The best and most sustainable farms and food systems are the ones that focus on the right blend of economic and environmental sustainability – these are the food systems that will nurture the unborn generations from whom we are borrowing these resources.
What Does it Mean to be Sustainable on a Farm?
Sustainable agriculture is the management of a food system that will produce the same volume and quality of food with the same amount of resources in perpetuity. It is tempting to only address the environmental part of sustainability, focusing on eliminating the use of fossil fuels, not transporting products extreme distances, minimizing soil tillage, not adding any external fertilizers, using only heirloom seed varieties and water crops just enough to keep them alive. The reality is that farming systems that focus solely on the environmental aspect, unless backed by a deep-pocketed investor, may go out of business and unfortunately, their land may be picked up by other farming systems that while adept at being economically sustainable, may not even care about environmental sustainability.
Seven Core Components
that Define Sustainable Farming:
The following core components that define the realistic blend of sustainability in the food system. Note: many of the following components of sustainable farming are not required for organic certification.
- Local Fertilizers: Cover crops are the most sustainable fertilizer— period. After a healthy cover crop, the most local, organic fertilizers should be considered next, which depend entirely on a farm’s location. For some farms, they are green waste compost; for others, it is a composted chicken or steer manure. Behind these are very specific fertilizers that are produced regionally (feather meal, fish and seaweed products). The most un-sustainable, but organic fertilizers are bat guano and sodium bicarbonate mined from unique spots on earth and shipped from different hemispheres
- Irrigation and Water Management. In order to maximize the use of fertilizers, land, and equipment use, a plant must have as much water as it wants. This is most sustainable by using irrigation systems that have excellent distribution uniformity (drip, micro-sprinklers and hand move sprinklers). Additionally, these systems must be operated on an irrigation schedule that matches plant water-use requirements while taking into account factors like weather and development stage of the crop. Applying too much water to a crop not only wastes water, but washes valuable nutrients out of the plant’s root zone, while applying too little water cripples a plant’s ability to make the best use of the natural resources it has been given.
- Year-round Employees. Farm employees are an essential and often overlooked component of a sustainable food system. These men and women are the backbone of the farming industry who work extremely hard and earn surprisingly small wages. It is essential that this group of people have year-round work so they can sustain their families and their communities. Many farms manage only one crop which requires a large influx of labor for a concentrated period of time and then an expectation that the labor force will figure something out for the rest of the season.
- Crop Rotation. The most sustainable form of preventing plant disease is to rotate different types of crops through the same field. Soil that receives the same crops year-after-year can breed diseases that harm that crop by building up levels in soil that may permanently eliminate the soil’s ability to grow certain crops without toxic chemicals (which are not organic nor healthy for anything). Crop rotation also helps promote biodiversity on farms and maintain year-round employment for the farm team.
- Local First and Customer Partnerships. Without customers making a farms produce a routine part of their lives, every week of the year, farms economically will not survive. With each customer farms enter into a partnership by which the customer trusts the farm to provide the best, seasonal selection of the most local produce available. There are times in the year when this can be done from one or two farms extremely close to customers. There are also times when a good selection cannot be made for customers without sourcing product from like-minded farm partners in different geographic regions.
- Customer Satisfaction: Without customers, farms would not have a place to sell produce. Educating consumers about what to expect from organic produce, the seasonality and challenges of growing it is important.
- Biodiversity: Farms manage land and resources that used to be the home to an untold variety and amount of wildlife. As stewards of both the land and the natural resources that go along with the land, farmers should believe that sustainability includes promoting an ecosystem in which healthy crops, flora and fauna exist in a balanced eco-system. Farms should set aside areas as wild and cultivated to California natives. They should preserve space between fields to create habitat for beneficial insects. A farm’s systems and operating procedures are customized to meet rigorous third-party Food Safety standards, but also protect the habitat that so many creatures depend upon.
Sustainability is About Trust
There currently is no standard, no certification that monitors or assures that a comprehensive approach to perpetual sustainability reaches the consumer. At this point, the only method that enables a consumer the confidence in knowing that they are participating in a genuinely sustainable food system is the transparency and trust forged between a customer and farmer.