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Agricultural land is essential; it is the land we use to produce the food and fiber we need to survive. Since the end of World War II, agriculture has changed dramatically in the United States. Mechanization, increased chemical use, and government policy have caused productivity to skyrocket. Farmers, using monoculture technology, have created incredibly efficient systems to produce food and fiber. As a result, fewer farmers, with less labor, produce more. Unfortunately, these advanced methods require greater investments, or inputs, of energy, fertilizers, and pesticides.

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

Rows of crops on ag land

Sustainable agriculture does not refer to a prescribed set of practices. Instead, it challenges us to think about the long-term effects and the dynamics of agricultural systems in balance with profit, community, and consumer need. As with the other land uses, we can use the ecosystem approach to understand sustainability in agriculture. In a sustainable agro-ecosystem farmers evaluate nutrient and energy cycling and resource interactions. Sustainable farmers develop efficient biological systems that are less toxic and less energy intensive, using fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Making the transition to sustainable agriculture is a process. The transition often involves a series of small, realistic steps.

Principles of Sustainable Agro-ecosystems

  • Protect and renew soil fertility.
  • Use natural biological controls, like beneficial insects.
  • Optimize the use of on-farm resources, reducing the need for nonrenewable resources and purchased inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Minimize adverse impacts on health, safety, wildlife, water quality and other ecosystems.
  • Provide an adequate and dependable farm income.

Strategies are site specific. To determine production methods, a grower evaluates soil qualities, potential pests, previous crop history, topography, the availability of irrigation water, and local sources for fertilizers and pesticides. Crop species are chosen to suit the site, climate, and farmer's goals.

Support Sustainable Agriculture

To support a system that sustainably produces food and fiber, all the participants play a role, not just farmers. consumers, policy makers, laborers, and retailers can help strengthen sustainable agricultural systems.

As consumers, we can support a local economy. Buy directly from farmers through Community Supported Agriculture cooperatives (CSA's), U-pick fields, and farmer's markets. As a member of a CSA you pay to cover farm operation costs and share in the harvest. Community supported farms are not all certified organic, but they all strive to operate sustainably.