This is the first blog in a short series I am doing about sustainable farming. In two weeks, I will post the second part to this blog, which is an interview with a local sustainable farming operation, so stick around for that. Additionally, I posted a blog last week about organic foods, so go check that one out too.
Sustainable agriculture is becoming much more popular as farmers try to better use their land. But what is sustainable agriculture, how is it sustainable, and what are the different methods used to make it sustainable?
Firstly, it is important to know why common farming practices are bad. The massive monoculture operations that dominate global agriculture are terrible for the environment because they strip the soil of its natural resources through aggressive tilling and irrigation practices which also waste water and salinate the soil. Since these operations usually only grow one crop, they also become breeding grounds for pests, thus increasing the need for heavy pesticide usage, which contaminates local ecosystems. These expansive monoculture fields also push out all of the natural wildlife and destroy local ecosystems. These are some of the main drawbacks of conventional agriculture, but there are many more, so I encourage you to do more research.
There are many different methods of sustainable agriculture, and they all have their unique benefits. Firstly, there is terracing. Terracing is when layers or steps are cut into hills to create flat areas. These flat areas make crop cultivation in hilly and mountainous areas possible, which is why it is common in much of eastern and southeastern Asia. Also, when it rains, the water, soil, and nutrients flow to the terrace below instead of being washed away. Another sustainable farming practice is contour farming, which is when crops are planted on a shallow slope following its natural contour lines. These contour lines create water breaks which help reduce runoff, thus keeping the soil and its nutrients from washing away. Contour farming can reduce soil erosion by as much as 50% compared to traditional farming. This method also preserves soil quality, retains water better, and requires less fertilizer than common monoculture farms. Usually, this is done in conjunction with strip cropping, which is when two different crops are planted in long, narrow rows along the contour lines, further boosting sustainable capabilities. Alley cropping, another sustainable practice, is when the crops are planted between rows of trees, creating alleys. This is beneficial because it reduces erosion and has the trees provide shelter to the other crops. Windbreaks, which are shrubs or trees are planted around the edges of fields, have similar purposes and benefits.
There are also many sustainable practices that don’t have to do with planting crops in a certain way. These alternate methods come with benefits of their own. A sustainable practice you may have heard of is planting cover crops. Cover crops are planted to cover the soil during the off-season, and they usually aren’t harvested. This sounds counterintuitive, but they have many benefits, including preventing soil erosion, adding organic material and nutrients to the soil to boost crop yields, increasing water retention and preventing runoff, and preventing farms from becoming breeding grounds for weeds, pests, and diseases. There is also conservation-tillage, which is when 30 percent or more of the soil surface is covered with crop residue and other organic material after tillage activities. Tilling is digging, stirring, and overturning the top layer of dirt (usually the top 6-10 inches), and is usually done by tractors. Tilling has some benefits, but a lot of the time it causes more harm than good because it disturbs natural soil layering. Conservation tillage greatly reduces the need for tillage and can reduce soil erosion, air and water pollution, and more. No-till, which is when the soil is not disturbed through tillage at all, is also becoming increasingly popular. No-till can make the soil better absorb and infiltrate water, prevent soil erosion and runoff, slow evaporation, and so much more. Water is another important factor in farming, and sustainable drip irrigation techniques can reduce water usage, prevent soil salinization, and more. Finally, there is Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Put simply, IPM is when you only use pesticides when you absolutely have to, and when you do they are natural pesticides and you use as little as possible. It involves pursuing other pest-control techniques including using insect nets, better managing land to reduce pests in the first place, and more.
I encourage you to do more research because sustainable agriculture is a huge topic to cover. I will have more blogs on this topic in the coming weeks so make sure you stick around for those.