Is a sustainable farm the same as an organic farm? Though these two terms are often co-mingled under the umbrella of "green" farming, they mean different things. Here's the breakdown: Organic means growing food without chemical additives, like pesticides or hormones. Sustainable means using the land in such a way that growth can continue, leaving the environment unharmed for future growth.
Another way of looking at it is to think of organic as "clean" and sustainability as a "loop." Successful sustainability comes down to careful planning.
Here are some ways to bring sustainability to your farm:
1. Eliminate Waste
How is that possible? You're always throwing away trash, right? The key is where you throw it. Let's assume you're recycling all your paper, plastic, aluminum, and glass products in a weekly recycle pickup. If your municipality doesn't provide for that kind of pickup, set up your own recycle bins and do a drop off at a center when they're full.
Then, consider all the food scraps you're "throwing" away. Some of those scraps could end up as feed for your farm animals. Most of the rest can go into a compost bin. With the help of some friendly composting worms, your food scraps become organic fertilizer used to grow even more — the loop of sustainability.
2. Rotate Crops
To understand how to rotate crops properly, you need to understand the monoculture vs. polyculture debate. Monoculture will have you growing one crop on the same plot of land every season. The crop you plant, however, is going to pull out all the rich nutrients from the soil. That means you'll have to replace them with additives. That's not very sustainable.
Polyculture means replenishing those nutrients as you go by planting different crops on the same plot of land. Soybeans and legumes are great for that purpose. This doesn't mean you're switching out crops every year, though. For instance, you could grow four years of corn before making the swap to legumes. Farming is a long game.
3. Plant Cover Crops
Once the harvest has come in, get out there and plant some more. A cover crop is a great option — it will help with erosion, weeds, and pests. Cover crops can be a big boost to your farm. You shouldn't leave a field barren when you could be growing things like clover or oats.
4. Pick Multi-Purpose Plants and Animals
Every seed you plant and animal you house will have a ripple effect around the farm, so look for plants and animals that do double-duty. For instance, basil acts as a natural insecticide. It’s perfect to grow around your other crops. Guinea fowl eats ticks — keeping them around helps protect your other animals and kids! Chickens eat veggie scraps. What they don't eat, they step into a kind of mulch. Bats in the barn are a good way to keep your insect and rodent population under control. Additionally, your livestock's manure can fertilize crops. The same crops you can feed your livestock. Say it again, "the loop."
5. Buy in Bulk
All this planting is going to require a lot of seed. Buying in bulk makes sense not only for your budget but also for accessibility. Seeds won't go bad if you store them properly, and you don't need a grain silo for every seed group. FIBC bulk bags are great for storage and easy to move around.
6. Plant Trees
Planting trees around your farm invites birds to nest. Those birds go after insects that are going after your crops. Trees also help with soil erosion in a big way and act as natural windbreaks. If you don't have trees on your property already, start planting. It's going to take a while for those trees to mature.
All this sustainable work will pay off as you promote your farm business. A sustainable label is every bit as effective as an organic label. You can also get the word out by opening your farm up for tours with schools. Set up a co-op that has locals coming out to pick their own veggies — it will get them involved and dirty! Keep that loop going.
Ellen Levy Finch [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons