When you buy produce and other food at your local market, you probably don’t give much thought where it comes from but rather if it’s fresh or not. There’s also a good chance that you haven’t thought much about what would happen if some of your food staples were suddenly no longer available.
A global shortage is a real and ever-present threat, but many are unaware of how to prevent it from happening. Sustainable farming is a unique practice that may help us continue to receive all of our favorite foods for years to come. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about sustainable farming practices and our future of food.
The Basics Of Sustainable Farming
Unless you have an extensive agricultural background or grew up on a family farm, your knowledge about farming may be limited. Many people assume that all farming is the same and that it’s relatively straightforward and easy, so let’s get right to answering the question that’s probably on your mind, “what is sustainable farming?”
When people discuss a sustainable farm, you may hear the term “sustainable agriculture” used as well. Sustainable agriculture is more of a broad definition of the unique practice, which includes food, fiber, plants, and animal products.
One of the easiest ways to describe a sustainable farm is the ability to produce an adequate supply of healthy food without compromising the farming practices of future generations. As consumers, who don’t practice farming, it’s easy for us to think about our current food supply but farmers often need to consider about the future and how they can continue growing and supplying healthy food for all.
The Benefits of Sustainable Farming
While the primary goal of sustainable agriculture is to prevent a global food shortage, there are other benefits of the farming practice that ultimately tie into the important goal.
It’s not uncommon for today’s farms to use pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds. In fact, these practices are widely accepted (and even expected) in order to produce the “biggest and best” food. Over time, these traditional practices can negatively affect the soil, water, and other natural resources.
Rather than relying on products and methods that will do more harm than good for our environment, a self-sustaining farm uses practices that protect biodiversity, helps to maintain a healthy ecosystem, and preserves our environment overall.
While pesticides and fertilizers may have short-term benefits for “boosting” a crop in farming, they can negatively affect the health of consumers, farm workers, and even surrounding communities. Although chemicals used in traditional farming affect humans differently, depending on location and exposure, sustainable practices are typically much safer for human health.
Creating A Successful Farming Community
Many of the workers, who are employed by farms that use traditional methods, typically make less than a livable wage and have to perform their daily tasks in unsafe conditions.
Sustainable practices can benefit a farming community because working conditions and wages are fair and safe. As consumers, we can also benefit from supporting an industry that promotes safe work and offers livable wages to its employees.
Some Common Practices and Methods in Sustainable Farming
When we ask, “what is sustainable farming?” we can gain a better understanding when we look at specific practice and methods. Now that you know some of the basics of sustainable farming and how we might benefit from the unique farming practice let’s take a closer look at standard sustainable agriculture methods.
Crop rotation is not a new concept as it’s as old as farming itself. When farmers plant the same type of crop year after year, the soil becomes less fertile and essential nutrients are depleted from the soil. Pests and erosion are also a serious threat when there’s no crop rotation.
Rotating crops is much like the name suggests. Rather than planting corn or soybeans in the same field every year, the farmer selects a different type of crop. This method is sustainable because it keeps the soil healthier and controls pests without relying on chemicals. Farmers may also grow a mixture of crops in one area, making it more diverse.
Considering Cover Crops
Cover crops are an easy and environmental way to keep the soil healthy during the off-season. While many traditional farmers till up the soil after harvest, leaving it untouched and exposed to the elements until the next growing season, a cover crop is a sustainable method which offers a little extra protection.
A good example of a cover crop is clover. It grows fast, protects and improves the soil, reduces the risk of erosion, and manages weeds naturally without the use of chemicals like herbicides.
Pest Prevention and Control
While pests are problematic when it comes to growing crops, they are a common occurrence. Many farmers who use traditional methods will rely heavily on pesticides to eliminate pests, and while it may be effective, pesticides can be ineffective over time.
Integrated pest management (IPM) minimizes the need for chemical pesticides but still manages pests. The first step of IPM is to properly identify pests so an appropriate prevention and elimination plan can be created. Once the plan is in place, early and constant monitoring is essential. Some sustainable farmers will use natural pest eliminators like bats, birds, and other non-invasive bugs to help manage pests.
Bringing Livestock and Crops Together
As we mentioned earlier, sustainable agriculture is more than just planting crops. In traditional practices, livestock and crops are typically kept far away from one another. Sustainable methods often integrate livestock and crops so that animals are closer to where their food is produced, and crops can benefit more easily from natural fertilizer like manure.
This integration is not only a healthier and sensible option for the crops and livestock, but it is usually more efficient, which can make a farm more profitable.
Planting Trees and Shrubs
While this sustainable method may not be the best fit for every type of farm, planting trees and shrubs in the agricultural operation can help provide shade and protection for plants, animals, and water resources. Some sustainable farms may even make a profit, depending on the type of trees or shrubs that are planted.
Organic Farming vs. Sustainable Farming
Many might assume that sustainable agriculture is the same as organic farming. While some people use these types of farming practices interchangeably and they do have some commonalities, they are not the same.
While the organic produce you purchase at the grocery store or even at a local farmer’s market may happen to come from a sustainable farm, there’s no rule that sustainable practices must be followed on an organic farm.
Sustainable practices typically focus on eco-minded methods from alternative power to sustainable packaging. While some organic farms may use solar power and recycled packaging for their products, they follow a different set of rules to have organic certification.
Supporting Sustainable Farming
There are many easy ways to support sustainable agriculture. One way to be a sustainable consumer is to buy local food. Not only does this support your local economy but it can help reduce food transport. Rather than purchasing produce from five states away, look for food that is grown within 100 miles or less.
Eating food that’s “in season” is another way to support sustainability. You might crave a ripe tomato in the middle of winter, but depending on where you live, you probably won’t find one from a nearby farm. It can be tough to pass up some favorite produce when it’s out of season, but you can learn to love local produce that’s “in season.”
Growing your own food is another great step to being more sustainable. Don’t have the space? Container gardens are easy and don’t take up a lot of room. Many cities also offer small plots in a community garden.
Is Sustainable Farming Really That Important?
Farming is one of the oldest practices since the beginning of human civilization, and unless you work in agriculture, you probably don’t think about it on a regular basis. While cultivating crops is a relatively simple concept, it faces challenges every year with temperature changes, weather threats, and global issues as a whole.
As consumers, we continue to have the ability to purchase fruits, vegetables, and other foods as often and as readily as we want which leaves many wondering if sustainable farming is really as important as some make it sound.
While most of us have yet to feel or even see the effects of a food shortage, it’s inevitable, especially as the world population is expected to exceed billion people by the year 2030.
Sustainable agriculture takes a close look at what does and doesn’t work in today’s farming practices, and changes are made to make agriculture more viable and prosperous decades from now.
Just like many of the eco-friendly choices we make every day from recycling to reducing our reliance on fossil fuel, sustainable methods help secure a healthier environment and world, for future generations, even when we are no longer here.