Harvest time by joinash via Flickr.

Agriculture Requires Fertilizer Inputs, and That’s Good

On a brown, August-dry field in Eastern Washington, a farmer in a combine cuts a 24-foot swath across a field of wheat. The harvested grain then begins a journey, first to the storage bin, then to the local elevator, on rail to a flour mill, by truck to a bakery, by oven to bread, and by car to a home where it is eaten. This is good; our foremost mandate to agriculture is to produce food. However, with this successful export of food from farm fields to nearby and distant cities comes a problem: the nutrients in the bread, the nutrients that we need from food, and that plants need to grow, are now far from the field they came from. How do we replace them? High yields worsen the problem.  A typical irrigated winter wheat field will yield 140 bushels per acre; about 5,600 loaves of bread. For a center

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Don’t Mimic Nature on the Farm, Improve it

Behind many efforts to make agriculture more sustainable is the idea that our farming systems need to be more like nature. According to agroecologist Miguel Alteri, “By designing farming systems that mimic nature, optimal use can be made of sunlight, soil nutrients, and rainfall.” This strategy arises from a long history of thinking that there exists a “balance of nature.” This idea has greatly influenced how we look at nature1 and agriculture. In the latter case, it drives much of what is done in organic farming and agroecology, but also finds its way into no-till farming. Nonetheless, it is false, and because it is false we can abandon the restrictive “nature knows best” argument in designing agricultural systems. Instead, we can improve on nature.

The rich, deep color of this soil indicates exactly what healthy soil looks like. Image by NRCS Soil Health via Flickr.

How to kill your soil

I recently saw an infographic that stated, “There are no life forms in the soil, which is sterilized…” What was it talking about? Soils on the moon? A toxic chemical spill? Soils around Chernobyl? Nope, this was the description of soils under so-called industrial agriculture. I have heard it before, the epidemic of “dead soils” caused by “chemicals.” This may make good copy for organic food advertisements, but it is not good science.

Stepping, rather than jumping, towards sustainability

The director of the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Chad Kruger, posed the question, “For farm and food system sustainability, is it possible to shift our existing system in the right direction with small, positive changes or do we actually need to completely redesign our farm and food systems?” I think, with few exceptions, that small changes will be most successful. In sustainable agriculture circles, and especially among agroecology proponents, it is asserted that a well-designed farming system will encourage self-regulating populations of pests (called homeostatis) while sustaining yields at acceptable levels. Furthermore, this state of self-regulation is claimed to be a property of the system as a whole (system-level emergent). Therefore, when pests do more damage than acceptable, the system is assumed to be wrong; lacking in diversity, using the wrong inputs, too much of this or too little of that, or the system has not

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Sustainable Agriculture, What Does it Mean?

Almost everything we do in life must focus on sustainability in order to guarantee the possibilities of continuing those practices in the future. However, lately it seems the term sustainability has become more of a buzz word that implies something better, thus opening the doors for advertising and marketers to take advantage of certain elements of their products that seem more sustainable than their competitors. Sustainability is not a buzz word to farmers, as agriculture has always focused on producing food for our communities while caring the environment in which we live. Still, history has proven that sustainability in any measure is a task that is hard to achieve. As we talk about sustainable agriculture there are several key elements that seem to get left out of different perspectives. In order to better understand how farmers work to overcome social, political and environmental issues surrounding the sustainability of their farms