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The economy and ecology of sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agriculture is about conserving resources. Mike Phillips, a Rockingham County beef cattle farmer and field technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, said he believes sustainable agriculture is not only about maintaining one’s resources, but also improving them—especially the soil. “If you take care of your soils first, it improves your quality of life, and profitability will take care of itself,” he said.

Phillips has used conservation practices that have reduced his inputs and increased his profit. He plants a variety of cover crops on his 16 pasture areas, and the mix of flowers, grasses, grains and legumes keeps organic matter in the soil, prevents erosion and attracts pollinators to his farm. “People talk about feeding the growing population, and if we take care of our soils, we can be more productive,” he added.

Kathy Holm, a Harrisonburg-based NRCS conservationist, agreed. She said healthy soils “equal healthy food and healthy people.” She added that sustainable agriculture “is all about economic and ecological sustainability. Farmers need to be able to support their families and have the ability to pass on the farm to the next generation.”

The USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education program defines sustainability as farming practices that lead to profitability, stewardship and quality of life. Since 1988, SARE has invested more than $211 million in 5,300 sustainable agriculture research and education projects across the U.S. Its grants support projects such as cover crops, rotational grazing, integrated pest management plans, marketing and more.

Virginia farmers are among those incorporating best management practices like buffer strips, cover crops, no-till planting and rotational grazing, said Virginia Farm Bureau Federation commodity marketing vice president Spencer Neale, who also serves on the SARE advisory committee.

“Sustainability is one of those words that means so many different things to different people,” Neale said. “But whether farmers use practices that are commonly associated with sustainability, Virginia farmers have long understood the inherent value of using production practices that promote long-term soil health with minimal impacts on the environment.

“With technology, outreach and education, U.S. agriculture has made tremendous strides along these lines over the last couple of decades. Farmers care deeply about their land, animals, the environment and their communities.”
Holm concurred. “While every farmer is different, natural resources provide each farmer his or her livelihood,” she said. “The size of the farm doesn’t matter, but a farmer’s conservation ethic does.”

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