Going Green

Thursday, September 6, 2007

An Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture

Increasing fuel costs are a major issue faced by farmers today. Not only does fuel cost directly affect the diesel and gasoline used on the farm, it is a major component of the cost of fertilizer and water. Agricultural enterprises are extremely energy intensive.

Historically farmers have offset rising fuel costs with increased output. This has been accomplished through new seed varieties and increasingly intensive management practices. One of the problems with such intensive production factors is that of sustainability. Long-term, many of the practices may injure the future productivity of the land until diminishing returns remove the land from production.

During the 1970’s a movement began in agriculture commonly referred to as the “alternative agriculture movement.” Over time, this movement has matured and in the 1990’s became known as the “sustainable agriculture” movement.

The 1990 Farm Bill stated that “the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that over the long term will:
· Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
· Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends.
· Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
· Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
· Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

In modern agriculture, the implementation of sustainable production methodology is complex. Farms today are designed to take advantage of economies of scale and thus utilize large-scale implements and production practices. Such economies are often driven by federal policy, international markets, and local resource limitations. A sustainable agriculture model is also affected by these factors but with careful planning, potentially less so.

Sustainable agriculture requires a “whole-farm” planning approach to production over an extended period of time. Under some production schemes, a complete crop rotation cycle may require 5 – 10 years. The “whole-farm” planning process removes the short-term dependence on price cycles by emphasizing diversity rather than volume of a single commodity.

Some of the factors that must be considered in a sustainable approach to agriculture are 1) water resources, 2) energy requirements, 3) soil productivity and health 4) wildlife and 5) air quality. Here on the High Plains, the two largest limiting factors to farm enterprises using any method of production are water and energy.

Water tables in the High Plains continue to decline due to a demand greater than the re-charge capacity of the aquifers. This re-charge deficit will only be exacerbated by growing populations, the influx of dairies, the requirements of industry – including ethanol plants, and the shift of productive capacity to high-water demand crops utilized in ethanol production. Strategies must be implemented to more efficiently utilize our water supplies.

Energy continues to be one of the hottest topics throughout the world economy. With limited fossil fuel supplies, alternative energy sources will become an even greater necessity than today. The good news for agriculture is that farmers will be called upon to help meet the needs for that energy. Wind farms will provide an increasing percentage of electricity for many uses, but it is difficult to run a tractor or combine with electricity. Ethanol production will help to stretch existing fossil fuel supplies, but currently is an inefficient substitute. It requires as much energy to produce a gallon of ethanol today as it provides.

Sustainable agriculture systems typically will be diversified operations. Rather than dependence on one or two cash crops, a sustainable operation will produce five or more crops and generally include livestock. The advantage of such a system, beyond the value of crop rotation, is to spread economic risk. Sustainable systems also seek to more efficiently utilize water and energy resources.

Because of its complexity, sustainable agriculture cannot be thoroughly covered in this brief space. Future columns will cover more of the specific ideas of such a program. A sustainable systems approach to production will become increasingly necessary as we grow into this new century of agriculture.

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