Sustainable agriculture has taken on a very impressive tone. It is, in reality, mostly the same practices which farmers have been using for centuries. Understanding its secret is as simple, and as complex, as answering the question, “How do we keep living here without causing extra harm to the land, or expense to ourselves?” Answering both parts of that question gets you to the core of sustainable agriculture.
In the “old days,” people lived almost completely off their farms. They may have initially bought seeds and shovels, but if their skills were not sufficient, or their acts too strong, they could not afford to stay on the farm. Planting too much land brought weeds, pests and waste, none of which a farmer could afford. Not planting enough meant having to spend money, a resource that was scarce on most farms. So skills were developed, and patience, which allowed the farmer to raise his/her crops for the family, have some available for sale, and still have resources and energy left over to repeat the process the next year.
The modern practice of applying fertilizer and using irrigation was created to speed up the growing cycle and make more land available for growing. However, nature has a way of growing to its limits, so if land needs to be heavily irrigated and fertilized, it’s not very sustainable. Simply rotating land through uses, such as planting, planting a different crop, pasturing livestock and then letting a field go “fallow,” took care of the need to apply fertilizers.
Planting one type of crop depletes the soil of some of its nutrients, but if tilled under, that field can use that carbon and the dead plant’s resources to grow a new crop. Using a “green manure,” or a “nitrogen-fixing” plant such as peas, alfalfa or other legumes, allows the soil to rebuild any depleted nitrogen levels and ready for another crop. Adding manure from pastured animals, and the natural digging they do in their day to day activity, allows oxygen and water to permeate the soil, and brings the nourishment from the manure deeper into the ground. This makes the soil richer than it would be without that important component. Allowing the soil to rest, or go fallow, allows the nutrients in the soil to equalize, the water to find its equilibrium, and the soil to heal from the hard work of growing crops.
But this cycle takes time, which doesn’t add to the bottom line very well. That is why patience is an important aspect of the “economy of sustainable agriculture.” Those practicing sustainable, or old fashioned organic agriculture, are rooted in the idea that the farm is a neighborhood, and they are part of a community. They live in both the financial community of the human race, but also the micro-community of their farm and all its residents, visible and invisible, wild and domestic. It is that wealth that gives them strength to tackle the hard work of sustainable ag, because in its itself, it fills the stomach, and refills the soul as much as it rebuilds the soil.