Thursday, April 12, 2007

Best Practices for Sustainable Agriculture

The best way to become informed about sustainable agriculture is to talk to growers. Most of the people who staff your local market stall are also directly involved in the farm operations. But, if you are concerned about how something is grown as well as its flavor, what should you ask about? What are sustainable farming’s best practices? This is important because you can help promote sustainable practices using your purchasing power and by engaging in dialogue with growers.

I don’t mean to imply that the grower has the full burden of satisfying the consumers’ demands for sustainability. There are limits to what the growers can do and still have a viable, accessible product to bring to market.

Also, for a balanced approach it would seem that we should generate a list of best practices for the farmer and another for the consumer.

For the growers these practices would revolve around some critical areas: farm labor, water use, pest control, soil conservation, fertilizer use, energy use, transportation, open space preservation, and wildlife protection. For livestock raising it also involves humane treatment of animals, enclosures, animal waste handling, and the use of dietary additives such as hormones.

Although I will begin a list of best practices in this posting I really want to rely on your expertise to make it more complete with your input, and also hope to start a dialogue about the relative merits of these measures. Please post your comments and suggestions. Here are a few to start with:

Grower’s Best Practices


Buffer Zones:
Some farmers choose to leave marginal areas out of cultivation. These fallow areas provide refuge for native wildlife and plant species. They may also act as a riparian buffer protecting rivers and streams from the impact of cultivation (such as increased silting of streambeds or the influx of excess nutrients which may lead to algae blooms and the depletion of dissolved oxygen).

Water Use:
Every Californian should know that, unless you live in the northernmost region of the state, you live in a seasonal desert. Our Mediterranean climate is characterized by wet winters and summers with nearly no precipitation. Our agriculture essentially thrives because of Sierra Nevada’s snow pack (a natural reservoir) and piping. Irrigation is the name of the game particularly with industrial operations. High water dependent crops such as cotton and rice (both of which comprise a large percentage of industrial crop output in our state) are essentially water-subsidized by us (not to mention the salmon and other wildlife, whom I am sure we have not gotten consent from). Aside from volume use, best practices should also protect water sources by avoiding pollution and excess nutrient influx (more on these under pest control and fertilizers).

From Oliver the following:
Diversity of Crops: While monoculture farming eases labor it may also create conditions for insect and pest invasions, by keeping farm stocks diverse farmers can reduce their dependency on chemical pest control and their exposure should an infestation occur.

Cover Crops and Crop Rotation: Related to the previous note, tilling under cover crops to rejuvenate soil (Though I understand that tilling its self can be damaging to soil health) or their use in suppressing weeds and annual rotation of cash crops in a given field help control pests. Rotating crops means that species specific pests will last at most one growing season.

For the Consumer :

Buy in-season: Understanding and accepting that certain produce can not be sustainably produced year-round is a good step in reducing the impact of farming. While most people accept that peaches are seasonal, many still insist on ripe tomatoes all winter. Buy purchasing food out of season you are often supporting unsustainable farming or requiring that produce be shipped from the southern hemisphere.

Buy Locally Grown Food:
this seems redundant in the context of this forum; however, by buying from local farmers who practice green farming you create a demand and a market for the food they produce. As mentioned above, the sellers at your local farmers’ market are often very connected to the production of the food in their stall so by talking to them you can give direct feedback about what impacts your food buying decisions.

More to be added in coming days, stay tuned.

1 comment:

Oliver said...

For the Farmer:
Diversity of Crops: While monoculture farming eases labor it may also create conditions for insect and pest invasions, by keeping farm stocks diverse farmers can reduce their dependency on chemical pest control and their exposure should an infestation occur.

Cover Crops and Crop Rotation: Related to the previous note, tilling under cover crops to rejuvenate soil (Though I understand that tilling its self can be damaging to soil health) or their use in suppressing weeds and annual rotation of cash crops in a given field help control pests. Rotating crops means that species specific pests will last at most one growing season.

For the Consumer :
Buy in-season: Understanding and accepting that certain produce can not be sustainably produced year-round is a good step in reducing the impact of farming. While most people accept that peaches are seasonal, many still insist on ripe tomatoes all winter. Buy purchasing food out of season you are often supporting unsustainable farming or requiring that produce be shipped from the southern hemisphere.

Buy Locally Grown Food: this seems redundant in the context of this forum; however, by buying from local farmers who practice green farming you create a demand and a market for the food they produce. As mentioned above, the sellers at your local farmers’ market are often very connected to the production of the food in their stall so by talking to them you can give direct feedback about what impacts your food buying decisions.