Sustainable Agriculture

Learn to make a farm sustainable -- as a business and for the environment. 100-hour course, developed by John Mason, author of "Sustainable Agriculture", published by Landlinks Press (CSIRO).

Course Code: BAG215
Fee Code: S2
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
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Learn to Make farms more Sustainable - Economically and Environmentally

  • Discover new ways to improve farm sustainability
  • Improve your career prospects in the agriculture industry; as a farmer, farm worker, consultant, teacher or working in a farm supply or service business

Sustainability in Agriculture has become increasingly important over recent times. It is no longer sufficient to just be productive and the cost of production is no longer just thought of in terms of money.  The environmental resources of a farm as well as the financial must not deteriorate if a farm is to continue to exist into the future.

Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction
    • Whole farm planning
    • Land Management programs
    • Sustainable ways of farming
    • Natural farming
    • Organic farming
    • Permaculture
    • No Dig techniques
    • Biodynamics
  2. Soils
    • Growing media
    • Major types of soil problems
    • Soil structural decline
    • Erosion
    • Salinity
    • Acidification
    • Soil improvements
    • Phytotoxicity
    • Adding organic matter to soils
    • Cultivation techniques
    • Conservation tillage
    • Plant nutrition
    • Soil life
    • Cover crops
  3. Water
    • Types of water storage
    • Livestock water requirements
    • Water problems
    • Water quality
    • Reed beds
    • Water saving measures
    • Recycling
    • Swales and Keylines
    • Irrigation systems
  4. Land Care
    • Weed Management
    • Preventative measures
    • Tree management
    • Timber lots/plantations
    • Wind breaks
    • Wildlife corridors
    • Wildlife habitats
    • Pest and diseases
  5. Financial Sustainability
    • Economic principles
    • Developing a Farm Business Plan
    • Financial plan
    • Controlling growth
    • Value adding
    • Enterprise mix
    • Eco-tourism
  6. Broad Management Strategies
    • Toward better planning
    • Land care or land management
    • New enterprises
    • Broad management categories
    • Marketing
    • Personal welfare
    • Plan drawing of farm
    • Looking at risk
    • Quality systems
  7. Plant Enterprises
    • Crop management
    • Hydroponic fodder
    • Hay
    • Considering new crops
    • Nuts
    • Organic farming
    • Agro-forestry
    • Hydroponics
    • Herbs
  8. Animal Enterprises
    • Deer
    • Ostriches
    • Emus
    • Alpacas
    • llama
    • Goats
    • Aquaculture
    • Wool and meat production
    • Horses

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • Explain the broad possibilities for improving sustainability on farms.
  • Explain how to avoid serious degradation of soils on a farm through sustainable management.
  • Explain the broad possibilities for improving sustainability on farms.
  • Explain how to avoid too serious degradation of soils on a farm through water management.
  • Discuss Economic Rules that apply to a farm Enterprise.
  • Crop management techniques for sustainability.
  • Minimising degradation through planning and management.
  • Evaluate the financial viability and potential of animal enterprises.

What You Will Do

  • Investigate what is being done for improving agricultural sustainability in your country or region.
  • Contact different organisations or farmers and find out what you can about attitudes & resources available to assist with improving sustainability in your chosen area/Country/region.
  • Investigate whether an organic certification scheme operates in your country, and if so, find out what is involved currently in attaining that certification for a farm.
  • Obtain either literature or advice relating to the management to soil degradation in your locality.
  • Identify the most important issues that farmers need to address in a region within approximately 100 km( or 50 miles )of your home; in order to remain financially viable over the next two decades
  • Distinguish between hydroponics, permaculture, biodynamics and certified organic farming.
  • Identify a farm situation where it might be appropriate to convert to either permaculture, biodynamics or certified organic system.
  • What is being done to improve sustainability of agriculture in the region, country or state of your choice.
  • Obtain information from your local government department or irrigation supply company.
  • Find out what the local water quality is like and how it was measured.
  • Explain how you can test your local water supply for contaminants. What contaminants were found? eg. Bacteria, heavy metals, silt etc.
  • Outline how can these contaminants be removed from the local water supply eg filtration, chemicals, etc.
  • Identify cost effective means by which contamination can be prevented.
  • Identify types of water catchment in your local area. eg dams ,stream ,creeks ,etc.
  • Find out what types of conservation are being practiced in your local area.
  • Outline methods of pest control being practiced in your area
  • Describe methods of weed control used in your area.
  • Identify and describe any natural control methods being used in your area.
  • Research tourism activities are available in your local area.
  • Investigate planning and advisory services in your local area.
  • Investigate existing animal enterprises in your local area and the economic impact.


