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Sustainable Agriculture Techniques

Sustainable agriculture provides high yields without undermining the natural systems and resources that productivity depends on. Farmers who take a sustainable approach work efficiently with natural processes rather than ignoring or struggling against them – and use the best of current knowledge and technology to avoid the unintended consequences of industrial, chemical-based agriculture. One important result is that farmers are able to minimize their use of pesticides and fertilizers, thereby saving money and protecting future productivity, as well as the environment.

Below are some of the most common sustainable agriculture techniques employed by farmers today to achieve the key goals of weed control, pest control, disease control, erosion control and high soil quality:

  • Crop Rotation
  • Cover Crops
  • Soil Enrichment
  • Natural Pest Predators
  • Biointensive Integrated Pest Management

Crop Rotation

Crop rotation—growing different crops in succession in the same field—is one of the most powerful techniques of sustainable agriculture, and avoids the unintended consequences of putting the same plants in the same soil year after year. It is a key element of the permanent and effective solution to pest problems because many pests have preferences for specific crops, and continuous growth of the same crop guarantees them a steady food supply, so that populations increase. For example, right now European corn borers are often a significant pest in the United States because most corn is grown in continuous cultivation or in two-year rotations with soybeans. Four- or five-year rotations would control not only corn borers, but many other corn pests as well. In fact, rotation reduces pest pressure on all the crops in the rotation by breaking the pest reproductive cycles.

In rotations, farmers can also plant crops, like soybeans and other legumes, that replenish plant nutrients, thereby reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. For instance, corn grown in a field previously used to grow soybeans needs less added nitrogen to produce high yields.

On a related note, the importance of crop rotation as a defense against pest infestations should be a key part of any discussion about growing crops for bioenergy purposes. Government policies to encourage bioenergy crops should not inadvertently encourage farmers to forgo crop rotation in favor of planting corn year after year. 

Many farmers also take advantage of the benefits of having plants growing in the soil at all times, rather than leaving the ground bare between cropping periods, which produces unintended problems. The planting of cover crops such as hairy vetch, clover, or oats helps farmers achieve the basic goals of:

Cover Crops

  • preventing soil erosion,
  • suppressing weeds, and
  • enhancing soil quality.

Using appropriate cover crops is worth the extra effort because it reduces the need for chemical inputs like herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers.

Learn more about cover crops

Soil Enrichment

Soil is arguably the single most prized element of agricultural ecosystems. Healthy soil teems with life, including many beneficial microbes and insects, but these are often killed off by the overuse of pesticides. Good soils can improve yields and produce robust crops less vulnerable to pests; abused soils often require heavy fertilizer application to produce high yields. Soil quality can be maintained and enhanced in many ways, including leaving crop residues in the field after harvest, plowing under cover crops, or adding composted plant material or animal manure.

Natural Pest Predators

Understanding a farm as an ecosystem rather than a factory offers exciting opportunities for effective pest control. For example, many birds, insects, and spiders are natural predators of agricultural pests. Managing farms so that they harbor populations of pest predators is a sophisticated and effective pest-control technique. One of the unfortunate consequences of intensive use of chemical pesticides is the indiscriminate killing of birds, bats, and other pest predators.

Biointensive Integrated Pest Management

One of the most promising technologies is the control of pests through integrated pest management (IPM). This approach relies to the greatest possible extent on biological rather than chemical measures, and emphasizes the prevention of pest problems with crop rotation; the reintroduction of natural, disease-fighting microbes into plants/soil, and release of beneficial organisms that prey on the pests. Once a particular pest problem is identified, responses include the use of sterile males, biocontrol agents like ladybugs. Chemical pesticides are only used as a last resort.

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