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Home > Master Publication List > Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction

Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction


Richard Earles; revised by Paul Williams
NCAT Program Specialist
© NCAT 2005
IP043


Table of Contents

Farm
Photo courtesy USDA NRCS

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Sustainable agriculture is one that produces abundant food without depleting the earth’s resources or polluting its environment. It is agriculture that follows the principles of nature to develop systems for raising crops and livestock that are, like nature, self-sustaining. Sustainable agriculture is also the agriculture of social values, one whose success is indistinguishable from vibrant rural communities, rich lives for families on the farms, and wholesome food for everyone. But in the first decade of the 21st Century, sustainable agriculture, as a set of commonly accepted practices or a model farm economy, is still in its infancy—more than an idea, but only just.

Although sustainability in agriculture is tied to broader issues of the global economy, declining petroleum reserves, and domestic food security, its midwives were not government policy makers but small farmers, environmentalists, and a persistent cadre of agricultural scientists. These people saw the devastation that late 20th-Century farming was causing to the very means of agricultural production—the water and soil—and so began a search for better ways to farm, an exploration that continues to this day.

Conventional 20th-Century agriculture took industrial production as its model, and vertically-integrated agri-business was the result. The industrial approach, coupled with substantial government subsidies, made food abundant and cheap in the United States. But farms are biological systems, not mechanical ones, and they exist in a social context in ways that manufacturing plants do not. Through its emphasis on high production, the industrial model has degraded soil and water, reduced the biodiversity that is a key element to food security, increased our dependence on imported oil, and driven more and more acres into the hands of fewer and fewer "farmers," crippling rural communities.

In recent decades, sustainable farmers and researchers around the world have responded to the extractive industrial model with ecology-based approaches, variously called natural, organic, low-input, alternative, regenerative, holistic, Biodynamic, biointensive, and biological farming systems. All of them, representing thousands of farms, have contributed to our understanding of what sustainable systems are, and each of them shares a vision of "farming with nature," an agro-ecology that promotes biodiversity, recycles plant nutrients, protects soil from erosion, conserves and protects water, uses minimum tillage, and integrates crop and livestock enterprises on the farm.

But no matter how elegant the system or how accomplished the farmer, no agriculture is sustainable if it’s not also profitable, able to provide a healthy family income and a good quality of life. Sustainable practices lend themselves to smaller, family-scale farms. These farms, in turn, tend to find their best niches in local markets, within local food systems, 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 markets remains one of the key challenges for sustainable agriculture.

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How Do We Achieve Sustainability?

On-farm processed jam.
Jam processed on-farm is one example of a value-added product.
Photo by: Nathalie Dulex

Farmers and other agricultural thinkers have established a strong set of guiding principles for sustainability, based on stewardship and economic justice. Producers and researchers are annually increasing the pace of improvements in agro-ecology systems, making them more efficient and profitable. More Cooperative Extension offices and colleges of agriculture are endorsing sustainable practices. And every year more farmers are seeing the wisdom and rewards—both economic and personal—in these systems. (Organic products are the fastest growing grocery segment in the United States.) Little by little—one crop, one field, one family at a time—sustainable farming is taking root.

Off the farm, consumers and grassroots activists are working to create local markets and farm policies that support sustainable practices. They are working to raise consumers’ awareness about how their food is grown and processed—how plants, animals, the soil, and the water are treated. And they are working to forge stronger bonds between producers and consumers that will, in time, cement the foundations of locally and regionally self-sufficient food systems. In contrast to mono-cropped industrial megafarms that ship throughout the world, the vision of sustainable agriculture’s futurists is small to mid-size diversified farms supplying the majority of their region’s food. (No one in Idaho has to give up orange juice, and there will still be cranberries in California for Thanksgiving.)

Listed below are some of the key considerations for making a farm more sustainable, along with relevant ATTRA publications in those areas. Because each farm is different, there’s no single formula for sustainable success, but these principles and publications are good places to begin learning what it will take. And for a more detailed look at some of these same fundamentals, see the ATTRA publication Applying the Principles of Sustainable Agriculture.

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Know Your Markets, Protect Your Profits, and Add Value to Your Products

Fresh peaches at a farmers' market in California.
Fresh peaches at a farmers' market in California.
Photo by: Erik Dungan.

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Build Soil Structure and Fertility

No-till soybeans growing through wheat stubble in Kansas.
No-till soybeans growing through wheat stubble in Kansas.
Photo courtesy USDA NRCS.

