What is a sustainable farmer?

The following is an article pulled from the Winter 1991 issue of the Leopold Center's quarterly newsletter: The Leopold Letter.

What is a sustainable farmer?

The why of sustainable agriculture is easily understood. The how is harder. Farmers who are experimenting with sustainable practices often create networks to share ideas and experience. The Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) is one such group of farmers who take science through trial and error to develop and tailor alternative systems for each farm or field.

What do these farmers have in common? Many of the following management practices are used by PFI farmers and other sustainable farmers across the nation. These techniques are not unique and can be found most anywhere in Iowa.

1. Regular soil tests. Testing the soil for levels of primary crop nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — is essential before any fertilizer is applied. Sustainable farmers measure the amount of nutrients in their soil and subtract crop needs to figure if they need to apply fertilizer. This saves money and reduces the risk of polluting water supplies.

An easy-to-use test for soil nitrogen, developed by ISU scientist Alfred Blackmer, is available from Hach Company, 100 Dayton Ave., Ames, IA 50010. Farmers who use the nitrogen fertilizer kit can reduce their nitrogen fertilizer inputs without cutting profits. The test helps prevent over-application of nitrogen fertilizer, thus reducing the potential for nitrate contamination of groundwater.

[editor's note: This kit can be ordered online at www.hach.com.]

2. Efficient use of on-farm resources. Sustainable farmers use on-farm resources before they purchase other inputs. For example, livestock farmers use animal manure as a source of crop nutrients by applying it to fields. Farmers with or without livestock integrate legumes into their cropping system as a natural nitrogen supplement for corn.

Sustainable farmers control weeds and insects with management, such as crop rotations and light tillage, before they resort to chemical controls. 

They scout their fields for pest or disease problems before they use these treatments. Then, sustainable farmers measure what and how much remedy is needed whether it be biological or chemical controls.

3. Crop rotations. Breaking the pest cycle is a key to reducing chemical use in crops. The most logical and safe way to do this is through crop rotations. Harmful insects, weeds, and diseases can be controlled more easily if a variety of crops are grown in rotations on the same field. Integration of legumes into a cropping mix can supply some nitrogen for other crops that need it. Sod-forming crops also help control soil erosion while still producing a marketable commodity.

4. High level of management. Sustainable farmers are conversant managers. Oftentimes, they prefer to use management to reduce their need for farm chemicals. For most farmers, sustainable practices are a win-win situation. They can lower production costs through management and limit the possible harmful effects of chemicals on the health of their family and the environment.

5. Use of innovation and technology. Sustainable farmers use technology and experience to develop their own way of doing things. For instance, one farmer may rebuild his machinery to fit his own cropping style. Another farmer may create her own mix to integrate crops that produce a surplus of nitrogen and help conserve soil. Yet another farmer may devise a management scheme to naturally reduce livestock diseases.

6. Diversity. Because of the diversity of sustainable agriculture, people living on farms and in rural communities can select from numerous risk-reducing opportunities that did not exist before. And because sustainable farming tends to be less capital-intensive, new alternatives for existing capital can help reduce farm-crisis pressures still lingering in rural communities and businesses.