Sustainable Farming

     We hear the buzzwords “organic,” and “sustainable,” in farming and food.  What do they mean?  Are they important in our food production?  Is one more important than the other, and do they go together?   

The terms organic and sustainable mean different things, they’re both important, in some cases they work together, but in many cases they are not compatible.  We are told that we should eat organic food, but that is not always the best way to farm, and it is not always the best for the earth.

     Supposing every acre of farmland was organic – you would have to have more organically raised cows, eating organically raised feed,  in order to produce enough organic manure to fertilize the land than there is farmland on the earth!  When you are “feeding the world” it’s just not realistic to go 100% organic, and organic is not always best for every farm.

     In many cases, organic farming must combat weeds by way of tillage.  This means hand-hoeing vegetables, or using a cultivator in larger fields.  The cultivator, pulled behind a tractor, goes between the rows of plants, cutting through the top layer of topsoil, ripping the weeds’ roots out of the soil.  But, what if the field is on a hillside?  What if it’s in a windy region?  When the field is then irrigated or it rains, or if the wind blows; that loosening of the topsoil can cause terrible erosion.  The precious topsoil is washed away, into our essential watersheds.  The topsoil in the field is now lost forever, and the watersheds fill up with dirt, and become muddied (which, as you might imagine, gets the Natural Resources Conservation Service, very agitated).

Helping water down by hand.

     So, most farmers try to be sustainable in their practices.  Instead of cultivation to disturb and destroy weeds, they do have to spray herbiscide.  However, our USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) have such stringent guidelines, that the herbiscides, insecticides and fungicides are highly regulated so as to be as safe as possible, for us, the consumers.

     Here are some definitions of sustainable:

     Sustainable, as defined by: 

     -Webster’s Seventh Collegiate Dictionary:
Sustenance.  1. means of support, maintenance or subsistence, living or nourishment, 2: the act of sustaining, a supplying or being supplied with the necessaries of life, 3: something that prolongs or gives support, endurance or strength.

     -Wikipedia:  Sustainable agriculture is an attempt to provide the best outcome for humans and for natural development, both now and in the indefinite future.  It uses principles of ecology, the study of relationships between organisms and their environment.  It is an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term:  1) satisfy human food and fiber needs, 2) enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends, 3) make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls, 4) sustain the economic viability of farm operations and 5) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole

     -the Washington Potato Board:  A collection of methods to create economic growth which protects the environment, relieves poverty and does not destroy natural capital in the short term at the expense of the long term.  It meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

     -the Almond Board of California:  Sustainable farming; production practices that are based on sound and scientific research, common sense, respect for the environment and community, resulting in a plentiful, healthy and safe food product.

    Many of the things which define sustainable are especially important to the farmer:

     -using less water (both irrigation and rainfall)
     -helping the soil to retain more moisture in the sub-soil in order to give the growing plant deep-root-moisture later in the season
     -disturbing the soil less
     -using less fuel
     -reducing erosion (wind and water)
     -reducing compaction to the soil from heavy tractors
     -using less labor
     -producing an abundant crop
     -leaving the soil healthy after the crop is harvested, so that it may be farmed and provide food for many generations to come.

See how the new plants are growing through the old?

     An example of sustainable farming, which includes all of the important items above, is the “direct seed” or “no-till” method.  This is a cutting edge practice, new in the last 40 years, and is being used in various regions, both irrigated and dryland, all over the United States.

     The Direct Seed Method means that after the crop is harvested in the fall, the field is not plowed or disced.  The new season’s seeds are planted directly into the old stand.  By not discing, the tractor goes over the soil only once with the planter instead of two or three times.  This results in less compaction to the soil from the weight of the tractor, the worms and micro-organisms living in the soil are not disturbed, and are able to  populate, areate, and make the soil more healthy.  There is virtually no erosion due to wind or rain.

     Direct seed/No-till farmers are finding that, after 5-10 years of continuously direct-seeding their land, their soil health is much better than before.  Last year’s crop’s roots hold the soil, protecting the baby plants, add nutrients to this year’s crop, the worm and micro-organism population is huge, and their yields are surpassing those of conventionally farmed land.

     A second method that is widely used in the U.S. is “minimum till.”  This is where, after harvest, the farmer lightly disks the top layer of the soil in order to break down last season’s roots and stubble from the harvested crop.  This method is much, much more sustainable than the old conventional method (where deep plowing and ripping was done each year), it does still disturb the soil some, and there can still be some erosion.

     There is a long, long list of sustainable practices that our farmers use, including irrigation methods, fuel-efficient machinery, natural vs man-made remedies, and we will address those as time goes on.

     With all this said, our country’s farmers are our earth’s best stewards of their land.  It is in their interest to take excellent care of their soil.  They are the most productive of our world’s farmers, producing the most abundant and safest food on earth.

     Say THANK YOU to a farmer today!

  Do you have thoughts or questions on organic or sustainable farming? Please comment in the box below! We want to hear from you!

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