Sustainable Agriculture: Better for Crops, Better for the Environment
Anyone who actively gets their hands dirty in the soil knows the value of caring for the Earth — but a desire for agricultural stewardship doesn’t always translate to sustainability.
From backyard gardeners and large commercial growers, many overlook simple best practices and procedures that can make a positive impact not just on the environment, but also on their crop yields.
The obstacles to sustainability in agriculture are many. For one, there’s tradition. Growing crops like cannabis, vegetables, and other flowering plants is often an activity or business that stretches back for generations. If a farmer learned growing methods passed down from family members or even knowledgeable teachers, they may be relying on outdated information that hinders their productivity and sustainability.
Beyond a general resistance to change, some growers simply don’t have access to the latest education and information needed to implement new solutions that make a difference for the Earth. They may not be aware of the newest technologies and materials that can facilitate sustainability.
It doesn’t help when others in a community who are also ignorant of the importance of environmental sustainability in agriculture discourage environmental practices. Social pressure, no matter how subtle, can be a powerful obstacle when it comes to overcoming the uncertainty of implementing new technology.
Then there are the economic factors. Often, commercial farmers and hobby gardeners alike presume that shifting their methods to those that make the environment a priority will inherently be more expensive. With the return on investment so tenuous in agriculture, it may make more sense to implement practices that will pay off in the short term first.
Yet, these barriers to sustainability are worth reconsidering. You may be surprised how small changes can add up to a positive impact on the environment that can benefit generations to come. It doesn’t matter how much land you are working; becoming a protective steward of the land can make a measurable difference for the environment.
Support Healthier Soils
Decades ago, farmers thought the best way to grow crops was to maximize their productivity no matter what. This often resulted in them stripping the nutrients from their crop beds in such a way to dramatically impact the health of the topsoils of the Earth. The thought was that they’ll get what they need and move on.
But today’s real estate reality is that farmland everywhere is diminishing. It makes long-term sense for crop beds to put effort into improving the overall health of the soil.
Three factors go into ensuring you have healthy soil. These are:
1. Soil Structure and Organic Content
This means doing the work it takes to help the water filter slowly through the soil so plant roots can reach and absorb the nutrients. Farmers and gardeners may need to remove rocks or aerate the beds, but it’s also easy to overdo it. Compacting soil can make a water-logged area that destroys the soil despite your best efforts.
2. Soil Biology
Growing plants take a lot out of the surrounding soil, yet many growers don’t recognize the need to augment the bacteria that is naturally found within healthy Earth. For example, soil inoculants like Impello’s Tribus Original provide rhizobacteria, which promote plant growth through natural processes. This supportive process of supporting the environment is akin to taking a probiotic for the body — it improves health for the long term.
3. Soil Chemistry
When soil is unhealthy, the levels of nitrogen and other nutrients that plants require can quickly become depleted. If growers don’t balance the ecosystem, the Earth won’t serve as a stable structure in which to grow crops — or be a suitable habitat for the natural insects and animals that make up the sometimes microscopic yet critical building blocks of a healthy ecosystem.
Preserve Water Resources
Regardless of the size of the growing area, farmers and gardeners often focus on ways to more efficiently give their crops the water they need. That’s especially true in drier climates. With freshwater making up only 3% of the world’s total water resources, it’s crucial for the future health of humanity to find ways to preserve water in any way possible.
To preserve water usage in agriculture, tips include:
- Installing automatic drip irrigation systems
- Choosing drought-tolerate crops
- Store rainwater runoff
- Optimize watering times to avoid especially arid times
Plus, following the best practices to improving soil quality — including proper crop rotation to avoid stripping the soil of specific nutrients — also reduces the demands on water.
Many farmers believe that harsh chemicals are an unfortunate necessity for affordable and productive crop yields, but that’s become an increasingly outdated concept. As seen in the growing success of organic farming, the use of excessive fertilizers and chemical sprays is expensive and surprisingly inefficient.
Pollution that comes from traditional farming and even backyard gardening methods can substantially impact the health of local waterways and biodiversity. Experts say that only about 2% to 5% of sprayed chemicals stay on plants.
Instead of relying on chemicals, modern growers are considering other ways to reduce the footprint agriculture is making on the natural environment. For example, simply planting cover crops during the off-season can help reduce erosion as well as decrease persistent weeds, maintain soil health, and make fertilizer less necessary.
Address Climate Change
Scientists agree that climate change is a reality that is already impacting farms of all sizes around the globe. It’s a challenge that growers must consider when choosing which methods in which to invest their time and resources. While the extreme weather will make farming and even backyard growing more difficult in many areas, some steps can be done to slow the impacts.
Renewable energy, such as installing solar panels and wind turbines, can minimize the use of petroleum-based fuels. Electric vehicles can create more sustainable transportation of crops, while more efficient watering methods can reduce dependence on pumps.
What’s more, a focus on soil health and crop productivity also makes a difference in climate change. Plants, through photosynthesis, draw CO2 from the air and into the soil, where microorganisms like bacteria use it. The more fertile the soil and healthier your plants, the more work you’re doing for the environment.
Of course, environmental stability may look very different from region to region. The key to caring for your local ecosystem is to understand the challenges and considerations that apply to your specific area.
For example, the National Cooperative Soil Survey identified more than 20,000 different kinds of soil in the United States alone. It’s important to gain an in-depth understanding of your land, through tests implemented through your local Agricultural Extension offices or other DIY tests, before determining an adaptive strategy.
Another important way that growers can become modern stewards of their land is to connect with their community. It’s easy to think that one plot won’t make a difference, but if growers work together to improve the health of their soil, reduce water consumption, and implement tools that can reduce their carbon footprint, the changes add up.
Plus, a stronger agricultural community — including hobby gardeners — helps regions preserve the traditions of farmland in the face of rising developmental pressures. This not only helps sustainability in terms of local food supply, but it also makes a bigger impact on the climate and biodiversity.
Small farms can collaborate to implement or expand local farmers’ markets and push local food initiatives to create a greater demand for local foods. This limits transportation, which is an important way to help the environment. After all, on average meals in the United State require about 1,500 miles to get to your plate.
Our Relationship with the Environment Matters
Those whose passion is to grow fruiting and flowering plants, whether as a profession or as a hobby, may not think they have the time to advocate for a better planet — and yet their livelihood and joy are at stake.
Even though farming can sometimes seem to operate on a season-to-season timetable, the reality is that everyone who cares about the land should be thinking on a much longer schedule. Staying abreast of the latest technology, such as the integration of microbial inoculants, is just as important as supporting public policies impacting farmland conservation, water retention, and renewable energy.
Working together with fellow growers makes it easier to organize a stronger voice for concerns that will impact both the local ecosystem and the Earth’s entire climate. Attracting beneficial insects, creating shelter for wildlife, and stopping erosion often require the collaboration of many landowners.
However, remember, it’s not necessary to do everything at once to improve agricultural stewardship on your land. Even the smallest improvements to your methods and processes can make a difference when it comes to environmental sustainability.
While a goal of completely transitioning your operation to organic, it may be more realistic to start with improving the biology and health of the soil. With each improvement, track the process over time so you can determine the benefits — and share the impacts with fellow farmers and gardeners so they can improve their relationship with the Earth, its soils, and its plants, too.