How do you make a farm or ranch more sustainable? There is no single answer, but there are some common practices farmers and ranchers across the country use to improve profitability, quality of life and environmental stewardship.
In this 8 episode series we’ll take a look at the whole farm approach to sustainability, cover crops, soil health, conservation tillage, social sustainability, ecological pest management, grazing, water conservation and the economics of sustainable agriculture.
Every day, farmers and ranchers around the world develop new, innovative strategies to produce and distribute food, fuel and fiber sustainably. While these strategies vary greatly, they all embrace the following broad, long-term goals:
- 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 well-being of producers, their families and society as a whole
A Whole-Farm Approach
There are almost as many ways to reach these goals as there are farms and ranches in America. One thing sustainable producers have in common is they look at their farm or ranch from a holistic perspective and develop an integrated management plan that uses principles from nature.
Reducing tillage and careful application of on-farm nutrient sources, for example, build soil organic matter; energy costs are reduced when fuel is produced from waste or renewable sources; pests are controlled by plant and landscape diversity; income is boosted by more efficient use of on-farm resources—and the list goes on.
A Sampler of Best Practices
Here are some of the ways farmers and ranchers are making their operations more sustainable.
- Marketing. A diversity of marketing techniques can make a farm more resilient to market fluctuations or unexpected production challenges. Consider creating a strong brand identity, studying your potential markets, processing value-added products, and using a variety of sales channels, such as direct marketing, sales to retail and institutions, and aggregators.
- Social resilience. Agriculture is both hard work and a way of life, and it’s critical that our farmers, farm workers and farm families are thriving. Health and well-being, the next generation of producers, community engagement, innovative business management, and equity and social justice are all examples of important social topics.
- Ecological pest management. There’s not much that troubles farmers and ranchers more than weeds, insect pests and diseases. The ecological strategies producers use to limit pest damage include enhancing the biodiversity of the farm, using practices that create a healthy crop habitat, applying pesticides carefully and as a last resort, and reducing off-farm inputs.
- Rotational grazing and pasture management. Sustainable livestock operations come in many shapes and sizes, but they have one thing in common: They carefully manage their livestock on rangelands and pastures in order to simultaneously maintain the health of the land, enhance the quality of their forages and meet their business goals.
- Conservation tillage and soil health. Soil conservation practices, such as strip-till and no-till, help prevent soil loss from wind and water erosion. Conservation tillage systems also help minimize soil compaction, conserve water and store carbon to help offset greenhouse gas emissions.
- Cover crops and soil health. Growing plants such as rye, clover or vetch after harvesting a cash crop can provide multiple benefits, including weed and insect suppression, erosion control, carbon storage and improved soil health. Because these benefits usually result in a cost saving in a few years or less, cover crops are now grown on millions of acres across the country. Discover a wealth of cover crop information.
- Nutrient management. Well-managed and properly applied on-farm nutrient sources—such as manure and leguminous cover crops—build soil, protect water quality and reduce purchased fertilizer costs.
- On-farm energy conservation and production. Farmers and ranchers are using energy-saving devices, wind turbines and solar power, while also learning how to grow and process their own fuel. These practices not only make farm operations more profitable, clean and efficient, they help reduce dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Climate resilience. In many ways, the principles of sustainability work as strategies for managing the risks associated with erratic weather and climate change. An emphasis on soil health in both crop and livestock operations, crop rotations and increased biodiversity, strong community ties, and diversified products and sales channels are all examples of how we can make farms and ranches more resilient in a changing climate.
Find in-depth information on these topics and others in Resources and Learning.
Our Emphasis on Farmer-Driven Research
Because no two farms or ranches are exactly alike, it’s not always easy to know how principles and practices of sustainability might work from one operation to the next. The expertise of producers is invaluable when coming up with innovative, practical and sustainable solutions to agricultural challenges. This is why SARE’s grant programs emphasize applied research that takes place on working farms and ranches, and that engages producers as valued collaborators.
Visit our database of project reports to learn from the experiences of the thousands of SARE grantees since 1988.
In addition, we publish these practical research guides for scientists, Extension professionals and producers: