By changing your relationship to how food is made, you can rewrite the story of your life. In doing so, you may renew civilization and save it from collapse—by reversing soil degradation processes caused by industrial farming practices. People who are into sustainable farming are doing just that while feeding themselves and others. They are carving out an unlikely path of reclaiming land, nourishing ecosystems, and recentering the stories of oppressed peoples.
What Is Sustainable Farming?
Sustainable farming is a broad, umbrella term for growing food using methods that will also nurture society, the environment, and the economy. It is an alternative to mainstream, industrial agriculture practices. Sustainable farmers seek to support community health and well-being and to work with nature, while still being profitable businesses—though farms can also be run as non-profits or recreational projects.
Why Is Sustainable Farming Important?
Sustainable farming is important because it offers a solution to the problems caused by the way most of our food is grown today. Today’s industrial farming methods, many stemming from the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, are depleting our natural resources through monocultures and the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, among other practices, while leaving people with unequal access to food and nutrition around the world.
- Environment. Soil is considered a non-renewable resource, and sustainable farming promises to protect and preserve soil health.
- Public Health. Putting food production in the hands of disenfranchised communities, as sustainable farming advocates often do, is one way to correct food system injustices that result in continued health disparities among people of color.
- Animal Welfare. Most animals raised for human consumption are grown and processed in conditions that are bad for their health. Sustainable farmers think about how to reform those industrial practices, such as reducing the use of antibiotics.
- Local Economies and Workers. Farmers and farmworkers are often exploited for their labor in industrial agriculture. The sustainable farming movement is creating the space for a food system that respects the dignity of farmers and workers.
- Most Efficient Use of Non-Renewable Resources. Coal, nuclear, oil, and natural gas are non-renewable energy resources that we use to drive cars and trucks, to cook, to heat our homes, and to run power plants that light our tablets and screens. The use of non-renewable energy resources is the leading cause of climate change, and food production is a primary sector contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable farmers seek to be careful in their use of such resources, in alignment with their goal of protecting the environment.
Like the biodiversity of a forest, sustainable farmers are also diverse and creative as they attune their practices to their local communities and environments.
What Are Sustainable Farming Practices and Methods?
The term “sustainable farming” describes a general approach, and there is not an exact recipe for how to operate a sustainable farm. Growers apply methods that make sense to them and that reflect their values. The following are some popular terms you may hear as you learn more about sustainable agriculture.
- Adopting Agroforestry Practices. Forests have multiple layers, have a diversity of species, and store carbon. Agroforestry is when farmers plant crops using patterns observed in natural forests. See Soul Fire Farm’s video for some of their agroforestry practices, including alley cropping and terracing.
- Applying Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Farmers can use biological and mechanical ways of keeping away unwanted animals and insects from their crops. Chives, sage, and mint plants are examples of natural insecticides.
- Aquaponics and Hydroponics. Aquaponics is when people grow fish and vegetables in a mutually beneficial system of sharing water and nutrients. Hydroponic farmers grow plants without using soil and instead use materials like clay balls, coconut hair and fabric. See Charles Collins’ outdoor aquaponics and hydroponics systems in this video. These practices can also be used indoors with electric light.
- Avoid Soil Erosion. To prevent soil erosion, sustainable farmers can plant cover crops, use stones or logs to build terraces, and limit how much soil they dig up where there is already plant cover. Farmers can also avoid overgrazing and deforestation.
- Better Water Management. Farmers can take care of the ecosystem by minimizing their use of fertilizers and pesticides, so that runoff from their farms does not contribute to water pollution. Instead of using sprinklers, for example, farmers seeking to conserve water can install drip lines to irrigate their plants, as Matt Romero Farms did.
- Food Forests. To create a food forest one grows food in vertical layers that mimic the layers of a forest. The goals of an established food forest are to be low maintenance and to feed people with edible plants.
- Growing Heirloom and Older Varieties. Beyond different-tasting vegetables and genetic diversity, heirloom seeds offer a connection to ancestors who thought to save their seeds. The Cultural Conservancy maintains a “living seed library” in relationship with a diasporic Native community. Chief Program Officer Sara Moncada explains in this KCET video, “I think about what it meant for our ancestors who were being relocated, who were facing an unknown future. They didn’t just take what they could grab. They took the seeds. They tucked them in their pockets and wove seeds in their hair, knowing that that seed could be the revitalization of a people. A seed is immense and it’s an immense system of knowledge. Within that system of knowledge is our capacity to connect, to learn, to flourish, to grow, to shift, to adapt, and to feed ourselves.”
