Agriculture's Sustainable Future
Much is written about agriculture as the catalyst for civilization. Daniel Webster, in fact, dubbed farmers as the founders of civilization. This understanding begs the question: if agriculture faces an uncertain future, what can be said of society on the whole? As a nation begun by farmers, the United States has discovered over two centuries that while the land is bountiful, it is not infinite. Without proper stewardship, intensive farming can bring about soil erosion and water toxicity; crops and livestock can fall to disease; and precious energy resources can be wasted. Sustainable farming practices ensure a long and healthy future for agriculture.
Sustainability is a long-term concept. Rotating crops, for example, is a notable sustainability practice. Although it was commonplace in earlier eras, urbanization and industrialization led to a more specialized commercial agriculture, where the same plants are grown on the same plots very year. Unfortunately, the annual reappearance of the same crop attracts others higher on the food chain, namely pests and insects. In response, farmers apply generous amounts of chemical pesticide to protect their harvests. Such chemicals seep into the soil and the groundwater, rendering the land less able to produce robust yields over time. Crop rotation keeps pests at bay without the need for chemical treatments.
Another method of controlling pests is to climb a link up the food chain and utilize predator pests. Frequent feasters on corn, for example, are the armyworm, the aphid and the Japanese beetle. Rather than dealing with the unintended consequences of chemical insecticides, some farmers choose to introduce predator bugs like parasitic wasps, lacewings and centipedes that, for instance, have strong appetites for aphids.
Other artificial substances used by commercial farmers include herbicides and fertilizers. Like pesticides, these compounds produce detrimental side effects while seemingly protecting the plants and nourishing the soil. Their components contaminate the soil and water, negatively affecting the wildlife and humans who consume the food and drink the water. The good news is that use of chemicals can be drastically reduced with the sustainable practice of planting cover crops during the off-season. Such growth has a three-fold benefit: protects against soil erosion; repels the presence of weeds; and fosters soil fertility. Popular cover crops include clover, oats and hairy vetch.
In the same way, animal agriculture is positively affected by sustainable best practices. A bane to many livestock farmers is surplus animal waste. Crops can only absorb so much of it as fertilizer. The rest must be stored and shipped off the farm lest the gases from manure become a threat to human and animal health. Such disposal is expensive and time-consuming. In this area, technology serves the cause of sustainability. With the advent of anaerobic digesters, methane can now be extracted from the manure and used as an on-farm energy source, lowering—even eliminating—electric bills. Better still, the residue ash serves as a potent and ecologically friendly fertilizer. This technology is expensive, but the USDA offers loans for qualified farms to purchase this equipment. Also nurseries, garden growers and other forms of nursery growers and horticulurists growing tobacoo and other type crops utilize these servies also.