Friday, February 29, 2008

What is Sustainable Agirculture?

There are a lot of buzz words flying around the alternative agricultural world today ... you know words like: small scale, cottage farmer, sustainable, heritage, natural, organic, and even alternative. As I continue on my journey towards and in farming I find myself using these words from time to time and reading them all of the time. But, it seems like they mean different things to different people. What is natural to some may not be natural to others ... what is alternative to some may be main stream to others ... But, the word the I find myself using the most and that I hear different definitions for is "sustainable". What exactly does it mean in terms of agriculture?

Before we go any further I want to throw out my two cents. To me having a sustainable farm means that I have a farm that supports my family emotionally, physically, and financially. I mean that a sustainable farm would be enjoyable to my family not a drain on their happiness or spirits, that it would provide health to my family through the work they do and the food that they eat, and that it would provide a reasonable living for us. My sustainable farm would provide my family with plenty of food for our own table, but we would not become self-reliant in the food sense. Also, I believe a sustainable farm is beneficial to the community ... sometimes that means they purchase goods from us, sometimes it means they enjoy the land, and sometimes it means that we do not harm the area around us.

In a nut shell that is my view of sustainable agriculture ... for me. Of course there are lots of other things that I could add to that, but I think it is a good starting point. Others, I'm sure, would include things about the environment or even the animal welfare. While these are both important to me they are not what my idea of sustainable is based upon ... probably because of the reason that I desire to farm (you can check out THIS POST for more on that).

As I have surfed around various areas of the internet I have often read debates about what exactly is or is not a sustainable farm. There some that would say that your farm is not sustainable unless it does this, that, and this. Others believe that the term is more broad ... I'm probably in that group.

So, what is your definition of sustainable agriculture. Do you have to do certain things to fit into the mold? I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject because I believe the answers will say a lot about why people farm and why people trust certain farms.

If you would like to see how some others define "sustainable agriculture" check out these links:

"What is Sustainable Agriculture?" - University of California

"Introduction to Sustainability - What is Sustainable Agriculture" - Sustainable Table

"Sustainable Agriculture: Definitions and Terms" - USDA

"Sustainable Agriculture" - Wikipedia


Steven said...

To me sustainable just means that you can continue to do it, you can sustain it. Three things come to mind when asking if you can continue. 1 is it fun, or at least enjoyable to some degree. Do you get satisfaction from it and does your family also. The 2nd is does it work financially, can you provide food, shelter, and health care! for yourself and your loved ones. And 3rd, how much are you relying on outside inputs? You need to be pretty close to self-reliant to be sustainable. Otherwise you are only going to continue as long as the feed store does, or as long as the Fed. subsidies continue, etc.

Yeoman said...

To me sustainable agriculture means an agricultural system that is not self eliminating in the long term. Farms that engage in soil or water mining are not sustainable, as at some point, the soil resource or water resource will no longer be capable of production.

To add to that, practices which degrade the ability of the land are non sustainable.

I a way, therefore, Sustainable Agriculture is an inarticulate, and not particularly attractive, term for the agricultural version of Leopold's "Land Ethic".

I think this gets confused sometimes with what is properly regarded as Agrarianism. Agrarianism is an agricultural system that is based on a combination of Sustainable Agriculture and Economic Independence. Put another way, the Agrarian agricultural system is not production crop driven, but rather is based on a diversified farm which produces a high degree of independence for the farmer and is partially self sufficient. In classic American terms, Agrarian farms were populated by the Yeomanry, who were, as Jefferson noted, all small freeholders). Such farms need to be sustainable in order to meet the mode, but that's only one aspect of them.

FWIW, the majority of North American farms in the American south, New England, Eastern Canada, Quebec and parts of the Mid West would have fit somewhere in that definition up until some point in the first half of the 20th Century.

To add to it just a bit, some people, particularly modern agrarians, often add their Faith as an element. This is based on the concept that Agrarian independence encourages Christian humility, by working close to God's Creation. That's another topic, however.

Anyway, Ethan and Steven, I think you (and most folks here) are Agrarians. You likely engage in Sustainable agriculture, as Agrarians have to, and appreciate the need to do so.

Yeoman said...

By the way, what's the story with this particularly unusual photo on this thread? It looks like a group of pigs are storming the cow pasture. Really unusual one.

Ethan Book said...

Ahh yes, agrarians and their faith ... yep, I think I've been round that block a couple of times. I desire to be a farmer ... not a "Christian Farmer" because Christ does not just effect my farming, he also effects my spending, shopping, shouting, schooling, reading, thinking (sorry off of the S thing), talking, soccer coaching, etc., etc., etc...

But, yes I do see the agrarian side coming through. We will be eating what we produce ... not really out of some higher calling, but rather because it is there and it would be silly not to.

But, I think key component of "Sustainable Agriculture" is diversification. Diversification is important to maintain soil, water, and other land resources.

The USDA does have a "legal" definition on one of those links ... but, I don't think I want to base my thoughts on the USDA definition :)

Great thoughts Steven and Yeoman!

farm mama said...

To me, sustainable means farming practices that allow both the farmer and the land to sustain themselves indefinately. To do so, diversification is the key, both for the farmer and the land. God didn't intend for us or for the land to concentrate on only one thing. The natural world depends on complex interactions between plants, animals and mankind, as man has found again and again when he messes with one link and discovers, usually to his dismay, that it has far-reaching repercussions that he never suspected. The same priciple holds true for humans - a healthy life must be balanced between work, family and rest, but above all, centered in God.

Mellifera said...

Ethan- lol, I like the "farm and Christian but not Christian Farmer" bit. I feel a lot the same way about it. Farming (and doing it sustainably) is something you do just because you like it and if you do it right, it's a smart lifestyle... and you can be Christian while you're at it, sure.

It's sort of like... let's say bathing. The Bible is a little sparse on hygiene how-tos (at least the way we'd think of it), but we take showers anyway because we still feel like it's a good idea. : )

Yeoman said...

Shoot, even the New York Times is noticing a bit:

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