The word “sustainable” is cropping up more and more in agricultural conversations these days, and many folks are beginning to turn their farm practices in a “sustainable” direction.
The word sustainable, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is defined as “capable of being sustained” or “relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”
The idea of sustainable agriculture is not new – but in an industry heavily dominated by corporate, unsustainable monoculture for decades, the notion of giving back more resources than you take was deemed as irrational and unprofitable. In recent years, more and more research is showing that in order for humans to keep feeding future generations, farming practices must become more sustainable. A study by Stony Brook University states that in a comparison of sustainable and conventional agriculture, organic farming methods are shown to perform much better for a number of indicators. Sustainable agriculture, the study continues, consumes less water and energy, enhances soil composition and forgoes synthetic chemical input. Conventional agriculture cannot meet the needs of the current population without compromising the integrity of the environment.
After many years, being sustainable is finally coming back into fashion. So what can farmers who wish to manage their lands sustainably do to get started?
Do Your Research: As with anything, sustainable farming is easier to get a grasp on if you’ve done your research. There are a number of books published on this subject, such as “Salad Bar Beef” by Joel Salatin, “Management Intensive Grazing” by Jim Gerrish and “Ranching Full Time on Three Hours a Day” by Cody Holmes. The Internet is another great tool for finding information on sustainable practices – websites, social media pages and blogs provide an almost endless array of concepts and ideas about sustainability. One of the best ways, though, to learn about sustainable farming methods, is to visit other people’s farms; then you can get a first-hand look at how using techniques like multi-species grazing and natural pest management can reduce your inputs and help you get more grass to the acre.
Apply for a Grant: If you are working your way into ecologically aware farming and have an idea or a concept you want to explore in detail to help further sustainable agriculture, you might consider applying for a grant. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Grant Program is an excellent resource for this. The SARE mission is “to advance – to the whole of American agriculture – innovations that improve profitability, stewardship and quality of life by investing in groundbreaking research and education.”
SARE accepts proposals from farmers like Wes Hunter, from Seymour, Mo., to carry out their mission – Wes received a grant for a project comparing the growth rates, feed efficiency, and overall profitability of a variety of heritage breed chickens. “It went a long way toward funding the research that we felt was needed for gaining information about raising heritage breed chickens for meat, since there is very little current information available elsewhere,” said Wes. The research from SARE grant recipients like Wes is then posted online, so that other farmers have access to the study findings. SARE promotes outreach as well as cooperation through their grants – “SARE likes partnerships and collaborations, so identify who or what partnerships can make your project more successful,” said Heather Friedrich, University of Arkansas Southern SARE PDP Program Assistant.
Get Involved: As with any other occupation, sustainable farming is often best enjoyed in the company of like-minded people. If you want to farm environmentally friendly, stay in touch with other farmers, and begin making a profit off of your farm too, consider joining a food hub.
A food hub is a group of growers and producers combining their resources and their products under one label to sell enough goods to meet public demands – like the Real Farm Foods Hub in Norwood, Mo. Cody Holmes, the Food Hub director, is working with many small-scale sustainable farmers to grow enough products to supply local stores, hospitals and schools with healthy, nutrient dense food. The fruits and vegetables produced by the farmers are purchased by the hub, and are then resold under the Real Farm Foods label.
“Food hubs remove the disassociation between the consumer and the grower,” said Cody. His inspiration for continuing to grow the hub stems from a desire to rebuild rural economies, create local jobs, and put the sustainable small farmers where they belong.
“My objective is to put farmers back on their farm. That’s what it’s all about,” Cody said.