The Healthy Farm: A Vision for U.S. Agriculture

April 2013
Farmers and scientists are transforming U.S. agriculture in a more sustainable direction—and smart policies can help speed the transition.

U.S. agriculture is at a crossroads. The path we've been on, industrial food production, is a dead end. It damages air, water and soil, harms rural communities, and limits future productivity.

But there's a better way. Scientists call it agroecological farming. We call it healthy farms. Healthy farms can be just as productive as industrial farms, but they're better for the environment, the economy, and the people who grow (and eat) food.

Photo: Tim McCabe/USDA-NRCS

Healthy Farm Principles

A healthy farm practices sustainable agriculture, which means it must do three things well:

  • Productivity. A healthy farm produces food in abundance.
  • Economic viability. A healthy farm is a thriving business that provides a good living and fair working conditions to those who work on it, and contributes to a robust local and regional economy.
  • Environmental stewardship. A healthy farm maintains the fertility of the soil and the health of the surrounding landscape for future generations.

To meet these goals, farmers use an approach to agriculture that focuses on four qualities that characterize the healthy farm:

It is multifunctional, recognizing that productivity, while indispensable, is not the farm's sole objective. As well as providing food, the farm also performs important social, economic and environmental functions.

It is regenerative, using methods that constantly improve the fertility of the soil, foster biodiversity both within and beyond the farm's boundaries, and recycle essential nutrients.

It is biodiverse, incorporating a wide variety of crops, land use choices, and options for raising livestock and poultry.

It is interconnected, seeing the farm as an integral part of the landscape that surrounds it, not an isolated production facility.

Photo: Paula R. Westerman

Healthy Farm Practices

How can farmers turn all this theory into practice? Our experts have identified four key healthy farm practices:

A landscape approach. On a healthy farm, uncultivated areas are maintained as a resource, providing a home for beneficial organisms as well as a buffer to help keep farm nutrients from polluting nearby waterways. 

Crop diversity and rotation. Using long, complex crop rotations, and expanding the farm's repertoire to include fruits, vegetables and/or energy crops, can yield multiple benefits, including healthier soil, reduced need for pesticides, and even higher profits.

Integrating crops and livestock. Well-managed pastures help maintain biodiversity, while the manure they produce is a valuable resource for soil fertility. And animals provide a market for some alternative crops, facilitating complex crop rotations.

Cover crops. Planting cover crops when soil would otherwise be bare reduces erosion, improves soil fertility and water-holding capacity, and helps keep weeds under control.

Photo: Hannah Gaines/University of Wisconsin-Madison

Healthy Farm Benefits

Together, these principles and practices add up to a healthy farm—and the benefits are many. For instance:

  • Reduced need for chemical inputs. By increasing soil fertility and pest resistance, healthy farm practices enable farmers to greatly reduce their reliance (and expenditure) on chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides.
  • Drought resilience. A healthy farm's soil is better at retaining water, so the farm is less susceptible to the devastating impacts of drought.
  • Increased biodiversity. A healthy farm is a far more welcoming home to pollinators and other beneficial organisms than its industrial competitors.
  • Reduced environmental impact. Common environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, such as nitrogen runoff and toxic pesticide residues, are greatly reduced on a healthy farm.

Helping Healthy Farms Prosper

Many American farmers are already using healthy farm practices, but federal farm policy still stacks the deck in favor of outdated industrial methods. Smart new policies and investments can help level the playing field and give healthy farms a chance to thrive. Here are three things policymakers can do:

Offer greater financial incentives for farmers to adopt conservation measures and scientifically sound sustainable, organic, and integrated crop or livestock production practices.

Expand outreach and technical assistance that will provide farmers with better information about these transformative practices.

Increase publicly funded research to improve and expand modern sustainable farming.