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Friday, April 1, 2011

What is Sustainable Agriculture?

A range of definitions. 

A couple days ago I came across a tweet that said this is the real definition of sustainable agriculture. I was curious, so I followed through to the link. The USDA Econcomic Research Service (ERS) reports that "total farm output grew by 158% from 1948 to 2008, but total inputs used in agriculture remained largely unchanged." That means that farmers and ranchers are producing much more using the same resources that our great-grandparents were.

The ERS also reports that "labor declined by 78% and land use by 28% over those 60 years, chemical use grew fivefold from 1948 to 1980 before leveling off." That seems to make sense. We have tractors now instead of horse and plow, and there are fewer people that want to be raise food as their occupation, so something had to change. The crops the we grow now require more inputs (fertilizer) and technology has increased so we have a better understanding of how herbicides and pesticides can benefits are crops.

Here's the graph that shows it.

courtesy of Amber Waves Magazine September 2010
So does this prove that agriculture is sustainable? I mean we have been able to produce way more, with a lot less, and we have been able to stay in business doing it this way. But, what do other people think? I tweeted out the question "What does sustainable agriculture mean to you?"

Sustainability definitely has to do with the environment. 

Important. Again, I want us to leave the land in the same condition or better.

A lot of people liked this one this definition from Katie Pinke at Pinke Post. See below.


I think stewardship is really important. I want my family, and farming friends to leave the land in as good of a condition of better than we found it.

 Making money is an important part of sustainability. Farmers wouldn't be able to survive financially if we doing things the same way as they were done in 1948.

I like this one too. I mean I am pretty sure I am a real person. But seriously, if you don't care about what you are producing, then I don't want my food coming from you.

This one I would have to disagree with. My family raises our cattle the conventional way. They get grass, hay (dried grass) and grain, and I like to think that our farm is sustainable. However, it goes to show how much variation there is on the subject.

Again, we have to be profitable to be sustainable. 

This is JPLovesCotton from Ag - It's a Colorful Adventure definition.
 That's a lot of sustainable, but I like it. Food, environment and economics all need to work together.

4 comments:

  1. Good post Crystal. Sorry I missed that discussion on AgChat. Personally, I think that much of my new job as a precision ag specialist is very sustainable. We use mapping technology to decipher exactly where the land needs more or less inputs to yield the same. But, over all, I think that sustainable agriculture also must be defined as any mult-generational farm that continues to be successful into the future.

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  2. Neat post idea and comments.

    1st KUDOS to those who are 5th generation on the same farm and/or ranch. That is AWESOME! My husband and I are the 4th generation on his family's ranch.

    2nd I think a big part of sustainability is taking care of and improving upon the natural resources of our ranches.

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  3. Ahhh...and hence the problem with words like "sustainable", "natural", "local" and such. They're all open to interpretation (and misinterpretation for that matter). Maybe instead of using those buzz words, maybe we should focus on actually explaining what we're doing that we consider to be sustainable. For example, instead of saying, "We implement sustainable planting practices," maybe the thing to say is "We started using no-till farming methods in 1998 to reduce soil erosion."

    All and all, it's good food for thought for all in agriculture.

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  4. Thanks Crystal for putting my quick thought in. Sustainable is a word that context does mean a lot with. I love the environmental components and think they are at work on the vast majority of farms -- at least the ones I've seen! But at this point, I think there is more focus on keeping farms viable in the future in more ways than environmentally. You captured a lot of ideas on that!

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