- Integrating Livestock and Crops. Farmers can plant cover crops to help them to manage manure and to feed domesticated animals like cows, goats, and sheep.
- Managed Grazing. Farmers who raise livestock such as cows can seek to reduce the animals’ harm to the land on which they graze by limiting their access to the land. Read more about the trend of regenerative grazing, and its critics.
- Managing Whole Systems and Landscapes. Holistic approaches to farming are an Indigenous practice. The Cultural Conservancy bought land that was intended for return to Native people and turned it into a farm and cultural center. They transformed the land using ancestral farming practices that focus on the relationship between people and the ecosystem. The land stewards grow native edible and medicinal plants, support wildlife habitats, and honor the “sacredness of life.”
- Permaculture. Permaculture is a set of ecological design principles and methods that scientists took from Indigenous communities and codified. It is now a worldwide movement. One of the 12 principles of permaculture is to observe and interact. Indigenous community members of the Cultural Conservancy dedicated a year to listen to the land and to each other prior to naming their farm, as a way to re-engage with ancestral traditions of land stewardship while unlearning internalized oppression.
- Planting Cover Crops. Cover crops such as rye, clover, oats, buckwheat, and mustard grass protect soil from erosion and stop earthworms from dying of frost in the winter. Cover crops can also help with pest management and soil fertility.
- Polyculture Farming. Farmers can plant more than one crop in the same area at the same time. The Three Sisters growing technique is an indigenous method of farming where plants demonstrate “interconnection and interreliance,” says Maya Harjo, Native Foodways Director of The Cultural Conservancy. Read more about polyculture farming here.
- Reducing or Eliminating Tillage. Farmers can allow the soil to stay intact and allow crop residue to protect it through no-till farming. Learn about the harms of tillage introduced by settler colonialism in the United States and how to build a no-till bed here.
- Removal of Weeds Manually. Farmers can use their hands and hand tools, and even plows and tillage, to remove unwanted plants.
- Rotating Crops and Embracing Diversity. Crop rotation, or changing the type of crop you grow in the same location, helps growers manage pests, weeds, and soil health. In this Soul Fire Farm video, Amara Ullauri of Rock Steady Farm explains, “There is no single way to create a crop plan.” They give examples of Indigenous farming practices and demonstrate how an Excel spreadsheet or a journal can help plan for a variety of crops.
- Save Transportation Costs. Farmers can find ways to reduce their use of tractors, and the cost of fueling them. At The Cultural Conservancy, for example, Three Sisters crops are not grown in rows, requiring harvesting by hand. Adherents to the eat local or local food movement care about reducing the greenhouse gas emissions caused by transporting food from farm to table.
- Urban Agriculture. Urban farmers are reviving the notion of farming within city limits in places like Shanghai, Havana, and other cities around the world. In the United States, some of the best examples of urban farming are community gardens.
- Using Renewable Energy Resources. Permaculture practitioners value the re-use of materials and avoid single-use products.
Is Organic Farming Sustainable?
Because organic farming rejects the use of harsh pesticides and herbicides, and because of its focus on environmental health, it is generally considered a type of sustainable farming.
How You Can Help
You have taken a leap and seen a menu of trendy terms in sustainable farming. The options of how to support agriculture that embraces nature and uplifts ordinary people are limitless.
- If you’re looking for ideas on how to make farming more sustainable, check out this article based on interviews with three leaders in the food justice movement. Soul Fire Farm, a leading sustainable farming organization, has also developed a set of resources for its supporters here.
- To learn more about Indigenous farming practices promoted by the Cultural Conservancy, watch this video.
- And if you’re looking to try your hand at sustainable farming, consider checking out your local library for how-to manuals, or YouTube for tips on getting started in urban farming.
Towards a More Sustainable Future
Whether high-tech or low-tech, larger- or smaller-scale, and regardless of where the growing happens or their underlying philosophies, sustainable farmers rely on methods that go beyond industrial agriculture, to grow food in ways that are both more just, and more tenable over the long term.
Hemi is a writer, educator, and founder of Learning with Donkeys.