Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction


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Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction

  1. 1. Sustainable Agriculture: ATTRA An Introduction A Publication of ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service • 1-800-346-9140 • www.attra.ncat.orgBy Richard Earles;revised by PaulWilliams, NCATProgram Specialist© NCAT 2005ContentsWhat is SustainableAgriculture? ...................... 1How Do We AchieveSustainability? ................. 2Know Your Markets,Protect Your Profits,and Add Value to YourProducts ............................ 3Build Soil Structure andFertility ............................... 3Protect Water Qualityon and Beyond theFarm .................................... 4 Photo courtesy USDA NRCSManage Pests Ecologi-cally; Use Minimal What is Sustainable food security, its midwives were not gov-Pesticides .......................... 4 ernment policy makers but small farmers,Maximize Biodiversity on Agriculture? environmentalists, and a persistent cadre ofthe Farm............................. 5 Sustainable agriculture is one that produces agricultural scientists. These people saw theHow Can I Learn More abundant food without depleting the earth’s devastation that late 20th-Century farmingAbout SustainableAgriculture? ...................... 6 resources or polluting its environment. It was causing to the very means of agricul- is agriculture that follows the principles of tural production—the water and soil—and so nature to develop systems for raising crops began a search for better ways to farm, an and livestock that are, like nature, self-sus- exploration that continues to this day. taining. Sustainable agriculture is also the agriculture of social values, one whose suc- Conventional 20th-Century agriculture took cess is indistinguishable from vibrant rural industrial production as its model, and verti- communities, rich lives for families on the cally-integrated agri-business was the result. farms, and wholesome food for everyone. But The industrial approach, coupled with sub-ATTRA is the national sustain-able agriculture information in the first decade of the 21st Century, sus- stantial government subsidies, made foodservice operated by the National tainable agriculture, as a set of commonly abundant and cheap in the United States. ButCenter for Appropriate Technol- farms are biological systems, not mechani-ogy, through a grant from the accepted practices or a model farm economy,Rural Business-Cooperative Ser- cal ones, and they exist in a social contextvice, U.S. Department of Agricul- is still in its infancy—more than an idea, but in ways that manufacturing plants do not.ture. These organizations do not only just.recommend or endorse prod- Through its emphasis on high production, theucts, companies, or individu-als. NCAT has offices Although sustainability in agriculture is tied industrial model has degraded soil and water,in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to broader issues of the global economy, de- reduced the biodiversity that is a key elementButte, Montana, andDavis, California. ���� clining petroleum reserves, and domestic to food security, increased our dependence
  2. 2. on imported oil, and driven more and more one field, one family at a time—sustainable acres into the hands of fewer and fewer farming is taking root. “farmers,” crippling rural communities. Off the farm, consumers and grassroots activ- In recent decades, sustainable farmers and ists are working to create local markets and researchers around the world have responded farm policies that support sustainable prac- to the extractive industrial model with ecol- tices. They are working to raise consumers’ ogy-based approaches, variously called natu- awareness about how their food is grown and ral, organic, low-input, alternative, regenera- processed—how plants, animals, the soil, and tive, holistic, Biodynamic, biointensive, and the water are treated. And they are working biological farming systems. All of them, rep- to forge stronger bonds between producers resenting thousands of farms, have contrib- and consumers that will, in time, cement the uted to our understanding of what sustain- foundations of locally and regionally self- able systems are, and each of them shares sufficient food systems. In contrast to mono- a vision of “farming with nature,” an agro- cropped industrial megafarms that ship ecology that promotes biodiversity, recycles plant nutrients, protects soil from erosion, Jam processed on-farm is one example of a value-L conserves and protects water, uses mini- added product. Photo by Nathalie Dulex. ittle by mum tillage, and integrates crop and live- little—one stock enterprises on the farm. crop, one But no matter how elegant the system or howfield, one family at accomplished the farmer, no agriculture isa time—sustain- sustainable if it’s not also profitable, able toable farming is provide a healthy family income and a good quality of life. Sustainable practices lendtaking root. themselves to smaller, family-scale farms. These farms, in turn, tend to find their best niches in local markets, within local food sys- tems, often selling directly to consumers. As alternatives to industrial agriculture evolve, so must their markets and the farmers who serve them. Creating and serving new mar- kets remains one of the key challenges for sustainable