Modern, or conventional, farming practices have produced more amounts of less expensive food than was produced in past years, which is good. However, these farming practices have also had some bad effects on the environment.
Modern farming practices include having very large farms, where farmers often prefer to do things the quick and easy way rather than the environmentally correct way because they don’t have much time; only producing one type of crop over many years, so that the nutrients (natural elements that make plants grow) in the soil gradually become used up and artificial fertilizers must be added; using lots of man-made or artificial chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers, which can upset the natural balance of the environment, and keeping livestock (cattle, pigs, sheep) in small dirt pens instead of in large, grassy fields. Keeping large amounts of livestock in small pens causes contamination and pollution because of manure being washed into streams by the rain, because the manure eventually ends up in rivers, lakes, and the ocean.
Sustainable agriculture means that farmers use methods that do not disturb the natural system, that conserve natural resources, that improve the quality of life for farmers, and that ensure the long-term economic success of the farm. When farmers practice sustainable agriculture, we can meet the needs of the people who are living today without compromising the ability of people who come after us to meet their needs. Sustainable agriculture practices include:
• selection of plant and animal species that are well suited to the area and to the conditions on the farm;
• inclusion of many different types of plants and animals (diversity);
• good soil management to improve and maintain soil quality; and
• efficient use of inputs (such as fertilizer).
Following are some examples of sustainable agriculture practices. If possible, crops should be pest-resistant, so that chemical pesticides are not necessary, and should be planted where they will grow well without many artificial inputs. Crops should be rotated, that is, different crops should be planted in the same field in other years. This is used to keep down weeds, plant diseases and pests, and to avoid using up all of the same type of nutrient in the soil. Also, cover crops (usually beans, planted when the field is bare) keep soil and nutrients from eroding (washing away).
Animals selected should be the best adapted for the available conditions, thereby requiring less off-farm feed. Grazing management is crucial for sustainable farming. The amount of animals per area of grass must not be so many as to result in bare land from overgrazing.
A very good type of diversity is including both crops and livestock on the same farm. The farmer can plant crops on level ground and keep livestock in hillier fields. Livestock can eat the parts of the crop that can’t be sold.
Soil management is important for sustainability; healthy soil produces healthy plants that are strong enough to withstand pests. Methods to protect and improve soil can be to use cover crops, use manure and/or compost, reduce the amount of tilling in the fields, and covering soil with plants or mulch.
Sustainable farmers use more natural, renewable, and on-farm inputs, such as manure for fertilizer. The inputs should be the least poisonous for the ecosystem, use the least energy but still allow the farmer to make enough money to support himself.
All of these farming practices together will lead to a sustainable farming system that allows the farmer to produce enough food to make a living without seriously depleting the natural resources of the land. In this manner, farming can continue through many years and support future generations from the same land.