What is Sustainable Farming or Sustainable Agriculture?
Sustainable farming means different things to different people, however they all share a common concern in preventing the degradation of some aspect of the farm. Some farmers are primarily concerned with degradation of natural resources (eg. their land is becoming less productive). Other farmers may be more concerned about degradation of profitability, which could be due to increased labour or material costs, poor planning, or simply changing conditions in the economy. The causes and the solutions to such problems are different in each situation.
Sustainable agriculture is a philosophy: it is a system of farming. It empowers the farmer to work with natural processes to conserve resources such as soil and water, whilst minimising waste and environmental impact. At the same time, the “agroecosystem” becomes resilient, self regulating and profitability is maintained.
WHAT TO DO
There are many different ideas about how to be more sustainable. You will find different people promoting different concepts with great vigour and enthusiasm, and in most cases, these concepts will have something valuable to teach you. Many are quite similar in approach, often being just variations of a similar theme. Each approach will have its application; but because it worked for someone else does not necessarily mean it will work for you. Some of these concepts are explained below.
Low Input Farming Systems
This approach is based on the idea that a major problem is depletion of resources. If a farmer uses fewer resources (eg. chemicals, fertiliser, fuel, money, manpower), farm costs will be reduced, there is less chance of damage being caused by waste residues or overworking the land, and the world is less likely to run out of the resources needed to sustain farming.
Regenerative Farming Systems
This seeks to create a system that will regenerate itself after each harvest.
Techniques such as composting, green manuring and recycling may be used to return nutrients to the soil after each crop. Permaculture is currently perhaps the ultimate regenerative system. A permaculture system is a carefully designed landscape which contains a wide range of different plants and animals. This landscape can be small (eg. a home garden), or large (eg. a farm), and it can be harvested to provide such things as wood (for fuel and building), eggs, fruit, herbs and vegetables, without seriously affecting the environmental balance. In essence, it requires little input once established, and continues to produce and remain sustainable.
This approach concentrates mobilising biological mechanisms. Organisms such as worms and bacteria in the soil break down organic matter and make nutrients available to pastures or crops.
Under the appropriate conditions, nature will help dispose of wastes (eg. animal manures), and encourage predators to eliminate pests and weeds.
Traditionally this involves using natural inputs for fertilisers and pest control, and techniques such as composting and crop rotation. In Australia and many other countries, there are schemes which "certify" produce as being organic. These schemes lay down very specific requirements, including products and farming techniques which are permitted, and others which are prohibited. In Australia, you can find out about such schemes through groups such as the Biological Farmers Association (BFA) or the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA). See directory for addresses.
This is based on the idea of conserving resources that already exist on the farm. It may involve such things as identifying and retaining the standard and quality of waterways, creek beds, nature strips, slopes, etc.
This approach involves separating plant growth from the soil, and taking greater control of the growth of a crop. This increases your ability to manage both production and the disposal of waste.
Hydroponics is not a natural system of cropping, but it can be very environmentally friendly. A lot of produce can be grown in a small area; so despite the high establishment costs, the cost of land is much less allowing farms to operate closer to markets. In the long term, a hydroponic farm uses fewer land resources, fewer pesticides, and is less susceptible to environmental degradation than many other forms of farming.
MATCHING ENTERPRISE WITH LAND CAPABILITY
Some sites are so good that you can use them for almost any type of farming enterprise, for any period of time without serious degradation. Other places, however, have poor or unreliable climates or infertile soils and may only be suitable for certain types of enterprises or certain stocking or production rates. If you have a property already, only choose enterprises that are sustainable on your land.
This principle involves breeding or selecting animal or plant varieties which have desirable genetic characteristics. If a particular disease becomes a problem, you select a variety that has reduced susceptibility. If the land is threatened with degradation in a particular way, you should change to varieties that do not pose that problem.
Many modern farms practise monoculture, growing only one type of animal or plant. With large populations of the same organism, though, there is greater susceptibility to all sorts of problems. Diseases and pests can build up to large populations. One type of resource (required by that variety) can be totally depleted, while other resources on the farm are under-used. If the market becomes depressed, income can be devastated. A polyculture involves growing a variety of different crops or animals, in order to overcome such problems.
This concept holds that good planning and monitoring the condition of the farm and marketplace will allow the farmer to address problems before they lead to irreversible degradation.
Chemical pesticides and artificial fertilisers may still be used, but their use will be better managed. Soil degradation will be treated as soon as detected. Water quality will be maintained. Ideally, diseases will be controlled before they spread. The mix of products being grown will be adjusted to reflect changes in the marketplace (e.g. battery hens and lot-fed animals may still be produced but the waste products which often damage the environment should be properly treated, and used as a resource rather than being dumped and causing pollution).
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