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Sustainable Agriculture: A Primer

“Adding crop diversity and broader rotation also brings economic value and increased resilience to farms that were previously monocultures”


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Sustainable Agriculture: A Primer

There’s a secret ingredient in the fields of corn and amber waves of grain filling farm fields across the U.S. – and it’s one that more farmers, ranchers and landowners are utilizing in order to increase soil health, extend growing seasons and increase crop yields. That secret ingredient? Sustainable agriculture – a practice that incorporates innovative strategies to improve soil fertility, cut costs and give farmers a leg up in the current, ever-evolving market.

The Basics

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines sustainable agriculture as a way to “provide more profitable farm income, promote environmental stewardship, and enhance quality of life for farm families and communities.” While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, according to the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research andEducation (SARE), through adoption of strategies like cover crops, conservation tillage, ecological insect and weed management, crop diversity and rotational grazing, farmers and landowners can apply the sustainable ag recipe that fits their specific needs. Landowners who adopt these practices reduce problems that can result from conventional agricultural practices like erosion or water pollution. They also create sustained stewardship for the land and conservation enhancements that go beyond basic farmland and can help foster healthy wetlands, grasslands and other natural habitats for wildlife to use.And, while the “short-term gain is about the environment,” according to Kim Kroll, Associate Director of USDA’s SARE, because farmers are “reducing the amount of external inputs,” and reducing the overall impact on the environment, “as they change the environment on the farm, they’ll see economic gains.”

Economic Incentives to Adopt Sustainable Ag

Tamara Benjamin, Assistant Program Leader of Diversified Farming and Food Systems at Purdue University, likens sustainable ag adoption to a three-legged stool. One peg stands for social considerations, another for economic implications and the third for environmental factors. Farmers reap the benefits of all three even when they may only be aware of the economic factor. After all, farming is a business just like any other industry.

“I’ve talked to farmers who have adopted sustainable ag practices who say ‘I don’t buy fertilizer anymore’ or ‘I’ve reduced my fertilizer costs’ and those could be huge costs,” says Kroll.

Benjamin recently worked with a row crop farmer whose wife also raises cattle. She convinced them to give cover crops a try and she says they immediately saw the benefits.

“That year, they put their cows in where they had their cover crops, which actually reduced their feed bills during the wintertime,” says Benjamin. “They were able to use their cover crop as forage for their beef cattle all the way into January. So, for him, his economic incentive was that he didn’t have to feed his cattle with anything other than what was raised on his farm and he also started to see his soil health improve.”

The social considerations also make an appearance in this example as the cattle side of the farm is his wife’s business and, because they’re earning more money, everyone’s happy, adds Benjamin.

There are, of course, other benefits to adopting sustainable agriculture practices. Improving soil through the addition of cover crops and reduced tillage diminishes soil erosion and improves riparian borders and waterways as less “stuff” will run-off into rivers and lakes. Adding crop diversity and broader rotation also brings economic value and increased resilience to farms that were previously monocultures – those growing only corn or soybeans.

“If the price of corn and soybeans goes down, the farmer has very little resilience,” says Kroll. “Further, if they have a broader rotation, that impacts things like insects. Corn worms can sit in the soil for a year or two. But if you rotate to a longer – like four-year or five-year rotation – you don’t have to worry about those insects anymore, giving you economic and environmental benefits, too.”

“If the price of corn and soybeans goes down, the farmer has very little resilience”

- Kim Kroll

But Are Sustainable Agriculture Practices Only For the Newer Farmer?

While the current generation of farmers may seem like leaders in the sustainable agriculture field, Kroll points out that much of that is due to better information, bigger networks and access to materials that help with transition and adoption into these practices. Many of the older farmers – think Wendell Berry – already applied these practices to their farms.

“I think it’s more dependent upon did they see their neighbor doing it and succeed?” says Benjamin, adding that there’s plenty of data proving that sustainable agriculture practices do work and do help a modern farm thrive.


But Remember: You Should Start Small

Interested in adopting sustainable agriculture practices? Kroll and Benjamin suggest starting small and, if it works, then scaling up. Planting cover crops – rye, barley, clover, flax – is a great way to begin.

“What farmers tell me is they do it on the back 40,” says Kroll. “So nobody sees the struggles of getting started. What percentage a farmer will start with depends on their risk level.”

Farmers who are just beginning are usually smaller scale anyway, adds Benjamin. “Doing whatever they can to improve the soil so they can farm and turn a profit” is key.