2. on imported oil, and driven more and more one ﬁeld, one family at a time—sustainable
acres into the hands of fewer and fewer farming is taking root.
“farmers,” crippling rural communities.
Off the farm, consumers and grassroots activ-
In recent decades, sustainable farmers and ists are working to create local markets and
researchers around the world have responded farm policies that support sustainable prac-
to the extractive industrial model with ecol- tices. They are working to raise consumers’
ogy-based approaches, variously called natu- awareness about how their food is grown and
ral, organic, low-input, alternative, regenera- processed—how plants, animals, the soil, and
tive, holistic, Biodynamic, biointensive, and the water are treated. And they are working
biological farming systems. All of them, rep- to forge stronger bonds between producers
resenting thousands of farms, have contrib- and consumers that will, in time, cement the
uted to our understanding of what sustain- foundations of locally and regionally self-
able systems are, and each of them shares sufﬁcient food systems. In contrast to mono-
a vision of “farming with nature,” an agro- cropped industrial megafarms that ship
ecology that promotes biodiversity, recycles
plant nutrients, protects soil from erosion, Jam processed on-farm is one example of a value-
conserves and protects water, uses mini- added product. Photo by Nathalie Dulex.
mum tillage, and integrates crop and live-
little—one stock enterprises on the farm.
But no matter how elegant the system or how
ﬁeld, one family at accomplished the farmer, no agriculture is
a time—sustain- sustainable if it’s not also proﬁtable, able to
able farming is provide a healthy family income and a good
quality of life. Sustainable practices lend
taking root. themselves to smaller, family-scale farms.
These farms, in turn, tend to ﬁnd their best
niches in local markets, within local food sys-
tems, often selling directly to consumers. As
alternatives to industrial agriculture evolve,
so must their markets and the farmers who
serve them. Creating and serving new mar-
kets remains one of the key challenges for
How Do We Achieve
Farmers and other agricultural thinkers have throughout the world, the vision of sustain-
established a strong set of guiding principles able agriculture’s futurists is small to mid-
for sustainability, based on stewardship and size diversiﬁed farms supplying the majority
economic justice. Producers and researchers of their region’s food. (No one in Idaho has
are annually increasing the pace of improve- to give up orange juice, and there will still
ments in agro-ecology systems, making them be cranberries in California for Thanksgiv-
more efﬁcient and proﬁtable. More Coopera- ing.)
tive Extension ofﬁces and colleges of agricul- Listed below are some of the key consider-
ture are endorsing sustainable practices. And ations for making a farm more sustainable,
every year more farmers are seeing the wis- along with relevant ATTRA publications in
dom and rewards—both economic and per- those areas. Because each farm is differ-
sonal—in these systems. (Organic products ent, there’s no single formula for sustainable
are the fastest growing grocery segment in success, but these principles and publica-
the United States.) Little by little—one crop, tions are good places to begin learning what
Page 2 ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction
3. it will take. And for a more detailed look at
some of these same fundamentals, see the
ATTRA publication Applying the Principles
of Sustainable Agriculture.
Know Your Markets, Protect
Your Proﬁts, and Add Value
to Your Products
• Diversify enterprises.
• Market outside the commodity supply
chains and corporate vertical integra-
• Emphasize direct marketing and pre-
mium specialty markets.
• Consider forming a cooperative with other
• Add value through on-farm processing.
4 USDA-RBS Series on Cooperatives Fresh peaches at a
4 Holistic Management farmers market in Cali-
4 Keys to Success in Value-added
4 Evaluating a Rural Enterprise Agriculture fornia. Photo by Erik
4 Moving Beyond Conventional Cash Dungan.
4 Adding Value to Farm Products: An
4 Entertainment Farming 4 Grain Processing
4 Oilseed Processing for Small Producers
4 Agricultural Business Planning
Templates 4 Food Dehydration Options
4 Enterprise Budgets and Production Costs 4 Soyfoods: Adding Value to Soybeans
for Organic Production 4 Sorghum Syrup
4 Preparing for an Organic Inspection: 4 Value-added Dairy Options
Steps and Checklists
4 Direct Marketing Build Soil Structure
4 Farmers’ Markets and Fertility
4 CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) • Reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers by
