How Sustainable is the U.S. Farming Industry?

Sustainable farming provides a tool to engineer sustainable products using sustainable processes and systems. While it has a way to go, the US farming industry continues moving forward as a collective for environmentally aware businesses. Agricultural engineers involved continue to make design and process decisions that move US farming toward a sustainable way of business.

How Are We Doing?

According to the Environmental Leader, 70 percent of US farms had implemented sustainable farming techniques by 2009. The most popular option is no-till farming, also known as direct seeding, a technique implemented by 59 percent of US farms. Minimizing chemical use ranks as the second most popular option at 46 percent with crop rotation rounding out the top three at 45 percent. About one-third of farms also practice reducing energy use and use genetically modified seeds.

Less common techniques might surprise you since many of them are practiced among the general public. These include recycling in which 24 percent participate, water conservation which 16 percent use, using wind or solar energy which five percent do, purchasing carbon credits which two percent do, cutting expenses which one percent do and less than one percent had met the qualifications for organic certification.

About the Methods

Not every farm uses every sustainable method. It is easier to implement sustainability farm-wide one process at a time. Choose the process that works best for you.

  • Crop rotation: Crop diversification, such as intercropping, and rotation results in healthier soil and reduced pests.
  • Cover crops: Rather than leave soil bare, during off-seasons the farm plants clover or hairy vetch to prevent erosion and build up soil nutrients. It also helps control herbicides.
  • No-till methods: No-till planting inserts the seeds directly into the soil without disturbing it which reduces erosion and improves soil health.
  • Integrated pest management (IPM): IPM uses biological and mechanical and biological control methods to minimize chemical pesticide use.
  • Integrating crops and livestock: Placing livestock near crops and using their manure as fertilizers can create greater efficiency.
  • Integrating agroforestry: Planting shrubs and trees into cropland or grazing lands provides shade and protects water resources.
  • Systems management: Sustainable farms set aside areas as a green space that remains uncultivated. These include prairie strips and riparian buffers that control erosion, reduce nutrient runoff and support biodiversity and pollinators.

Is Organic the Way of the Future?

Growing organic does not mean the same thing as growing sustainably. Organic farmers aren’t Amish; they still use much of the same machinery that traditional farmers use, with a similar carbon footprint: manure injection tilling equipment, seed drills, combines, etc. With that comes the same sustainability problems. Organic farming does negate the use of herbicides and pesticides.

The Nexus of Science and Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture uses state-of-the-art, science-based practices that maximize productivity and profit while minimizing environmental damage. Sustainable practices can enhance profitability while benefiting the community and environment. Sustainable farms use techniques like crop rotation, prairie strips, hairy vetch, and natural fertilizers to produce successful crops while maintaining healthy soil.

While the traditional industrial agriculture system wasn’t built to last, sustainable agriculture is. Traditional large-scale farms grow the same crops each year, use chemical fertilizers and pesticides that cause soil damage as well as, adversely affecting water, air and climate. Sustainable agriculture provides all size farms accessible choices and technologies that allow them to produce valuable crops while reducing environmental damage.

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