What does sustainable agriculture mean?
Sustainable agriculture places a strong emphasis on using resources wisely. People involved in sustainable agriculture believe it is important to conserve their land and way of life for future generations to enjoy. They can accomplish this by focusing on the environment, the economy and the community. Farms, both large and small, conventional and organic, can employ techniques that are sustainable. Here is how some define sustainability in the beef industry:
Sustainable farmers are very aware of the impact of their farming practices on the environment. For this reason, they try to limit their use of non-renewable resources. Not only does this help the environment stay healthy, but it also keeps the farmer from depending too much on resources that could run out, leaving him without necessary inputs for his farm.
In addition to avoiding non-renewable resources where possible, the sustainable farmer tries to find ways to keep his farm running by using the resources that are already available to him. This has led to some interesting inventions, like the manure digester, which allows the farmer to reuse his animals’ manure as electricity, bedding and fertilizer.
When sustainable farmers use their outputs (like manure) to create new inputs (like fertilizer), they are operating in what is called a “closed system.” This is considered a very sustainable practice because the farmer is not creating excess waste that pollutes the environment, nor is he taking excess resources and harming the environment by depleting it.
The principles of environmental sustainability can be applied to agricultural economics.
One of the most persistent problems in agriculture is the unpredictability of the weather. Everything from drought to heavy thunderstorms can kill crops and make it difficult for the farmer to finish his work. Other things as well, like disease and falling prices for crops, contribute to make farming a very risky business.
Sustainable farmers can help make their businesses less risky by diversifying their farms. This means that, instead of growing only one crop or raising one animal species, the farmer will grow and raise smaller numbers of many types of plants and animals. This way, if a disease kills all of his tomatoes, the farmer still has beans to sell, and if corn prices are low, he can feed the corn to his cows and turn it into beef, which he will later sell for a higher price.
Sustainable farmers believe very strongly in providing for their communities. Some sustainable farms are even community run or funded.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms are farms where community members buy shares in the farm and in return receive baskets of food every week. In this system, farmers have an income at the beginning of the farming season, when he needs to buy seeds and equipment. Without community shares, he may have to borrow money to grow his crops. Buying shares in a farm can help prevent the farmer from going into debt. In return, community members get fresh, local food. Some CSA farms also allow community members to visit the farm and see the land and animals that provide them with food.
Community supported farming is another example of a closed system in sustainable agriculture. Farmers feed the community and in return, the community members support the farmers. Both the farmers and community members are relying very little on outside resources like grocery stores for their food or income.
Watch this video to learn more about community supported agriculture.
Some sustainable farmers choose to certify their products as organic. In order to make products that are certified as organic, farmers cannot use any synthetic chemicals, hormones or antibiotics in their production. In organic animal agriculture, there are also guidelines that farmers must follow to be certified organic. For example, dairy cows that produce organic milk must be allowed to graze outdoors for at least 120 days every year.
If the farmer makes more than $5,000 per year from organic farming, he or she needs to have the farm certified by an agency approved by the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Watch this video to learn more about organic farming.
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