4 Bringing Local Food to Local Institutions increasing on-farm nutrient cycling.
4 Selling to Restaurants
• Make fertilization decisions based on
4 Organic Certiﬁcation and the National
4 Organic Marketing Resources • Minimize or eliminate tillage.
4 Alternative Meat Marketing • Think of the soil not only as a physical
and chemical substrate but as a living
entity; manage the soil organisms to pre-
serve their healthy diversity.
• Maintain ground cover year-round by
using cover crops and mulches and by
leaving crop residues in the ﬁeld.
4 Sustainable Soil Management
4 Drought Resistant Soil
4 Nutrient Cycling in Pastures
4 Manures for Organic Crop Production
No-till soybeans growing through wheat stubble in
Kansas. Photo courtesy USDA NRCS.
www.attra.ncat.org ATTRA Page 3
4. and sediment movement into lakes and
• Manage irrigation to enhance nutrient
uptake and decrease nutrient leaching.
• Produce livestock in pasture-based sys-
4 Nutrient Cycling in Pastures
4 Protecting Water Quality on Organic
4 Protecting Riparian Areas
4 Managed Grazing in Riparian Areas
4 Conservation Easements
4 Montana Irrigator’s Pocket Guide
4 Constructed Wetlands
4 Conservation Tillage
4 Sustainable Soil Management
4 Drought Resistant Soil
4 Sustainable Pasture Management
Streams without conser- 4 Overview of Cover Crops and Green 4 Agroforestry Overview
vation buﬀers run higher Manures
risks of streambank 4 Overview of Organic Crop Production
erosion, contamination Manage Pests Ecologically;
4 Farm-scale Composting Resource List
with farm chemicals,
and sedimentation, as 4 Conservation Tillage Use Minimal Pesticides
well as oﬀer no habitat 4 Pursuing Conservation Tillage Systems • Prevent pest problems by building
for wildlife. Photo by for Organic Crop Production healthy, biologically active soil; by creat-
Lynn Betts, USDA NRCS. 4 Assessing the Pasture Soil Resource ing habitat for beneﬁcial organisms; and
4 Alternative Soil Testing Laboratories by choosing appropriate plant cultivars.
4 Alternative Soil Amendments • View the farm as a component of an eco-
4 Sources of Organic Fertilizers and system, and take actions to restore and
enhance pest–predator balances. Under-
Protect Water Quality on stand that the mere presence of a pest
does not necessarily constitute a prob-
and Beyond the Farm lem; base any intervention on monitoring
• Use soil-building practices that increase
soil organic matter and support a biologi-
cally active humus complex.
• Use soil conservation practices that re-
duce the potential for water runoff and
• Plant perennial crops such as forages,
trees, and shrubs.
• Plant catch crops or cover crops to take
up nutrients that may otherwise leach
into the subsoil.
• Provide buffer areas between ﬁelds and
water bodies to protect against nutrient
Lady beetles look for aphids on a fava bean leaf.
Scientists think the beetles might help in controlling
Russian wheat aphids that now infest 17 Great Plains
and Western states. Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS.
Page 4 ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction
5. (crop scouting) and economic damage Maximize Biodiversity on
• Before intervening with a chemical, posi-
• Integrate crop and livestock produc-
tively identify the pest species and learn
about its life cycle and ecology. Imple-
• Use hedgerows, insectary plants, cover
ment cultural practices that alter the
crops, and water reservoirs to attract and
cropping system and surrounding habi- support populations of beneﬁcial insects,
tat to make life more difﬁcult for the pest bats, and birds.
and easier for its natural enemies.
