Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a "Celebration of Sustainable Agriculture" at a local grain farm. The farm was highlighting its newest venture into being more sustainable - an installation of solar panels to generate electricity.

The farm, located on the upper eastern hore do Maryland, also puts great effort into conservation practices, such as no-till and limited-tillage techniques. They use soil testing and precision agriculture (GPS) to monitor and precisely apply necessary nutrients to their crops. And, surprising to many people who have a certain picture of "sustainable" in their minds, they use genetically enhanced seeds for their grain crops.

I was excited to see that this large, well-respected farm was attempting to redefine "sustainable." Or perhaps I should say they are bringing it back to its traditional definition.

The dictionary defines sustainable as "able to be maintained at a certain rate or level."

USDA defines sustainable AGRICULTURE a little more specifically as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends.
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

But the common, public definiton is much different. Consumers tend to associate "sustainable" with some or all of the following:
  • Organic
  • Non-GE or non -GMO
  • Small farms
  • Local

While many of those items can be part of a sustainable farm or agriculture business, I just want to emphasize that conventional and traditional, yes, even large farms, are also operating in a sustainable way.

Because, at least to me, the most important part of sustainable is that it is ongoing. We want our farm to still be operating for the generations yet to come. That means we have to carefully manage our soil, our crops, and above all, our money. Farming is a business, and in order for us to keep our land in agricultural production, we do have to be profitable. (At least monst years. Lord knows Drought-Pocolypse 2012 was a challenge.)

Since we purchased our farm in 2007, we've made efforts to keep our farm as sustainable as possible. We use no-till techniques and cover crops when we can to protect our soil from erosion. We use precision technology and genetically enhanced seed to target our chemical and fertilizer applications, making sure we get exactly what we need, exactly where we need it (and with very limited waste).  This fall, we installed an irrigation system with hopes of keeping our farm more profitable. 

I encourage you to find out what the farms in your area are doing to be a "sustainable" farm. I think you might be surprised!

As always, please leave any questions or replies in the comments, or tweet me @carabecca.