water, and geothermal heat pumps might work if the type of soil allows for digging deep wells to take advantage of the Earth's heat. Biofuels are another clean source of energy. Biodiesel, for example, can be manufactured from cottonseed oil, and it's not only a cheap source of energy, but also a very clean one.
Solar energy tends to be the most versatile, however. Farmers can use it to heat water and buildings, and also for crop and grain drying. It can also be stored in photovoltaic cells and used for everything from powering electrical fencing and lighting to running equipment such as pumps and heaters. Alternative energy equipment usually requires a hefty investment to get started, though, and this is often what prevents some farmers from trying it.
For more environmental and food articles, check out the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Sustainable Table: What is sustainable agriculture?
- National Geographic: Sustainable Agriculture
- Alternative Energy
- Bellows, Barbara. "Irrigation." National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. 2004. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://attra.ncat.org/downloads/water_quality/irrigation.pdf
- The Beneficial Insect Co. "Natural Control of Nuisance Flies." (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.thebeneficialinsectco.com/fly-predators.htm
- Chamberlain, Lisa. "Skyfarming." New York Magazine. April 1, 2007. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://nymag.com/news/features/30020/
- Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Australian Government. "Managing Weeds: Physical Control." Sept. 14, 2007. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.weeds.gov.au/management/physical-control.html
- Dufour, Rex. "Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control." National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. 2000. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/farmscape.html
- Ekarius, Carol. "Biodiesel -- Your Farm Has Fuel." Hobby Farms. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.hobbyfarms.com/crops-and-gardening/fuel-from-your-farm.aspx
- Ekarius, Carol. "Grazing the Surface: Managed Grazing." Hobby Farms. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.hobbyfarms.com/crops-and-gardening/managed-grazing-14837.aspx
- Environmental Protection Agency. "Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Principles." (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/ipm.htm
- Gold, Mary V. "What is Sustainable Agriculture?" United States Department of Agriculture. 2009. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/agnic/susag.shtml
- New Harvest. "Advancing Meat Substitutes." 2010. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://new-harvest.org/faq.htm
- Oregon State University. "Diminished Crop Diversity." Nov. 24, 2008. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://people.oregonstate.edu/~muirp/cropdiv.htm
- Peel, Michael D. "Crop Rotations for Increased Productivity." North Dakota State University. January 1998. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/plantsci/crops/eb48-1.htm
- Shute, Nancy. "What Will We Eat in a Hungrier World?" U.S. News. July 24, 2008. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.usnews.com/science/articles/2008/07/24/what-will-we-eat-in-a-hungrier-world.html
- Sullivan, Preston. "Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures." National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. 2003. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/covercrop.html
- Sullivan, Preston. "Alternative Soil Amendments." National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. 2001. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/altsoilamend.html
- Sustainable Table. "Eat Local, Buy Local, Be Local." January 2009. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/eatlocal/
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. "What Alternative Energy Options are Available for Farms?" December 2005. (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/altenergy.shtml
- U.S. Department of Energy. "Solar Energy Applications for Farms and Ranches." (Sept. 12, 2011) http://www.energysavers.gov/your_workplace/farms_ranches/index.cfm/mytopic=30006