• Abandon monocropping in favor of crop
• Use pesticides as the last resort, when rotations, intercropping, and companion
biological and cultural controls have planting.
failed to keep pest populations below eco- • Plant a percentage of your land in trees
nomically damaging levels. If you have and other perennial crops in permanent
to use chemicals, seek out the least-toxic plantings or long-term rotations.
pesticide that will control the pest. • Manage pastures to support a diverse
4 Biointensive Integrated Pest selection of forage plants.
Management • Plant off-season cover crops.
4 Farmscaping to Enhance Biological tives to
4 Farmscaping to Enhance Biological
Control Control industrial
4 Sustainable Management of Soil-borne 4 Intercropping Principles and Production agriculture evolve,
Plant Diseases Practices
4 Integrated Pest Management so must their
4 Companion Planting: Basic Concepts
for Greenhouse Crops and Resources markets and the
4 Principles of Sustainable Weed 4 Converting Cropland to Perennial farmers who serve
4 Sustainable Pasture Management
4 Integrated Parasite Management for
Livestock 4 Multispecies Grazing
4 A Whole Farm Approach to Managing 4 Agroforestry Overview
Pests (SAN publication) 4 Woodlot Enterprises
Ewes and lambs on
pasture in Linn County,
Oregon. Photo by Ron
Nichols, USDA NRCS.
www.attra.ncat.org ATTRA Page 5
6. How Can I Learn More About Berry, Wendell. 1996. The Unsettling of America:
Culture and Agriculture. 3rd edition. Univer-
Sustainable Agriculture? sity of California Press, Davis. 256 p.
There is a wealth of historical, philosophical, scientiﬁc,
practical, and policy-oriented writing on sustainable Bird, Elizabeth Ann R., Gordon L. Bultena, and John
agriculture. The following list of books and Web sites is C. Gardner (eds.) 1995. Planting the Future:
offered as a starting point. Developing an Agriculture that Sustains Land
and Community. Iowa State University Press,
Print Resources: Ames, IA. 276 p.
AFSIC Staff and Volunteer (eds.). 1997 and 2001. Horne, James E. and Maura McDermott. 2001. The
Sustainable Agriculture in Print: Current Books. Spe- Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to a
cial Reference Briefs Series no. SRB 97-05. Alterna- Healthy, Sustainable Agriculture. Food Prod-
tive Farming Systems Information Center. National ucts Press, an imprint of The Haworth Press,
Agriculture Library, Beltsville, Maryland. Binghamton, NY. 312 p.
www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/AFSIC_ pubs/srb97-05.htm and Jackson, Wes. 1985. New Roots for Agriculture.
www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/AFSIC_pubs/srb9705u.htm 2nd edition. University of Nebraska Press,
For printed copies contact: Lincoln, NE. 150 p.
Alternative Farming Systems Information Sustainable Agriculture Network. 2002. Resources
Center from the Sustainable Agriculture Network.
USDA, ARS, NAL, AFSIC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Educa-
10301 Baltimore Ave. tion (SARE) Program. Sustainable Agricul-
Beltsville, MD 20705-2351 ture Publications, 210 UVM, Hills Building,
301-504-6422 Burlington, VT 05405-0082.
Selected Web Sites:
(for more go to www.attra.ncat.org/fundamental.html)
Agroecology: principles and strategies for designing
sustainable farming systems
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
Sustainable Agriculture: Deﬁnitions and Terms
ATTRA—National Sustainable Agriculture
Center for Applied Rural Innovation (Nebraska)
Center for Rural Affairs
Community Alliance with Family Farmers (California)
A small dairy farm in Maryland. Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS.
Page 6 ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture: An Introduction
7. Future Horizons: Recent Literature in Sustainable National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture
Sustainable Agriculture Network
John Ikerd’s Series of Papers on Sustainable www.sare.org
The New American Farmer: Proﬁles of Agricultural
Land Stewardship Project www.sare.org/publications/naf/naf.pdf
Sustainable Farming Connection
Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture http://sunsite.unc.edu/farming-connection/
Sustainable Communities Network
Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture http://sustainable.org/economy/agriculture.html
University of California Sustainable Agriculture
Missouri Alternatives Center Research and Education Program
www.attra.ncat.org ATTRA Page 7