agriculture. How Do We Achieve Sustainability? Farmers and other agricultural thinkers have throughout the world, the vision of sustain- established a strong set of guiding principles able agriculture’s futurists is small to mid- for sustainability, based on stewardship and size diversified farms supplying the majority economic justice. Producers and researchers of their region’s food. (No one in Idaho has are annually increasing the pace of improve- to give up orange juice, and there will still ments in agro-ecology systems, making them be cranberries in California for Thanksgiv- more efficient and profitable. More Coopera- ing.) tive Extension offices and colleges of agricul- Listed below are some of the key consider- ture are endorsing sustainable practices. And ations for making a farm more sustainable, every year more farmers are seeing the wis- along with relevant ATTRA publications in dom and rewards—both economic and per- those areas. Because each farm is differ- sonal—in these systems. (Organic products ent, there’s no single formula for sustainable are the fastest growing grocery segment in success, but these principles and publica- the United States.) Little by little—one crop, tions are good places to begin learning whatPage 2 ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction
  3. 3. it will take. And for a more detailed look atsome of these same fundamentals, see theATTRA publication Applying the Principlesof Sustainable Agriculture.Know Your Markets, ProtectYour Profits, and Add Valueto Your Products• Diversify enterprises.• Market outside the commodity supply chains and corporate vertical integra- tors.• Emphasize direct marketing and pre- mium specialty markets.• Consider forming a cooperative with other farmers.• Add value through on-farm processing. 4 USDA-RBS Series on Cooperatives Fresh peaches at a 4 Holistic Management farmers market in Cali- 4 Keys to Success in Value-added 4 Evaluating a Rural Enterprise Agriculture fornia. Photo by Erik 4 Moving Beyond Conventional Cash Dungan. 4 Adding Value to Farm Products: An Cropping Overview 4 Entertainment Farming 4 Grain Processing and Agri-Tourism 4 Oilseed Processing for Small Producers 4 Agricultural Business Planning Templates 4 Food Dehydration Options 4 Enterprise Budgets and Production Costs 4 Soyfoods: Adding Value to Soybeans for Organic Production 4 Sorghum Syrup 4 Preparing for an Organic Inspection: 4 Value-added Dairy Options Steps and Checklists 4 Direct Marketing Build Soil Structure 4 Farmers’ Markets and Fertility 4 CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) • Reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers by 4 Bringing Local Food to Local Institutions increasing on-farm nutrient cycling. 4 Selling to Restaurants • Make fertilization decisions based on 4 Organic Certification and the National Organic Program soil tests. 4 Organic Marketing Resources • Minimize or eliminate tillage. 4 Alternative Meat Marketing • Think of the soil not only as a physical and chemical substrate but as a living entity; manage the soil organisms to pre- serve their healthy diversity. • Maintain ground cover year-round by using cover crops and mulches and by leaving crop residues in the field. 4 Sustainable Soil Management 4 Drought Resistant Soil 4 Nutrient Cycling in Pastures 4 Manures for Organic Crop Production No-till soybeans growing through wheat stubble in Kansas. Photo courtesy USDA ATTRA Page 3
  4. 4. and sediment movement into lakes and streams. • Manage irrigation to enhance nutrient uptake and decrease nutrient leaching. • Produce livestock in pasture-based sys- tems. 4 Nutrient Cycling in Pastures 4 Protecting Water Quality on Organic Farms 4 Protecting Riparian Areas 4 Managed Grazing in Riparian Areas 4 Conservation Easements 4 Montana Irrigator’s Pocket Guide 4 Constructed Wetlands 4 Conservation Tillage 4 Sustainable Soil Management 4 Drought Resistant Soil 4 Sustainable Pasture ManagementStreams without conser- 4 Overview of Cover Crops and Green 4 Agroforestry Overviewvation buffers run higher Manuresrisks of streambank 4 Overview of Organic Crop Productionerosion, contamination Manage Pests Ecologically; 4 Farm-scale Composting Resource Listwith farm chemicals,and sedimentation, as 4 Conservation Tillage Use Minimal Pesticideswell as offer no habitat 4 Pursuing Conservation Tillage Systems • Prevent pest problems by buildingfor wildlife. Photo by for Organic Crop Production healthy, biologically active soil; by creat-Lynn Betts, USDA NRCS. 4 Assessing the Pasture Soil Resource ing habitat for beneficial organisms; and 4 Alternative Soil Testing Laboratories by choosing appropriate plant cultivars. 4 Alternative Soil Amendments • View the farm as a component of an eco- 4 Sources of Organic Fertilizers and system, and take actions to restore and Amendments enhance pest–predator balances. Under- Protect Water Quality on stand that the mere presence of a pest does not necessarily constitute a prob- and Beyond the Farm lem; base any intervention on monitoring • Use soil-building practices that increase soil organic matter and support a biologi- cally active humus complex. • Use soil conservation practices that re- duce the potential for water runoff and erosion. • Plant perennial crops such as forages, trees, and shrubs. • Plant catch crops or cover crops to take up nutrients that may otherwise leach into the subsoil. • Provide buffer areas between fields and water bodies to protect against nutrient Lady beetles look for aphids on a fava bean leaf. Scientists think the beetles might help in controlling Russian wheat aphids that now infest 17 Great Plains and Western states. Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS.Page 4 ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction
  5. 5. (crop scouting) and economic damage Maximize Biodiversity on thresholds. the Farm• Before intervening with a chemical, posi- • Integrate crop and livestock produc- tively identify the pest species and learn tion. about its life cycle and ecology. Imple- • Use hedgerows, insectary plants, cover ment cultural practices that alter the crops, and water reservoirs to attract and cropping system and surrounding habi- support populations of beneficial insects, tat to make life more difficult for the pest bats, and birds. and easier for its natural enemies. • Abandon monocropping in favor of crop• Use pesticides as the last resort, when rotations, intercropping, and companion biological and cultural controls have planting. failed to keep pest populations below eco- • Plant a percentage of your land in trees nomically damaging levels. If you have and other perennial crops in permanent to use chemicals, seek out the least-toxic plantings or long-term rotations. pesticide that will control the pest. • Manage pastures to support a diverse A 4 Biointensive Integrated Pest selection of forage plants. s alterna- Management • Plant off-season cover crops. 4 Farmscaping to Enhance Biological tives to 4 Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control Control industrial 4 Sustainable Management of Soil-borne 4 Intercropping Principles and Production agriculture evolve, Plant Diseases Practices 4 Integrated Pest Management so must their 4 Companion Planting: Basic Concepts for Greenhouse Crops and Resources markets and the 4 Principles of Sustainable Weed 4 Converting Cropland to Perennial farmers who serve Management Grassland 4 Sustainable Pasture Management them. 4 Integrated Parasite Management for Livestock 4 Multispecies Grazing 4 A Whole Farm Approach to Managing 4 Agroforestry Overview Pests (SAN publication) 4 Woodlot Enterprises Ewes and lambs on pasture in Linn County, Oregon. Photo by Ron Nichols, USDA ATTRA Page 5
  6. 6. How Can I Learn More About Berry, Wendell. 1996. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. 3rd edition. Univer-Sustainable Agriculture? sity of California Press, Davis. 256 p.There is a wealth of historical, philosophical, scientific,practical, and policy-oriented writing on sustainable Bird, Elizabeth Ann R., Gordon L. Bultena, and Johnagriculture. The following list of books and Web sites is C. Gardner (eds.) 1995. Planting the Future:offered as a starting point. Developing an Agriculture that Sustains Land and Community. Iowa State University Press,Print Resources: Ames, IA. 276 p.AFSIC Staff and Volunteer (eds.). 1997 and 2001. Horne, James E. and Maura McDermott. 2001. TheSustainable Agriculture in Print: Current Books. Spe- Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to acial Reference Briefs Series no. SRB 97-05. Alterna- Healthy, Sustainable Agriculture. Food Prod-tive Farming Systems Information Center. National ucts Press, an imprint of The Haworth Press,Agriculture Library, Beltsville, Maryland. Binghamton, NY. 312 pubs/srb97-05.htm and Jackson, Wes. 1985. New Roots for 2nd edition. University of Nebraska Press,For printed copies contact: Lincoln, NE. 150 p. Alternative Farming Systems Information Sustainable Agriculture Network. 2002. Resources Center from the Sustainable Agriculture Network. USDA, ARS, NAL, AFSIC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Educa- 10301 Baltimore Ave. tion (SARE) Program. Sustainable Agricul- Beltsville, MD 20705-2351 ture Publications, 210 UVM, Hills Building, 301-504-6422 Burlington, VT 05405-0082. Selected Web Sites: (for more go to Agroecology: principles and strategies for designing sustainable farming systems www.CNR.Berkeley.EDU/%7Eagroeco3/principles_and_ strategies.html Alternative Farming Systems Information Center Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms ATTRA—National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service Center for Applied Rural Innovation (Nebraska) Center for Rural Affairs Community Alliance with Family Farmers (California) A small dairy farm in Maryland. Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS.Page 6 ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction
  7. 7. Future Horizons: Recent Literature in Sustainable National Campaign for Sustainable AgricultureAgriculture www.sustainableagriculture.net Sustainable Agriculture NetworkJohn Ikerd’s Series of Papers on Sustainable www.sare.orgAgriculture The New American Farmer: Profiles of InnovationLand Stewardship Project Sustainable Farming ConnectionLeopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Sustainable Communities NetworkMinnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture University of California Sustainable AgricultureMissouri Alternatives Center Research and Education Program ATTRA Page 7
  8. 8. Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction By Richard Earles; revised by Paul Williams, NCAT Program Specialist ©NCAT 2005 Paul Williams, Editor Robyn Metzger, Production This publication is available on the Web at: or IP 043 Slot 121 Version 042805Page 8 ATTRA