Sustainable farms come in all shapes and sizes. Ours was small but it provided all the meat, eggs, honey, vegetables, and fruit for a family of six with enough left over to sell. It wasn’t a commercial farm. My dad had taken a try at conventional commodity farming and found he couldn’t support his family so he worked off farm.
The majority of small farmers today work off farm, or have another revenue source because farming just isn’t profitable. In order to feed their families 64% of small farmers also work another job. But is that the way farming in the future has to be? We’ve been farming against nature for over 75 years with conventional agriculture. Using synthetic chemicals and adding fertilizer, raising livestock separate from crops, and losing topsoil every year because of plowing.
Farmers have always had a silent contract with nature, we just haven’t been keeping up our end of the bargain. What would a farm look like if we really started farming with nature and paid attention to the needs of our farms?
Why Sustainable Agriculture Matters
Many conventional farmers have implemented some of these practices on their farms. So, in many ways sustainable farming is not an unknown to the farming community. But there are key aspects of sustainable farming that are necessary to maintain topsoil and increase the fertility of your soil in the long run. Farming isn’t always just about the profit for this year, often it’s also about the legacy we leave to our children and grandchildren.
Sustainable Agriculture Practices To Increase Soil Fertility
There are 7 key sustainable ag practices that will increase your soil fertility, which will give you healthier plants and bigger yields. They overlap and you’re probably doing some of them already.
1. Managing Your Farm as a Complete Ecosystem
Sometimes we get caught up in the little things, weeds in the corn, frost warnings, or insect damage. These are all important but part of a bigger whole. The field where you grow the cash crop is a primary concern but so is the fence line. That’s where the beneficial insects hang out who will take care of the insects damaging your crop.
In a sustainable agriculture system, the uncultivated or less intensively managed areas are valued for their multiple roles.
Areas such as riparian buffers or prairie strips are integral to the farm and valued for their role in controlling erosion, reducing nutrient runoff, and supporting pollinators and other biodiversity, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
All other sustainable practices bolster the whole picture. In a world where we like to “keep it simple,” agriculture needs to become more complex, like nature.
2. Crop Rotation and Diversity
As farm machines have gotten ever larger, farmers, and perhaps you, have changed their field structures to fit the machines. It’s time to take a look at how effective that practice really is and how it can be improved.
In much of the farmland of the United States and Canada, there are no longer any fence lines. The loss of diversity with monocropping has side effects that are much greater than we usually imagine. On a conventional farm the use of herbicides and pesticides take care of unwanted weeds and insect pests but what other options are there to achieve the same result?
Crop rotations that are between 3-5 years bring the most soil pest reductions and increase soil fertility. Planning out five years in advance may seem daunting but plan all those years to bring in revenue from crops and livestock you may not have on your farm today.
Crop diversity includes intercropping by growing a mix of crops in the same area and complex multi-year crop rotations. It also includes planting native species in strips in your fields for pollinators, birds, and beneficial predatory insects.
3. Cover Crops in a Sustainable Farming System
In a drought year, corn planted with bare ground between rows will suffer. Those curled-up corn leaves are trying hard to retain whatever moisture the plant has been able to acquire from the dew because there’s not enough in the soil. But, by adding a cover crop to that same field in a drought year, the cover acts as a shade and keeps the temperature of the soil lower, so less water evaporates.
Then after the corn is harvested and the summer cover crop has done its job, planting another cover crop such as clover or hairy vetch will protect and build soil health. They prevent erosion because the ground is never bare, add nutrients because they are nitrogen fixers, and keep weeds in check: less herbicide use, more money in your pocket.
4. Integrate Crops and Livestock in Your Sustainable Agriculture Scheme
Conventional ag separates livestock and crops, creating the necessity to transport food to the animals, and their waste to the fields. This is a cost you can avoid by designating a part of your rotation to pasture.
Even if you aren’t raising any livestock now, it is an important consideration to make for the long-term health of your soil. Including livestock also gives you another revenue stream should a hailstorm come through and take out your wheat crop or any number of other catastrophes that occur on a farm.
There is a growing amount of evidence that a smart integration of crop and animal production can use your land more efficiently and give you greater profits. According to the Rodale Institute, “ruminate animals such as cows, sheep, and goats, and various avian species typically provide the smoothest transition to integrate livestock into current cropping systems.”
And when you incorporate livestock, you’ll need water and shade. When I was a kid, we had a water trough for our cattle, and every spring, we would buy a few goldfish for that tank. They kept the tank clean of algae, and it was fun to see how big they grew by the end of the season. Your kids might enjoy that as much as we did.
If you can’t have livestock on your farm, there are many other ways to improve the fertility of your soil. Planting cover crops and intercropping are two of the most beneficial sustainable agricultural practices. Always having a vegetative cover on your soil and roots in the ground increases microbial activity and decreases erosion.
You might also consider asking a neighbor who does have livestock to share their manure with you. If they’re a regenerative rancher, they won’t have any because it stays on their pasture, but if they’re organic or sustainable, they might have extra. When you use manure, make sure that it gets properly composted so there isn’t any contamination of your crops.
5. Reduce or Eliminate Tillage
We have been taught that we have to till our fields before planting to control weeds. But is that really true? The weed seed bank account in all soils is full. And weeds don’t need much to germinate, just give them sun, oxygen, and a little rain. When you till, you’re bringing all the weed seeds that were buried up to the surface and guess what! You have lots of little weeds sprouting. Is that when you spray the first herbicide on your field? So now you’ve gone over your field twice, lots of diesel and herbicide money gone from your pocket. A tilled field is also a field susceptible to wind and water erosion. Reducing tillage keeps your soil in your field, not in your neighbor’s field downwind or the creek you take your kids to fish.
