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Basic Elements of Sustainable Agriculture




  • Sustainable agriculture’s benefit to farm and community economies is grounded in four well-established economic development principles and a fifth, concern for the community:

    Input Optimization: Sustainable production practices maximize on-farm resources. Internally derived inputs, such as family labor, intensive grazing systems, recycled nutrients, legume nitrogen, crop rotations, use of renewable solar energy, improved management of pests, soils and woodlands are a few examples of substituted resources. Studies have shown that these substitutions can be made while maintaining yields and often result in increased net farm earnings. These earnings can benefit the community by increasing local retail sales and providing a stronger tax base.

    Diversification: To develop healthy soils and reduce purchased inputs, sustainable agriculture emphasizes diverse cropping and livestock systems. Diversification can lead to more stable farm income by lowering economic risk from climate, pests, and fluctuating agriculture markets. This helps to keep farmers on the land and helps buffer the local economy from the shock of a dramatic decline in a single commodity/industry.

    Conservation of Natural Capital: It is standard accounting practice to depreciate capital assets. It has not been standard practice for farmers to depreciate natural capital that is depleted by farming methods that do not conserve resources. Nevertheless, the loss is real, eventually affecting yields, farm profitability, and sustainability. In sustainable agriculture, economic value is created by maintaining the productivity of land and water resources while enhancing human health and the environment.

    Capturing Value-Added: The marketing of crops and products grown is by far the weakest link in the farmers’ role in the ‘field to table’ food system. To create and maintain a truly sustainable agriculture, farmers will have to develop ways of retaining a higher percentage of value-added on the farm. While individuals farmers can and do design, process and direct-market their own products, many other value-added strategies require more resources than one farmer can handle financially. Therefore, these value-added strategies will require the formation of a coop of local farmers and a collaborative relationship with the local community.

    Community: The elements of sustainable agriculture are integral to all communities. If we are to support sustainable agriculture, we must recognize the rural/urban interconnection, the conflicts and tremendous opportunities. The positives of a sustainable farming system include shared commitment to profitability, food security, food safety, open space for water recharge, natural habitats for flora, fauna and recreation and a cooperative and supportive social and economic community infrastructure. Currently our urban communities are separated from farming communities not only in philosophy, but also in their mutual understanding, particularly in their knowledge of the entire food production and distribution system. Recognition of the role farming has played in stabilizing our community is critical or we shall continue to disintegrate our rural fabric and preferred standards of living. In other words, we must rekindle a sense of caring about the welfare of our neighbors in order for viable rural and urban communities to survive.

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