Kicking off National Ag Week and on the eve of 2011’s National Ag Day, I have an opportunity to discuss a topic that draws plenty of attention, yet defines the future of agriculture. In today’s society, there is a big misconception concerning production agriculture. This misconception is that farmers don’t care about the environment; they only look at making a profit. If I were to mention the word sustainability, what comes into your mind? Since only two percent of our population live on farms, that leaves about ninety-eight percent of the population that may associate the term sustainability solely with the organic food movement. Although organic farming does incorporate sustainable practices, conventional farming operations are becoming more sustainable. For me to present this topic and dispel a few myths I need to give us a base definition.
Referencing the USDA’s website, “Congress defines sustainable agriculture as ‘… an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long-term—(A) satisfy human food and fiber needs; (B) enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends; (C) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; (D) sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and (E) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.’” In simple terms sustainability is the capacity to endure. It is my goal to break down this definition, dispel a few myths and convey information concerning the agriculture industry as it moves forward in the 21st century.
Intrigued by this definition, let me start with the first portion of the definition. Sustainable agriculture is an integrated system of practices and it is site-specific, meaning that each farm will have sustainable practices unique to that operation. For example, a grain farmer in the south may not be able to access swine manure for fertilizer as easily as a grain farm in the Midwest due to the concentration of swine operations in that area. Some examples of practices that may be integrated are tillage practices such as no-till and strip till, use of hybrids, biotechnology, and/or manure handling in livestock operations.
Looking at point A, satisfying human food and fiber needs, I strongly feel that biotechnology is critical here. Through hybridization and plant breeding strategies, many of our food and fiber crops are increasing yields and are more efficient when it comes to nutrient requirements. Despite the current debate over food vs. fuel, there is plenty of corn being produced to satisfy our needs and increased technology is resulting in higher yielding hybrids. Other crops are seeing similar results. In livestock production, farmers are using production data for breeding selections that maximize production of our meat proteins. Also, many livestock feed rations are now including more forage based ingredients, reducing the demand on our grains.
Point B, enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends, really points to where the future of agriculture is moving to. The use of transgenic crops has reduced the need for herbicides and insecticides, keeping those chemicals out of the equation when it comes to reaching our water system. More and more farmers are using modern tillage practices, reducing soil erosion, and preserving the medium in which our crops grow in. The use of cover crops to further reduce erosion and build the soil’s nutrient levels and organic matter is increasing in popularity. Using tillage radishes or turnips as “bio-drilling” tools to reduce compaction in the soil, reduces the power needed to work the soil, thus saving fuel and reducing carbon emissions from farm machinery. Personally, I am very interested in the use of cover crops and am working to encourage more use of them in my area. Using natural means to build soil nutrient levels reduces the amount of additional fertilizers needed, thus reducing the potential for runoff. Farmers are applying improved techniques for nutrient delivery such as variable-rate applicators and banding to reduce the total amounts of fertilizers needed.
Point C, make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls, looks at improving the performance of our farm power machinery to make them more fuel efficient and preserve the nonrenewable resource we know as oil. Many farmers are using on-farm resources, such as animal manure for fertilizer as opposed to synthetic fertilizers, maximizing the production from each animal unit as well as reducing input costs for crops. Farmers using conservation practices such as terracing and contouring are further reducing soil loss and controlling erosion. These are just a couple of examples of using natural controls in agriculture.
Parts D, sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and E, enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole, go together nicely. Through sustainable practices like I mentioned earlier, input costs are reduced, increasing the potential for profit and self-sufficiency in farming operations. In addition, sustainable practices, keep the land going to support future generations of farming on the same land. Efficiency in farming operations through sustainable practices improves family life because more time is spent with the family instead of the fields or barns. And, properly managing nutrients, farmers are working to keep our soils healthy and our water safe, thus enhancing the quality of life for the people of this nation.
Looking at the definition of sustainability in each of the components, it is easy to see that farmers are concerned about the environment. They are working to reduce soil loss, reduce energy needed for farming, and reduce inputs, and protect our water systems. With more and more farmers adopting more and more sustainable practices, I am confident that moving into the future, that in the long term, our farming system will be sustainable.