The carbon content of soil is a major factor in overall soil health. Organic carbon, part of Soil Organic Matter (SOM), is necessary for plant growth. A loss of soil organic carbon results in a loss of microbial density and fewer nutrients available in plant soluble forms.
Tilling your fields releases carbon, which bonds with oxygen in the air creating CO2. This practice also leaves your soil with a deficit of carbon. That affects the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of your soil as well as the ability of your field to keep nutrients from leaching.
What if you tried no-till? It’s not what your neighbors are doing, and they may not support you, at first. But you’re creating more fertility in your soil, a stronger microbial community, and a strong possibility of more profit at the end of the year. Your neighbors will notice when your crops are healthier during a drought, your corn doesn’t lodge as much, or your peppers have almost no insect damage.
6. IPM as a Component of Your Sustainable Plan IPM is Integrated Pest
Management and is a natural outcome of buffer strips, intercropping, and cover crops, with use of pesticides as a last resort. It’s a proactive approach to insect pests instead of a reactive approach.
It entails monitoring and identifying pests – and being patient enough to wait for the beneficial predatory insects to find their meal. It means you walk your fields and check for insects. It means you know the difference between a Brown Marmorated Stink Bug and a Spined Soldier Bug – a beneficial that feeds on corn borers, cabbage loopers, and diamondback moths, among others.
The number of predatory wasps is significant, most are so tiny you’ll never see them but you’ll see eggs on tomato worms and other pests, so don’t kill them, they are the host for next season’s beneficials.
And they don’t sting humans, by the way.
If you’re not an insect fanatic, and most farmers aren’t, it would be beneficial to get a good field guide to insects or an app for your phone. When you’re walking your field and see what you think may be a pest, you can quickly look it up to determine your course of action. That action may be leaving the insect alone and being thankful it’s there to eat pests. Contrary to popular opinion, there are a lot of folks out there that are passionate about “bugs,” maybe you’ll become one of them.
7. Shade Means Incorporating Trees in Your Sustainable Ag Plan
Essentially, that means adding back the trees that were in your long-gone fence lines. By adding trees, you provide shelter for your livestock, habitat for birds and other wildlife, and potential income from nut, fruit, maple, or walnut trees to name a few. Tree roots go deep into the ground, bringing up nutrients your annual cash crop and cover crops can use. Strong microbial communities can develop around trees and non-tilled areas, helping the area to retain moisture and nutrients.
There are numerous ways you can add trees into your sustainable farming operation. The five most used are:
Alley cropping - planting annual crops between rows of trees for income while the trees are maturing. This method of growing can be used with vegetables, herbs, grains, and more. You can also plant pasture between your trees and graze livestock, be sure to protect the trees if they’re small.
Forest farming - growing a variety of crops in one space, creating a botanical guild where the different crops have different nutrient needs. The different crops have root mass at different levels in the soil, so have complex microorganism communities. This is not usually applicable to commercial application but perfect for your home garden.
Silvopasture - combining livestock with forage and trees in one area. The trees give livestock protection from the sun and harsh weather. The livestock fertilize the area. Numerous options are available to you with silvopasture. Protect the trees when they’re small, and you can reap the benefits of an additional revenue stream of nuts, fruit, or timber.
Riparian forest buffers - natural or re-established trees and shrubs along rivers and creeks. They are essential to prevent erosion, filter farm run-off, and stabilize river banks. They can also provide another revenue stream, depending on what you planted.
Windbreaks - rows of trees or shrubs that can shelter tender crops, livestock, and buildings from inclement weather. They also attract pollinators, beneficial insects and can provide a secondary revenue source.
We have to remember that “conventional agriculture” as we know it today began at the end of World War II, around 75 years. Before, there was the plow, but the only inputs were from manure and plants plowed in. We were unable to degrade the soil as rapidly as we are today. Your grandfather, or great grandfather, made the decision to farm a different way. A way he thought would benefit his children and make farming profitable. It turns out that wasn’t quite what happened, and now you’re faced with that same decision, do you want to farm in a way that is good for your children and grandchildren - and the earth?
When your grandfather made the change to what we call conventional agriculture, he thought he was investing in new technology and creating a legacy for the future. The Dust Bowl proved him wrong, but the machines have just gotten bigger, and “Dust Bowls” are seen every spring as farmers till and their topsoil blows away.
Farming isn’t profitable anymore because of the high costs of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Tractors are getting bigger; tree lines are becoming further apart.
But sustainable agricultural practices make farming profitable again. The 30-year report from the Rodale Institute showed sustainably grown corn yields were 31% higher than conventional in drought years, and in other years the yields were comparable. Sustainable agriculture uses fewer inputs, so a comparable yield means a higher profit.
Every farmer has to consider yield, but you also need to look at the bigger picture. The major consideration should be soil health and what actions you can take to create greater soil microbial activity in your fields.
Your neighbors may not understand what you’re doing, and you may have to explain why you’re planting buffer strips or why you’re not tilling in the spring and fall. But you will become a leader in your community and a mentor to other farmers who also want to leave a rich legacy.
They’ll notice when your crops do better than theirs.
It takes courage to change, but change is the only constant in our world.