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Protect Water Quality on and Beyond the Farm

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Manage Pests Ecologically; Use Minimal Pesticides

  • Lady beetles on a fava bean leaf.
    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.
    Prevent pest problems by building healthy, biologically active soil; by creating habitat for beneficial organisms; and by choosing appropriate plant cultivars.
  • View the farm as a component of an ecosystem, and take actions to restore and enhance pest–predator balances. Understand that the mere presence of a pest does not necessarily constitute a problem; base any intervention on monitoring thresholds.
  • Before intervening with a chemical, positively identify the pest species and learn about its life cycle and ecology. Implement cultural practices that alter the cropping system and surrounding habitat to make life more difficult for the pest and easier for its natural enemies.
  • Use pesticides as the last resort, when biological and cultural controls have failed to keep pest populations below economically damaging levels. If you have to use chemicals, seek out the least-toxic pesticide that will control the pest.

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Maximize Biodiversity on the Farm

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How Can I Learn More About Sustainable Agriculture?

A small dairy farm in Maryland.
A small dairy farm in Maryland.
Photo by: Scott Bauer, USDA ARS.

There is a wealth of historical, philosophical, scientific, practical, and policy-oriented writing on sustainable agriculture. The following list of books and Web sites is offered as a starting point.

Print Resources

AFSIC Staff and Volunteer (eds.). 1997 and 2001. Sustainable Agriculture in Print: Current Books. Special Reference Briefs Series no. SRB 97-05. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center. National Agriculture Library, Beltsville, Maryland.
www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/AFSIC_pubs/srb97-05.htm and www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/AFSIC_pubs/srb9705u.htm

For printed copies contact:
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
USDA, ARS, NAL, AFSIC
10301 Baltimore Ave.
Beltsville, MD 20705-2351
301-504-6422
afsic@nal.usda.gov

Berry, Wendell. 1996. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. 3rd edition. University of California Press, Davis. 256 p.

Bird, Elizabeth Ann R., Gordon L. Bultena, and John C. Gardner (eds.) 1995. Planting the Future: Developing an Agriculture that Sustains Land and Community. Iowa State University Press, Ames, IA. 276 p.

Horne, James E. and Maura McDermott. 2001. The Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to a Healthy, Sustainable Agriculture. Food Products Press, an imprint of The Haworth Press, Binghamton, NY. 312 p.

Jackson, Wes. 1985. New Roots for Agriculture. 2nd edition. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE. 150 p.

Sustainable Agriculture Network. 2002. Resources from the Sustainable Agriculture Network. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program. Sustainable Agriculture Publications, 210 UVM, Hills Building, Burlington, VT 05405-0082. www.sare.org/publications/index.htm

Selected Web Sites
(for more go to www.attra.ncat.org/fundamental.html)


Agroecology: principles and strategies for designing sustainable farming systems
www.CNR.Berkeley.EDU/%7Eagroeco3/principles_and_strategies.html

Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
www.nal.usda.gov/afsic

Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms
www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/AFSIC_pubs/srb9902.htm

ATTRA—National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
www.attra.ncat.org

Center for Applied Rural Innovation ( Nebraska)
http://cari.unl.edu/sustainable.html

Center for Rural Affairs
www.cfra.org/

Community Alliance with Family Farmers ( California)
www.caff.org/

Future Horizons: Recent Literature in Sustainable Agriculture
http://ianrwww.unl.edu/ianr/csas/extvol6.htm

John Ikerd’s Series of Papers on Sustainable Agriculture
www.ssu.missouri.edu/faculty/Jikerd/papers/default.htm

Land Stewardship Project
www.landstewardshipproject.org/

Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
www.leopold.iastate.edu

Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture
www.misa.umn.edu/

Missouri Alternatives Center
http://agebb.missouri.edu/mac/

National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture
www.sustainableagriculture.net

Sustainable Agriculture Network
www.sare.org

The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation
www.sare.org/publications/naf/naf.pdf

Sustainable Farming Connection
www.ibiblio.org/farming-connection/

Sustainable Communities Network
http://sustainable.org/economy/agriculture.html

University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program
www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/

 

By Richard Earles
Revised 2005 by Paul Williams

NCAT Program Specialist
Copyright © 2005 National Center for Appropriate Technology
IP043
Slot 121
Version 042805

 

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This page was last updated on: April 26, 2012