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What does sustainable mean?

By Harold Watters, Ohio State University Extension agronomist

This is the legal definition: “Sustainable agriculture” was addressed by Congress in the 1990 Farm Bill. Under that law, “the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • satisfy human food and fiber needs;
  • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends;
  • make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
  • sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

Above from the National Agriculture Library: https://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/sustainable-agriculture-definitions-and-terms#toc2 and: https://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/sustainable-agriculture-definitions-and-terms.

Is your operation sustainable based upon the points above:

  • Yes, we produce food and fiber to satisfy human needs
  • Enhance environmental quality — we are headed that direction, some are there already. I think every producer I talk to wants to improve the soil on their farm, and again we are moving the right direction. Reducing tillage would help though.
  • Non-renewable and on-farm resources — again we are getting better. I think farmers are the ultimate tinkerers of the world. They are always making something already on the farm fit a new use. Manure should stay near where it is produced. If a dairy buys silage from a neighbor for their cows, then the manure goes back to those fields. This makes sense.
  • Economic viability — we try. When politics and trade policy doesn’t get in the way we do pretty well. Dairy farms today may be an exception, but some are doing well and more are moving that direction too.
  • Enhance the quality of life — again we are trying. That certainly is our goal.

Over the past three years now I have been attending some “alternative agriculture” conferences in Indianapolis, in Omaha, in Madison and Columbia Missouri – one was in north central Ohio even. Generally, they say that without sustainable practices our farms will not continue to produce food, forages or fiber.

A big supporter of the Sustainable Agronomy Conference I attended last summer were the Field to Market folks. Who are they? The group consists of people you know — American Farmland Trust, the Nature Conservancy, Kellogg’s, NCGA, Soil Health Partnership, Coca-Cola, Walmart, McDonalds, and many more. Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture is a diverse collaboration working to create productive and profitable opportunities across the agricultural value chain for continuous improvements in environmental outcomes. Their work is “grounded in science-based tools and resources, unparalleled, system-wide collaboration and increased supply-chain transparency.” They have a Field Print calculator that helps you document your practices and helps lead you to improved sustainability.

While attending the Ohio Grain Growers Symposium in December I heard about the OACI plans to help us document our practices. That is a theme that comes up a lot in the sustainability presentations. Who are they?

  • From their website: The Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative (OACI) is an unprecedented partnership between agriculture, conservation, environmental, and research communities to recognize farmers for their dedication to utilize established methods to improve water quality in Ohio and to increase the number of best management practices being implemented on farms. Many of the same groups that are involved with the Field to Market organization even.
  • They will “Create a confidential farm practices assessment that will benchmark best management practices adoption and track progress toward our goals.” This is another tool to document your practices and help lead you to reduced phosphorus losses.

In other reading I have done lately regarding sustainable practices, it is suggested that we will be tasked with producing crops in carbon-neutral ways and use phosphorus in P-neutral ways, meaning we lose the same amount of C or P as we generate.

In a meeting just last week the speaker said that, in spite of the doomsayers, yield of our crops has gone up over the years pretty dramatically. I have a chart that I look at every now and then to give me an idea as to whether or not we (that is the royal we, meaning production agriculture) are heading in the right direction. As you can see from the 1860s to the 1930s when we were using what was supposedly low input, sustainable practices but we were not increasing yield to feed increasing population. It was the 1950s when things started to turn around with the widespread use of improved genetics, high-grade fertilizers and improved practices that we did make improvements in sustainability. Did we overdo some practices? Probably.

Figure 1. U.S. Grain Yield Trends since 1866, from R.L. (Bob) Nielsen Agronomy Dept., Purdue Univ. May 2017: https://www.agry.purdue.edu/ext/corn/news/timeless/yieldtrends.html

Today modern genetics of wheat, corn and soybean produce more bushels with less nutrients. As shown from our recent work to update the Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations for 2020. It takes less nutrients today than it did in 1995 to produce a bushel of wheat, corn or soybean with the same nutritional value.

It is interesting that some folks think biotechnology is the opposite of what they wish with sustainable agriculture, or that increasing the efficiency of crop nutrient use is a bad thing. But according to USDA and by definition, these are valuable practices that do increase our chances of becoming more sustainable. Some even think the use of precision agriculture is a move backwards — but that technology allows us to manage in-field variation more easily. More precise management of genetics, nutrients and the ability to place both where they are needed most is probably the most sustainable practice we use today.

So what are we to do? Document. Use the tool you are most comfortable with – two are cited here but I know there are others. Keep records, and as I told a group today: have a plan. A plan for nutrient management certainly, but also a plan as to how you will document your sustainable practices, and get a little help along the way to do better. As a friend of mine always says, “mom told me to do better, and I try to do better every day.” I think you do too. Now let’s prove it.

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