These 7 Sustainable Ag Trends Could Future-Proof Your Farm

With net farm incomes predicted to decrease 8.1% in 2021, you may be looking for ways to stretch your budget and increase profitability.  

One potential solution? Sustainable farming.

While there is no set definition for sustainable ag, UC Davis says its goal is to “meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education specifies further by identifying four broad, long-term goals of sustainable farming strategies. Those are:

  • Productivity: Grow enough food and fiber to meet humanity’s needs
  • Stewardship: Enhance the quality of the land, water and air, and make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources
  • Profitability: Maintain the economic viability of farms and ranches
  • Quality of life: Promote the resilience and wellbeing of producers, their families and society as a whole.

There are a variety of methods that can help achieve those objectives and they range from smaller adjustments in farming practices, such as reducing tillage or precise nutrient application, to big management changes, like becoming certified organic or bringing livestock onto the operation.

Let’s cover some sustainable practices and the impact they can have on your farm or ranch:

Organic Farming

Organic is commonly thought of as chemical-free farming, and largely it is. But growing organic is really a holistic farming approach integrating “cultural, biological and mechanical practices to foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity,” according to the USDA. Sustainable practices used in organics include crop rotation and cover cropping, while the lack of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides means no chemical runoff.

The Rodale Institute, which has been conducting organic farming research since the 1980s, has found organic farming:

  • Produces yields up to 40% higher in times of drought
  • Releases 40% fewer carbon emissions
  • Uses 45% less energy
  • Provides 3-6 times greater profits.

Rotational Grazing

Also called management-intensive grazing, this grazing management strategy requires moving livestock from one paddock to another, allowing the pastures time to regrow before they’re grazed again, according to ATTRA, a sustainable program developed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

The University of Georgia lists a number of benefits achieved with this practice, including:

  • More efficiently rationed daily forage and supplemental feed
  • Pasture plants become more persistent
  • Increases pasture yield
  • Reduces costs of machinery, fuel and facilities
  • Uniformly distributes animal waste, which results in more uniform soil quality and fertility.

Integrated Pest Management

In this approach to pest control, non-pesticide techniques — including biological control, habitat manipulation, cultural practice modification and use of resistant seed varieties — are used to prevent and control pests, says UC Davis. Only when monitoring indicates pesticides are needed can such products be used, with treatments made to remove the target organism.

By using pesticides as a last resort instead of the primary tool for pest control, growers can achieve many environmental benefits, such as reduced pesticide runoff and leaching, reduced pesticide residue in crops, and reduced energy use and production costs, says the NRCS. For instance, the agency says cherry producers who have switched to prescriptive sprays based on in-the-field information from traditional spray schedules have reduced 25% of their pesticide applications.

Protecting Pollinators & Increasing Beneficial Insects

Going hand-in-hand with IPM practices are strategies which protect pollinators and boost beneficial insects. The Pennsylvania NRCS says a healthy pollinator population contributes to better yields and higher-quality crops. Blueberries and cherries are 90% dependent on honeybee pollination, while 90% of the U.S. apple crop is pollinated by bees.

There are simple, inexpensive ways to farm for crop pollinators, which include protecting the areas where bees forage and live from disturbance and pesticides (as most insecticides are deadly to bees), while providing additional nesting sites and food sources, such as cover crops and “bee blocks.”

4Rs of Nutrient Management

According to the 4R Nutrient Stewardship, an organization founded by institutes and associations in the fertilizer industry, the four “Rs” is a science-based philosophy which protects the environment and increases production and farmer profitability, while improving sustainability.

The four Rs stand for:

  • Using the right fertilizer source…
  • …At the right rate…
  • …At the right time…
  • …With the right placement

The goal is to match nutrient supply with crop requirements while minimizing nutrient losses from fields. The 4Rs are most effective when applied with other agronomic and conservation practices like no-till and cover cropping.

Soil-Free Indoor Farming

A common option for urban areas is to grow crops indoors. But unlike greenhouses, which still rely on soil and sunlight, these farms may use LED lighting and alternative growth mediums — if they use a growth medium at all.

Hydroponics is one common example. As the Princeton Student Climate Initiative (PSCI) explains, hydroponics uses a soil-free growth medium like coconut husks for seedlings to attach to and are fed nutrient-infused water. Aquaponics is a related form of hydroponics, in that it uses the water from fish tanks to feed and fertilize the plants.

When plants are stacked on top of each other to get more production out of the space, says PSCI, it’s called vertical farming. Crops can be grown hydroponically or aeroponically in vertical farms. In aeroponics, roots grow freely in the air and are misted with the nutrients and water they need.

Columbia University says there are a number of sustainable benefits to vertical farms, including:

  • Using 70-95% less water than traditional farms
  • Using over 90% less land
  • Harvesting 80% more per unit of area (and can be productive year-round)

Carbon Farming

The Climate Institute calls the soil an underutilized carbon sink, which means it has potential to alleviate climate pressure. And increasing soil carbon not only benefits the environment — Cornell University says it increases yields, improves resistance to drought and flooding and betters water quality.

But what does it mean to “carbon farm?” Cornell says there are a number of practices growers can use to sequester soil carbon. Tillage is known for releasing carbon into the atmosphere, so using no-till or other minimum-till practices is key. Cover crops are another option, because they will pull in carbon dioxide via photosynthesis during times of the year when the soil is typically bare. Applying manure, compost, or biochar also adds carbon back to the soil.

Deep Dives into Sustainable Farming

We will be taking a closer look at each of these sustainable farming practices in the upcoming months. Additional articles in our sustainable farming series will provide more information about how these different methods may help improve profits while protecting the future of your operation.

Conterra Ag lends exclusively to American agriculture and has expertise in a variety of farm and ranch operations utilizing both traditional and sustainable farming practices.  If you’re ready to refinance, or looking to grow your operation, let’s talk ag – contact your Conterra relationship manager today:

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