Chapter 1

Introduction to Organic Farming

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture, simply defined, is an approach to agriculture using farming techniques in a way that does not degrade the environment, deplete the earth’s resources, and contributes to the livelihood of communities (See Figure 1.5). The 1990 Farm Bill states that the term sustainable agriculture refers to an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long term:

The Components of Sustainable Agriculture

The philosophy of sustainabile agriculture also espouses broader principles including economic, environmental, social, and animal welfare. While discussed separately here, it should be noted that the goals overlap, impacting and influencing each other.

Economic Profitability

To be truly sustainable, a farm must be economically viable. The environmental and social benefits of sustainable production methods do not always translate into immediate economic gains. That said, sustainable agriculture practices can have a positive economic impact on a farm.

Environmental Stewardship

Environmental concerns are central to sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is frequently described as: ecologically sound practices that have little to no adverse effect on natural ecosystems. However, more than that, sustainable agriculture also seeks to have a positive impact on natural resources and wildlife.

Social Responsibility

Social sustainability relates to the quality of life for those who work and live on the farm, as well as those in the local community. Fair treatment of workers, positive farm family relationships, personal interactions with consumers, and choosing to purchase supplies locally (rather than from a more distant market) are just some of the aspects considered in social sustainability.

Upholding Animal Welfare

Sustainable farmers and ranchers treat animals with care and respect, implementing livestock husbandry practices that protect animals' health and wellbeing.

Sustainable Agriculture versus Organic Farming

While there are important philosophical and practical similarities between sustainable and organic agriculture, there are also fundamental differences. The term “sustainable” is unregulated and individuals are free to apply it where, when, and how they choose. Sustainable farmers may use synthetic compounds, although the emphasis is on the minimal use of chemicals that will have the least environmental impact (such as low-toxicity pesticides).

Government Support of Sustainable Agriculture

Due to an increasing public interest in sustainability, many government agencies and organizations have furthered sustainable agricultural initiatives in some regard. There are relatively few government organizations, however, that deal exclusively with sustainability and conservation. Perhaps the most important from a legal perspective is the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The NRCS is the USDA agency responsible for implementing and overseeing most of the conservation-based sustainable agriculture programs. The NRCS also provides technical assistance for farmers and ranchers who wish to design conservation practices. Another important organization is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. SARE is a federally funded organization that helps advance farming systems that are both economically profitable and environmentally sound. SARE also compiles information and results from these programs Chapter 1: Introduction to Organic Farming 13 and makes them available to the public. Similarly, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA, formerly the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas project) provides information and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers involved in sustainable agriculture with funds provided by a cooperative agreement between the National Center for Appropriate Technologies (NCAT) and the USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Servi

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

Perhaps the program that most completely reflects the sustainable movement is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Its purpose is to “promote agricultural production, forest management, and environmental quality as compatible goals.”

Conservation Stewardship Program

A similar program, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP, formerly the Conservation Security Program), is intended to reward farmers who are already implementing sustainable practices.

Conservation Easement and the Regional Conservation Programs

The 2014 Farm Bill also introduced two new conservation programs that combined previous existing programs: the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).  ACEP combines facets of several preexisting easement programs by establishing two types of easements, the first being the wetland reserve easements to protect and restore wetlands.

Agricultural Conservation Experience Service Program

The 2014 Farm Bill authorizes a program called the Agricultural Conservation Experience Service (ACES) program. The Agriculture Conservation Experienced Services (ACES) Program offers individuals 55 and older temporary paid assignments to provide technical services in support of the conservation-related programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

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