What Is Sustainable Agriculture?

Woman working on organic farm
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You’ve seen the term sustainable agriculture, but what does it really mean? Let's break it down and define it.

Most definitions of sustainable agriculture have three components:

  1. it is ecologically sound
  2. it is economically viable
  3. it is socially and economically equitable

Within each of these, defining what we mean can get involved. Basically, the idea that agriculture is “sustainable” means that it must meet present needs without compromising the ability to meet future needs.

It’s farming that can go on forever without damaging the environment or using up more than it gives back.

This all sounds very theoretical, and you may wonder what it looks like on a small farm. Here’s a simple example:

You keep a small flock of 10 laying hens. Rather than purchasing feed from the store, you grow a small amount of grains for them on your own land. You harvest the grains and feed them to the chickens. By allowing the chickens to free-range, they deposit their droppings right back onto the field where you grow the grains. Manure from the coop is composted and also redistributed onto the soil where their food is grown. No other fertilizers are needed. This system can go on forever and sustains itself – it needs nothing from the outside. This example is also economically viable, as the eggs produced can be sold for more money than is put into the system by growing the grains and feeding them to the hens.

On a homestead, the goal may be self-sufficiency. In the truest sense, this means adopting a sustainable agriculture approach, so that the homestead can sustain itself indefinitely without any outside inputs. This is the full definition of self-sufficiency for many people.

Ecologically Sound

A sustainable farm does not degrade the environment over time, but has a neutral effect on it or enhances it.

Economically Viable

Sustainable agriculture can sustain itself financially as well. It doesn't require the input of money into the system to keep it going.

Socially and Economically Equitable

The third criteria, social and economic equity, is a bit harder to define for a small farm or hobby farm. It seems to apply more to larger-scale farming enterprises. It can be thought of as making sure that you consider your goals and lifestyle choices when making decisions about your farm.

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