Richard Earles; revised by Paul Williams
NCAT Program Specialist
© NCAT 2005
Photo courtesy USDA NRCS
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.
Jam processed on-farm is one example of a value-added product. Photo: 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 Farming.
Fresh peaches at a farmers market in California. Photo: Erik Dungan
No-till soybeans growing through wheat stubble in Kansas. Photo: Courtesy of USDA NRCS
Streams without conservation buffers run higher risks of streambank erosion, contamination with farm chemicals, and sedimentation, as well as offer no habitat for wildlife. Photo: Lynn Betts, USDA NRCS
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: Scott Bauer, USDA ARS
Ewes and lambs on pasture in Linn County, Oregon. Photo: Ron Nichols, USDA NRCS
A small dairy farm in Maryland.
Photo: 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.
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.
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. https://www.sare.org/
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
ATTRA—National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
Rural Innovation and Development (Nebraska)
Center for Rural Affairs
Community Alliance with Family Farmers ( California)
Land Stewardship Project
Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture
Missouri Alternatives Center
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE)
Sustainable Farming Connection
University of California Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute
By Richard Earles
Revised 2005 by Paul Williams
NCAT Program Specialist
Copyright © 2005 National Center for Appropriate Technology
This page was last updated on: April 25, 2019