Sustainable agriculture is a controversial and confusing topic for many. Farmers practicing sustainable agriculture are often so busy managing farm and business that public outreach is often insufficient. Moreover, the ease of self-publication today allows misinformation to skew public perception about true agricultural sustainability. This article will provide readers a basic overview of sustainable agriculture practices and discuss some of the impacts from their social, business, and environmental perspective for an easy foray into this vast field. In today’s world of increasing labor shortage in agricultural fields, sustainable agriculture can be great boon for small farms with appropriate crop production plans.
Sustainable agriculture: A whole farm approach
The USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (USDA-SARE) Program is one of the key drivers of sustainable agriculture activities in the United States. USDA-SARE defines sustainable agriculture as activity providing farm profit over the long-term (business perspective), improved stewardship of land/air/water resources (environmental benefit), and improved quality of life (social impact). Here are some key ways sustainable agriculture is helping support the booming world population.
Although sustainable agriculture is often synonymously used with ‘organic farming’, to a researcher like me all agricultural production has to be sustainable to support small family farms and ‘locally grown’ movement. Organic farming practices, if mismanaged, can do as much harm to the environment and society as conventional farming. Due to tremendous growth in scientific understanding of organic farming technologies, many conventional growers are slowly migrating to more holistic systems that have long-term environmental and social benefits; these are called ‘transitioning farms’. One can find such transitioning farms scattered throughout the rural and urban areas of the US and the world.
Keeping the ground covered!
Sustainable agriculture has its roots in ‘soil building’ as in preventing soil erosion and adding nutrients to the soil using a variety of techniques like cover crops, composting and mulching, crop rotation and many others. Use of cover crops is a big area of focus in research as the tactic preserves the top soil and reduced nutrient leaching loss. Reduction of weeds with a ground cover also reduces the need for organic or other herbicides that, in turn, improves worker protection and higher profits with reduced inputs over the long term.
Don’t disturb the earth!
Another major tool that makes business sense (direct savings for farmers) is the use of no tillage and minimum tillage between crops. Traditionally, farmers deep till and break up soil before planting seeds or transplants; however, the turning of soil causes destruction of soil structure (more prone to erosion), loss of soil moisture, and exposure of weed seeds to light resulting in explosion of unwanted plants. No tillage is a planting method where plants are grown on specific rows and rotated so that the entire soil surface if not destroyed. Cover crops and no tillage may be combined together for reducing energy dependence and carbon footprint of farms.
Ecosystem approaches to pest management!
Insect pests and diseases are some of the most research-intensive areas in our understanding of sustainable agriculture. Insect pests attack crops such as fruits and vegetables close to their harvest period, hence these are called yield-limiting factors. In Alabama, I have focused on research and demonstration of innovative alternative pest management techniques that not only save insecticide cost for farmers, but also conserve natural enemies in the environment. For example, by using a specific variety of sorghum and sunflower as trap crops in the vicinity of tomatoes we can deter over 80 percent of feeding from leaf-footed bugs and stink bugs – major insect pests almost impossible to kill with traditional organic insecticides. Another important research area is the use of pest exclusion systems that create barrier between insect pests and plants to prevent crop loss. Overall, timely implementation of sustainable pest management practices can save more than 50 percent crop in high pest areas.
High tunnel and greenhouse crop production
Have you noticed that round plastic and metal structure on small farms with vegetables and ornamental plants? Those are called high tunnels that have plastic-covered tops and open sides. High tunnels are great for season extension and rapid growth of plants. Lack of direct rain means conservation of soil structure and minimal erosion. Most high tunnel farms are organic and involve a highly trained workforce to work in and around the structure. Greenhouses are completely sealed structures with climate control equipment for optimising plant growth. Nursery and ornamental industries often employ large-scale greenhouses for speedy production routine. Due to the exclusion of rain and direct sunlight (plants typically get diffused sunlight through shade cloth), majority of high tunnel and greenhouse producers use organic and sustainable agriculture practices including the use of natural enemies for insect pest management inside the structures. These productions systems are extremely popular across many European countries that have strict organic certification standards.
Barriers to sustainable agriculture
While it is easy to dream about sustainable or organic farming feeding the billions, there are several challenges that I have experienced as part of the Alabama Beginning Farmer Program. First, the lack of organic farming information and tools is a major hindrance for low resource producers in underserved and remote communities. If you are a farmer in the hot and humid Southern US, then invasion of insect pests and diseases is continuous threat for the crops. Organic approved fertilisers, herbicide and insecticides (www.omri.org) are sometimes hard to get in sufficient time and quantity. I always encourage farmers to contact their university Extension or private crop adviser to develop farm-specific cropping and integrated pest management plans that forces everyone involved to have high awareness of sustainable agriculture tools and technologies.
Is sustainable agriculture profitable?
The bottom line for farmers is the economic impact of sustainable and organic farming. From extensive crop research, I have seen over 50 percent reduction in yield losses from timely application of insecticides and fungicides on specialty crops. Farmers also agree to this number since yield losses are highest in fruits and vegetables close to harvest (will you buy a tomato or a strawberry with a hole in it?). The overall return on investment (ROI) from educational and capacity-building measures in Alabama is $36 to 50 per dollar indicating the strong need for programming. Organic farming, as one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors internationally, has a long ways to go and will always need strong demand from consumers driven to healthy fresh foods and a healthy future!
About the author
Dr. Ayanava Majumdar is an Extension Entomologist for the vegetable and peanut integrated pest management (IPM) programs at Auburn University, Alabama. He is also the State Coordinator for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and the Beginning Farmer Programs funded by federal and state grants exceeding $8 million. Ayanava has published 18 referred papers, 30 scientific abstracts, and over 250 Extension publications. Total circulation for Extension publications exceed 87,000 copies along with 12,000 digital media views for his websites, Farming Basic phone app, social networks, educational videos, webinars, etc. The Farming Basics Online Course for Beginning Farmers, released in September 2018, has provided over 700 hours of crop production and pest management training to farmers with 96% satisfaction rating. Ayanava is Chief Editor for the Alabama IPM Communicator E-newsletter that has over 2,800 subscribers across the U.S Based on Extension surveys, the return on investments (ROI) for his educations programs is $36 for every dollar invested with 50 percent crop loss prevented by timely interventions on hundreds of small farms across Alabama. Many program impact videos are available on ACES YouTube channel that include grower testimonials.
As an Extension team leader, he has developed a large team of Regional Extension Agents, Extension Coordinators, and Specialists to move the horticulture industry forward. Dr. Majumdar has received numerous state and national awards from the Alabama Farmers Federation, Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, Southern Region IPM Center, National Association of County Ag Agents, and the American Society of Horticultural Science.