The wind velocity reduction effect of a windbreak is felt up to 30 times the height of the windbreak away at the ground level, but is most effective between 2 and 20 times the height of the windbreak, on the down wind side of the windbreak. For example the most protected area behind a 2m (2.1 yd) tall windbreak would be from 4m to 40m (4 to 44 yd)down wind from the windbreak

If you have a living windbreak (e.g. plans) then other plants in the immediate vicinity of the windbreak (on both sides) may have their growth reduced due to competition for light, water and nutrients from the windbreak plants, however for plants at the equivalent of at least 2 times the height of the windbreak in distance downwind from the windbreak then growth rates are increased. A windbreak consisting of dense foliaged plants, or a solid timber or brick wall will deflect wind directly backwards, as well as up and over, creating strong turbulence both in front and behind the windbreak. In comparison, a more permeable windbreak, such as more open foliaged plants, or slatted fences, or windbreaks made from shade cloth, allows the smooth flow of air through, and up over and past the windbreak with little turbulence.

Be careful not to position your plants too close together, or they will self prune (drop branches), and become too open to be effective. This is particularly important for some conifers, which will self prune their lower branches if planted to closely together, creating a gap below the plants, which can allow the wind to be channelled through, actually increasing the problem of strong winds. This is a common occurrence in many farm windbreaks.

  • Don’t cut plants back too heavily. It is better to do frequent light trimmings, otherwise they will become too open foliaged to be effective
  • Larger windbreaks comprised of plants also have advantages and disadvantages with regards to fire risk.
  • If plants are highly flammable (often have high levels of volatile oils) they pose a real risk to buildings and structures downwind
  • If they are comprised of fire resistant plants (generally having a high moisture content), and positioned to deflect winds they can provide significant protection downwind, including protection from radiated heat.
  • At the end of a windbreak, or where gaps occur (eg. driveways) wind velocity may be actually increased (can create a wind tunnelling effect).
  • Increasing the width of a windbreak may actually decrease it’s effectiveness by reducing it’s permeability.

For a windbreak to be most effective it should be:

  • As long as possible, with no gaps or breaks. The area protected  by a windbreak varies with the square of the unbroken length of the windbreak. So for example a windbreak of 20m metres (22 yd) will protect an area approximately four times as large as a 10m (11yd) windbreak, while a 40m (44 yd) windbreak will protect an area about 16 times of that protected by a 10m (11 yd) one.
  • As high as possible (to protect a bigger area).
  • Have no gaps at the bottom (otherwise wind will funnel under the windbreak, actually increasing in velocity, and increasing the likelihood of wind damage).
  • To be permeable to air flow (allow the passage of some air through - but reducing it’s velocity).
Have a cross section (the profile of the windbreak looking at it from the end of the windbreak) that results in the smooth passage of some wind up and over the windbreak (known as an aerofoil cross section). To achieve this you would have low growing plants at the front of the windbreak, slightly bigger growing plants behind them, and taller plants behind them.


If a farm is to be sustainable there must be purpose behind every decision you make.
Doing things the same way as they were done in the past is no option, in a world that is changing so rapidly.
Acting without thinking is risky.

Planning involves making decisions about how things will be done in the future. Planning might relate to physical or tangible things such as the physical layout of an area of land, or intangible non-physical things, such as the way manpower and other resources might be allocated in the workplace. Plans can be broad in scope (involving every aspect of an enterprises' future; or they can be narrow (e.g. covering the way a small number of people will work for a short period of time). Like any other business, planning processes can be applied to agricultural enterprises to achieve desired goals (e.g. lower production costs, higher yields, greater profit, etc.).

Strategic plans are simply plans which have been developed with the purpose of meeting the broad goals of an organisation. A strategic plan utilises predetermined "strategies" in its approach to management.

Stoner & Freeman, Prentice Hall (1992) in their book "Management" (5th Ed) give the following definition:

"A strategic management approach: A pattern based on the principle that the overall design of the organisation can be described only if the attainment of objectives is added to policy and strategy as one of the key factors in the management's operation of the organisation's activities".


