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How to Farm Sustainably

How do I farm sustainably, aren’t I already doing that?

What is sustainable farming?

We hear a lot about sustainability in the news these days. Some of it is focused on consumers - reduce, reuse, recycle. Other news is focused on industries that pollute or emit greenhouse gasses.

Farming seems to be coming under the sustainability spotlight more and more. You can’t turn around without running into a new company offering to help you earn carbon credits by changing farming practices.

One of the biggest misconceptions about farming is that it isn’t sustainable. First, let’s clear some things up. Farming is likely the one industry that focuses on sustainability more than any other. Most farms are multi-generational, and that leads to a lot of focus on leaving the farm in as good, or better, condition than when it was inherited.

Where there may be opportunities to improve our farming practices is in expanding what we mean by sustainable farming. Sustainability can mean not just making the farm a better farm, but also contributing to the planet’s overall health. There are three key areas we can explore that the farm can have a significant impact on the planet as a whole: Biodiversity, Greenhouse gasses, and Water.


Much of the midwest focuses heavily on corn and soybeans as the majority crops. Growing just these crops limits the types of wildlife that can survive in these regions. Our focus on clean fields leads us to fight weeds every chance we get. This leads to a reduction in biodiversity of plants and animals.

Greenhouse gasses

Climate change has become a political football, but if we consider the overall health of the planet in our sustainability definition, there’s no question that reducing fossil fuel consumption will lead to less air pollution, regardless of its effect on the climate.


“Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting”. This quote is attributed to Mark Twain, but has been repeated many times throughout time, especially throughout the West. The styles and venues of the fights have changed, but the foundation remains the same. Water, especially in the West, is our most valuable resource, our lifeblood. It is used to grow food and to grow cities. It provides power to run our homes, factories, and businesses. It sustains our forests and deserts for wildlife and recreation. It is our most powerful and yet most fragile natural resource. Asserting and protecting water rights in the West is a time-honored tradition. Many feel fighting over water is a matter of survival. Unfortunately, agriculture is often a main target of battles over water and who should have access to it.

Making things better

So if we decide to expand our definition of sustainability, where do we start? Is it going to cost more to farm this way? Let’s examine some practices that could be applied to our farms.


Increasing biodiversity can help in many unexpected ways. Not only is our planet better off (the next breakthrough medicine may be hiding in a caterpillar munching away on a weed in your headlands), it can actually reduce your direct farming costs. Integrated pest management, or IPM, is a process you can use to solve pest problems while minimizing risks to people and the environment. IPM can be used to manage all kinds of pests anywhere– agricultural, and wildland or natural areas. IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties. Pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates they are needed according to established guidelines, and treatments are made with the goal of removing only the target organism. Pest control materials are selected and applied in a manner that minimizes risks to human health, beneficial and nontarget organisms, and the environment.

Practical Measures

  • Manage crops on profitability, not sterility. It’s OK to have some weeds in fields, so long as they don’t have an economic impact on your crops. We have tried to stop seeds from spreading by knocking everything back for long enough to know this is a fool's errand.
  • Create wildlife corridors along water margins, field margins and headlands
  • Retain and conserve semi-natural grasslands
  • Protect and where necessary restore wetlands including floodplain management
  • Follow IPM best practices, as available from your local cooperative extension service
  • Cover crops in winter can host insects, spiders, birds and other wildlife

Greenhouse gasses

There are two ways to reduce greenhouse gasses. First is to emit less, and the second is to convert a gas to something that does not trap heat in our atmosphere.

Through tweaks to current practices, farms are in a good position to lower their carbon footprint and lock carbon into the soil and vegetation. This process is known as creating ‘carbon sinks’ or sometimes referred to as ‘carbon sequestration’.

Practical Measures

  • Apply fertilizer, especially Nitrogen, when the plant needs it. Ensure that the form, type, the amount and timing of nitrogen being applied will not result in significant losses due to denitrification, volatilization or leaching. N2O is an extremely potent greenhouse gas which can be released as a result of improper fertilization.
  • Take action to control soil erosion
  • Protect wetlands from damage by avoiding plowing, drainage and overgrazing
  • Consider reduced tillage to protect farm soils and reduce carbon losses. No-till and minimum till practices allow for carbon from plants to be incorporated into the soil, thus trapping carbon there, not enabling it to become carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • On tillage based systems, retaining and incorporating straw and other crop residues will help to maintain soil organic matter
  • Manage existing farm woodlands and consider new planting. Trees contain a lot of carbon, and will trap it for dozens or hundreds of years.
  • Cover crops can increase soil organic matter, including carbon


As premier stewards of our nation’s private lands, farmers and ranchers have several available options that can help save energy while they implement the latest conservation technologies. Irrigation water management plays a crucial role in the conservation of water, and it can also save the producer money.

Agricultural water supply is emerging as a critical natural resource issue. Irrigated agriculture is essential in meeting our food and fiber production needs. As the Nation’s largest water user, agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s annual water consumption.

Irrigation water management encourages the application of water in an amount that meets the needs of the growing plant in a manner that avoids extended soil saturation and runoff. By increasing application precision and reducing unneeded applications, water can be conserved and energy can be saved.

According to the 2002 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, approximately 27 million U.S. acres are under sprinkler irrigation. About 80 percent of these acres use center pivot systems. Studies on the High Plains show that if the acres under medium pressure systems were converted to low pressure, the energy savings could add up to $15 per acre. The conversion of high-pressure systems to low pressure could result in savings of up to $66 per acre.

Other types of irrigation systems can be upgraded to increase irrigation efficiency. Switching from high or medium pressure drip sprinklers to low pressure systems can conserve water and reduce distribution costs.

Diesel-powered pumps are used on about 10 million irrigated acres. A 10 percent improvement in water-use efficiency could reduce annual diesel consumption by 8 gallons per acre, saving about $18,000 on 1,000 acres. Nationwide, farmers could save up to 27 million gallons of fuel and $55 million per year. Replacing old diesel engines and pumps with new, energy-efficient models would further reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

In addition to improving irrigation pumping and application systems, producers can convert to crops that use less water or implement a water recovery program.

Practical Measures

  • Switch to irrigation methods that have less evaporation - drip irrigation, subsoil irrigation, micro-sprinklers.
  • Utilize telemetry (soil moisture meters, dendrometers) to water the right amount at the right time to optimize growth and reduce water waste.
  • Utilize cover crops to reduce soil erosion and increase water filtration.


As you can see, becoming more sustainable is not just good for the environment, it's good for your farm. It will save you money, and potentially increase yields and quality as well. As consumers begin to demand better sustainable practices from their grocers, pressure will be applied to growers to implement and maintain good practices.

Also note that it is not all or nothing. Improving irrigation practices can have a positive effect on fertilizer runoff, reduce diesel emissions (and thus greenhouse gas emissions) and save money.

Start today - pick a field and experiment. Plant a cover crop this winter. How far can you go?