Sustainable Agriculture

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					    University of Kentucky                                         College of Agriculture                                           New Crop Opportunities Center

  Sustainable Agriculture
  Introduction & Definition
  A new term – sustainable agriculture – is being
  used more and more frequently in conversations
  about the future of farming. New terms often start
  out meaning different things to different people,
  and sustainable agriculture is no exception. The
  purpose of this profile is to provide a better
  understanding of this term.
                                                                                             such that a farm either is or is not sustainable.
  What significance does sustainable agriculture                                             Growers with an eye to the future of their farm,
  have for Kentucky? By its nature, “sustainable”                                            their community, and the environment would
  refers to the practices and values that we wish                                            benefit from incorporating sustainable practices
  to preserve. When people mention sustainable                                               into their own farm business. The economic,
  agriculture, they are highlighting the positive                                            environmental, and social goals of sustainable
  contributions that farming makes to the entire                                             agriculture can serve as a useful yardstick for
  community.      Growing awareness of these                                                 measuring a farm’s performance and progress
  contributions can strengthen public interest and                                           over time. This approach makes sustainable
  investment in a more secure future for agriculture.                                        agriculture relevant to all farmers because it can
                                                                                             be applied to farms of every size and type.
  The 1990 Farm Bill1 described sustainable
  agricultural systems as those that:                                                        Sustainable & Organic Agriculture:
    • Satisfy human food and fiber needs                                                     How Do They Compare?
    • Enhance the environmental quality                                                      While there are important philosophical and
    and natural resource base upon which the                                                 practical similarities between sustainable and
    agricultural economy depends                                                             organic agriculture, there are also fundamental
    • Make the most efficient use of non-renewable                                           differences.    Both organic and sustainable
    resources and on-farm resources and integrate,                                           agriculture reflect production systems that rely
    where appropriate, natural biological cycles                                             on biological processes and natural cycles to
    and controls                                                                             build diversity and resilience within the farming
    • Sustain the economic viability of farm                                                 operation. However, use of the term “organic”
    operations                                                                               is now regulated by the USDA and requires
    • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and                                            compliance with recognized standards. The term
    society as a whole                                                                                         “sustainable” is unregulated
                                                                                                               and individuals are free to
  Sustainable agriculture should                                                                               apply it where and when they
  not be an either/or proposition,                                                                             choose.

Agriculture & Natural Resources • Family & Consumer Sciences • 4-H/Youth Development • Community & Economic Development

        Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, or national origin.
An important objective of organic production is a     Economic sustainability
marketable end product that is as free of synthetic   To be truly sustainable, a farm must be
compounds as possible. As a result, organic           economically profitable. The environmental and
growers may only use natural (non-synthetic)          social benefits of sustainable production methods
inputs. In addition, steps must be taken to protect   do not always translate into economic gains.
crops from, among other things, pesticide drift,      Some farms that operate sustainably may be
chemical run-off, and pollen contamination from       more profitable than their conventional farming
Genetically Modified Organisms. Sustainable           counterparts; however, the reverse can also be
farmers may use synthetic compounds, although         true. Many factors aside from crop production
the emphasis is on the minimal use of chemicals       methods can affect the bottom line. These
that will have the least environmental impact         can include, among other things, the grower’s
(such as low-toxicity pesticides).                    management strengths/weaknesses, decision-
                                                      making abilities, and marketing skills.
While National Organic Program guidelines are
meant to promote sustainability, some approved        That said, sustainable agriculture practices can
organic practices are not strictly sustainable.       have a positive economic impact on a farm.
For example, organic growers may use non-             For example, diversifying the farm with several
biodegradable plastic mulch (polyethylene)            crops and markets helps to reduce financial risk.
in crop production as long as it is removed at        Over time, improved soil and water quality,
the end of the season. However, the plastic is        as well as other environmental benefits from
manufactured from a non-renewable petroleum           sustainable practices, may raise the value of the
resource and its disposal after harvest can create    farm. Selling products directly to local markets
environmental problems.        Recycling plastic      in the community reduces shipping and fuel
mulch is difficult due to the presence of soil,       costs and can potentially decrease transportation
plant, and pesticide residues that are difficult,     costs. While sustainably grown produce may not
if not impossible to remove. As a result, the         bring the full price premiums sometimes paid
discarded mulch generally ends up either as “fill”    for certified organic products, growers selling
in low areas on the farm or at the local landfill.    directly to individuals and specialty markets can
                                                      still capture added value.
With the demand for organic products continuing
to increase, organic production has become big        Production costs can be variously affected by
business in some parts of the country and around      sustainable methods. Fertilizer and pesticide
the world. As a result, some large-scale organic      costs are generally reduced on a sustainably
farms have come to rely more on machinery             managed farm because, for example, legumes and
(requiring increased fossil fuel use) and purchased   crop rotations tend to be less expensive than their
off-farm inputs – practices that are contrary to      synthetic alternatives. Labor costs are often higher
sustainable agriculture.                              than conventional systems. The higher labor
                                                      costs are most often attributed to the increased
The Components of Sustainable                         time required for monitoring and managing pests
Agriculture                                           on sustainable farms. Planting material costs
Sustainable agriculture can be broken into three      can be lower for growers saving their own seed
components: economic, environmental, and              or producing their own stock. However, those
social. While discussed separately here, it should    using organic planting material often pay more
be noted that the goals overlap, impacting and        for seed or other planting material.
influencing each other. For example, economic
decisions will also impact the environmental and      Machinery costs (purchase, fuel, and repairs) will
the social components.                                vary depending on the specific type of sustainable
production system. Conservation tillage systems        A key to successful sustainable production is
and reduced pesticide applications can cut costs       healthy soil. Depending on the condition of the
related to machinery use and fuel costs. On            soil, it can take several years to build up organic
the other hand, certain systems, such as ridge         matter and improve soil quality. Sustainable
tillage, can require specialized equipment. Fuel       methods of enhancing soil fertility and improving
and machinery costs can increase as a result of        soil structure can include: using nitrogen-
moving bulky materials, such as organic matter,        fixing legumes, green manure, and animal
for soil improvement purposes.                         manure; minimizing or eliminating tillage; and
                                                       maintaining year round soil cover. Fertilizer
ATTRA2 lists the following indicators that a farm      decisions are based upon soil test results. While
is achieving economic sustainability:                  synthetic fertilizers can be used to supplement
   • The family savings or net worth is                natural inputs, they are applied on an as-needed
   consistently going up                               basis. Synthetic chemicals known to harm soil
   • The family debt is consistently going down        organisms and soil structure must be avoided in
   • The farm enterprise is consistently profitable    sustainable agriculture.
   from year to year
   • Purchase of off-farm feed and fertilizer is       Other sustainable concepts include: maximizing
   decreasing                                          diversity through planned crop rotations,
   • Reliance on government payments is                intercropping, and companion planting; protecting
   decreasing                                          water quality; composting; year round soil cover;
                                                       integrating crop and animal production; soil
Environmental sustainability                           conservation practices; and attracting beneficial
Environmental concerns are central to sustainable      wildlife. Some traditional agricultural practices,
agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is frequently     such as moldboard plowing, are in conflict with
described as: ecologically sound practices that have   sustainability since they can result in damage to
little to no adverse effect on natural ecosystems.     soil structure.
However, more than that, sustainable agriculture
also seeks to have a positive impact on natural        Insects, diseases, and weeds are managed, rather
resources and wildlife. This can often mean            than controlled, in sustainable systems. The goal
taking measures to reverse the damage (e.g. soil       is not necessarily the complete elimination of a
erosion or draining of wetlands) that have already     pest, but rather to manage pests and diseases to
occurred through harmful agricultural practices.       keep crop damage within acceptable economic
Renewable natural resources are protected,             levels. Sustainable pest management practices
recycled, and even replaced in sustainable             emphasize prevention through good production
systems. Also inherent to sustainable agriculture      and cultural methods. Some strategies include:
environmental concerns is the stewardship of           using crop rotations that will disrupt the pest life
non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels.         cycle, improving soil quality, practicing good
                                                       sanitation, using optimum planting densities,
Achieving a healthy, balanced ecosystem takes          timing planting and transplanting operations
time. Making the transition to sustainable farming     to avoid high pest populations, employing
is a process that generally requires moving            biological control, and growing resistant
forward step-by-step. While there are common           varieties. Monitoring pests through frequent
goals that are critical to sustainable agriculture,    crop inspections and accurate identification are
there is no single approach that will guarantee        essential to keeping ahead of potential problems.
sustainable success on every farm. The methods         Many Integrated Pest Management techniques
for accomplishing those goals must be tailored to      can be incorporated into a sustainable program.
the individual farm.                                   These may include scouting, targeting pesticide
applications, and the use of biological pest             Selected Resources
controls. Pesticides are seen as a last resort and       • Applying the Principles of Sustainable
are chosen for their low toxicity, specificity to the    Farming (ATTRA, 2003)
pest, and lack of persistence in the soil.     
                                                         • Biointensive Integrated Pest Management
ATTRA2 lists the following indicators that a farm        (IPM) (ATTRA, 2001)
is achieving environmental sustainability:     
   • There is no bare ground                             • Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide to
   • Clean water flows in the farm’s ditches and         Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural
   streams                                               Businesses (Sustainable Agriculture Research
   • Wildlife is abundant                                and Education, 2003)
   • Fish are prolific in streams that flow through
   the farm                                              • Defining and Implementing Sustainable
   • The farm landscape is diverse in vegetation         Agriculture (Kansas State University)
Social sustainability                                    ksas1.htm
Social sustainability relates to the quality of life     • Exploring Sustainability in Agriculture
for those who work and live on the farm, as well         (Sustainable Agriculture Research and
as those in the local community. Fair treatment          Education, 2003)
of workers, positive farm family relationships,
personal interactions with consumers, and                • Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working
choosing to purchase supplies locally (rather            Group (SSAWG)
than from a more distant market) are just some 
of the aspects considered in social sustainability.      • Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction
Community supported agriculture (CSA), farmers           (ATTRA, 2005)
markets, U-pick, cooperatives, and on-farm events
are just some of the ways a sustainable farm can         • Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and
have a positive impact on the local community.           Terms (USDA Alternative Farming System
In essence, the farm supports the community and          Information Center, 2007)
the community supports the farm.               
ATTRA2 lists the following indicators that a farm        • Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center
is achieving social sustainability:            
   • The farm supports other businesses and
   families in community
   • Dollars circulate within the local economy
   • The number of rural families is going up or
   holding steady                                        1
                                                          Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990,
   • Young people take over their parents’ farms         Public Law 101-624, Title XVI, Subtitle A, Section 1603.
                                                         Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1990.
   and continue farming
   • College graduates return to the community           2
                                                          Sullivan, Preston. Applying the Principles of Sustainable
   after graduation                                      Farming. ATTRA, 2003.

Photo courtesy of USDA-ARS                                                                    Issued April 2008
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