There are many different ways of approaching planning. From time to time, different planners suggest different "planning models" which provide a guide or framework which can be followed. The rules however are not set in concrete, and these models can (and should) be adapted to be relevant to each situation they are applied to. A number of different planning models or approaches, which can all be applied to agricultural business, are detailed below:

Formal Planning Processes 
The formal planning process involves following a series of distinct steps;

  • Setting goals.
  • Identifying objectives and strategy (this is the approach, or method/s you are going to use   to do or achieve your objectives).
  • Analysis of the environment and available resources.
  • Identifying strategic opportunities and threats.
  • Identifying performance deficiencies.
  • Making decisions.
  • Implementing the plan.
  • Assessing and controlling progress.

The Policy Formulation Approach
Here day to day rules or guidelines are implemented which restrict what can and cannot be done. This might involve development of a staff manual to provide a guide for day to day operations.

Initial Strategy Approach  This involves setting down general long term goals, then adopting a course of action and allocating resources in a way that will see those goals achieved.

Strategic Management Approach 
Predetermined strategies here are key factors in the operation of an organisation's activities. The following are key factors in this approach:

  • Strategy: Formulation - here a strategy, or strategies, are developed, based upon the organisation’s goal.
  • Administration: Analysis and administration in a way that tries to achieve the goals. The internal politics of an organisation are important, and the way individuals react to situations can cause strategies to be changed. 
  • Strategic Control: Feedback to managers is hence important (this is called ‘strategic  control’). Feedback can come from workers, customers or reports on performance/progress.

There are many other ways of approaching planning. Each way has both advantages and disadvantages.

To organise materials (e.g. feedstock, pesticides, fuels); machinery (e.g. tractors, harvesters), equipment and manpower effectively is a major task for most farm owners/managers. It is highly advantageous to document as much information as possible, then use it to improve programming, hence improving efficiency and productivity. By systematically working through a programming process, the farm owner/manager is able to increase their control over projects; having the ability to see at a glance what the financial position of any component of his work might be.


This course is aimed at:
  • All farmers who would like to have a more sustainable approach to farm management.
  • Hobby farmers  - if want to be environmentally sound in your approach to land management.
  • People working as consultants to farmers in order to understand the latest approaches to sound farm practices.

ACS Distance Education holds an Educational Membership with the ATA.
ACS Distance Education holds an Educational Membership with the ATA.
Member of Study Gold Coast Education Network.
Member of Study Gold Coast Education Network.
ACS Global Partner - Affiliated with colleges in seven countries around the world.
ACS Global Partner - Affiliated with colleges in seven countries around the world.
ACS is a Member of the Permaculture Association (membership number 14088).
ACS is a Member of the Permaculture Association (membership number 14088).
ACS is an organisational member of the Future Farmers Network.
ACS is an organisational member of the Future Farmers Network.
UK Register of Learning Providers, UK PRN10000112
UK Register of Learning Providers, UK PRN10000112

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Course Contributors

The following academics were involved in the development and/or updating of this course.

Lyn Quirk

M.Prof.Ed.; Adv.Dip.Compl.Med (Naturopathy); Adv.Dip.Sports Therapy
Over 30 years as Health Club Manager, Fitness Professional, Teacher, Coach and Business manager in health, fitness and leisure industries. As business owner and former department head for TAFE, she brings a wealth of skills and experience to her role as a tutor for ACS.

Dr. Gareth Pearce

Veterinary scientist and surgeon with expertise in agriculture and environmental science, with over 25 years of experience in teaching and research in agriculture, veterinary medicine, wildlife ecology and conservation in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Post-graduate qualifications in Education, Wildlife Conservation Medicine, Aquatic Veterinary Studies and Wildlife Biology & Conservation.
Gareth has a B.Sc.(Hons), B.V.Sc., M.A., M.Vet.S,. PhD, Grad. Cert. Ed.(HE), Post-Grad.Cert. Aq.Vet.Sc., Post-Grad. Cert. WLBio&Cons., Dipl. ECPHM, MRCVS.

Marius Erasmus

Subsequent to completing a BSc (Agric) degree in animal science, Marius completed an honours degree in wildlife management, and a masters degree in production animal physiology. Following the Masters degree, he has worked for 9 years in the UK, and South Africa in wildlife management, dairy, beef and poultry farming.

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