Sustainable Agriculture

Basic guidelines for future farming

One of the articles in Living With The Land (IC#8)
Originally published in Winter 1984 on page 37
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

David Katz was a co-founder of the Farallones Institute, where he served as executive director and president during its formative years. Since then he has been active as an agricultural activist and a consultant on a wide variety of land-related activities. He now lives in Davis, CA, where he farms and edits Agricultural Access, a magazine/catalog on agricultural information and books. You can get a complimentary subscription by writing to him at 615 Merchant St., Vacaville, CA 95866.

SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE is a system of farming based on the principle that agriculture is, first and foremost, a biological process. In practice, sustainable agriculture attempts to mimic the natural ecosystem as much as possible. In order to do so, it strives to build complexity, to cycle nutrients, and to maintain the primacy of the sun as the main source of energy driving the system.

What are the principles that might guide agriculture along a sustainable pathway? I’ve looked at the myriad definitions and ideas presented by many thinkers on this subject, hence the following principles are a summation of the work of such writers as Wendell Berry, Gil Friend, Richard Merrill, R.D. Hodges, and many others, with my own additions, as well.


Managing the System as a Whole The management focus in sustainable agriculture is on long-term optimization of the system as a whole rather than on short- term maximization. The farmer selects strategies that attempt to balance the need for high yields each year with the longer term biological requirements that will lead to ecological stability. This implies a sophisticated approach that emphasizes stewardship and understanding of the internal relationships of the agro-ecosystem, stressing long-term conservation of resources rather than maximizing production of a single crop.

Nutrient Cycling In a sustainable agriculture, nutrient management concentrates on building up the biological fertility of the soil, so that crops take the nutrients they need from the steady turnover within the soil reservoir. The soil is a living system and it is managed to maximize the diversity and well-being of the organisms that enrich it. Nutrients are supplied in stable forms, all wastes are returned to the soil, and highly soluble fertilizers are used carefully and sparingly.

Husbanding the Soil Great care is taken to insure minimal physical deterioration of the soil. Tillage systems are selected to minimize impacts such as erosion, compaction, and oxidation. Soil is kept under continuous cover to the extent feasible, and extensive use is made of legume rotations, cover crops, and green manures. The overall goal is to use the soil as a fertility bank for future generations where the deposits always surpass the withdrawals.

Building Stability Complexity and diversity are built into the system at every opportunity. This implies the maintenance of a wide range of plant types and habitats on the farm, and the utilization of a sophisticated understanding of population dynamics in order to manipulate host/pest/predator relationships among the organisms in the ecosystem without causing major disruptions. Growing host plants as food for beneficial insects, the use of trap crops and strip planting, and the planting of shelter belts and hedgerows are examples of such practices. The use of Integrated Pest Management to control, not eliminate, pest damage, is integral to a stable agro-ecosystem. Toxic pesticides are used with extreme caution and in such a way as to avoid any type of contamination or disruption of the ecosystem.

Culture and Agriculture The welfare of the rural community, agrarian ethics and culture, human health, and the folklore of agriculture all are vital to a sustainable agriculture. A sustainable agriculture requires a society that deems these values worthy. A social framework that provides economic opportunity and support to both the landed and the heir is essential. Land must lose its status as a commodity for exchange or speculation. The practice of agriculture should be one of stewardship, so that we pass the land on to our children whole, or if possible, even better than we found it.


These principles provide a framework for the development of a sustainable agriculture that can not only produce food for hungry people, but also protect earth’s resources to serve the needs of future generations.

However, if our society is to have a sustainable agriculture it must insure that the economic climate allows the utilization of practices such as those outlined above. If long- term sustainability is to become a major criterion for our farmers, major changes in our society’s economic and political systems must occur. For instance, prices paid to farmers for their crops must increase substantially to encourage them to eschew short-term gain for long-term biological stability and a more healthy environment. Right now we enjoy some of the lowest food prices in the world, expending only 13.6% of our income on food. We might think food is cheap, but we’re not adding in the true cost of erosion or of disease linked to environmental pollution. Major changes that address these issues are not simple and will require a reordering of our key social priorities.

Since the early 1900s government policy has shaped the very nature of agriculture in the US. The fact that a culture can produce more food on less land with fewer people is cited by our bureaucrats and agricultural scientists as a prime example of human progress. Modern farming, driven by the shortsighted forces of economics and efficiency, has become preoccupied with ever-increasing production. One result is that we are experiencing the highest farm bankruptcy rate since the Depression. Cheap food is poor consolation for the fact that the family farm is fast disappearing and that food production is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Right now less than 20% of our 2.43 million farms account for over 75% of all farm sales. Our government’s farm policy has led to a strategy of mining our soils to produce more food for foreign export. In fact, exports of U.S. agricultural products were over $40 billion last year, playing a significant role in paying the oil import bill for the nation. This situation points out the interdependency that often exists between major natural resource issues such as land use and energy.

Social action, be it education, political activity, or the exercise of economic clout, will be the ultimate factor determining the future of sustainable agriculture. Activists concerned with these issues are now focusing their efforts on the local level, working within their home bioregions to effect change. Here we can vote with our wallets as well as at the ballot box. Supporting local farmers through direct marketing or through local zoning protection is essential if they are going to hold on until we can effect greater changes.

We all can affect the future of sustainable agriculture by becoming more involved in the resource cycles in our own lives. As essential as it is, it often feels futile to try to influence our elected officials’ position on agricultural policy. But when we pick our own food from our own gardens or visit a local farmer’s market we begin to take responsibility on a personal level for our relationship to the biosystems that sustain us, and are strengthened for the long-term task of changing the agricultural systems around us.


Berry, Wendell, The Unsettling of America – Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977, 228pp.). A very readable book by a masterful poet who has a deep understanding and love for farming. The best exploration of issues of rural culture, agrarian ethics, human health, the role of the family, and the failure of government policy in the context of the culture and traditions of agriculture.

Cox, W., and M.D. Atkins, Agricultural Ecology (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1979, 721pp.). The best recent text on agricultural ecology. Packed with information, outstanding illustrations, and well-organized. An excellent reference for teachers.

Eckholm, Eric, Losing Ground (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1976, 222pp.). An excellent primer on worldwide problems of soil loss, erosion, deforestation, and related topics with excellent references to various efforts that are dealing with these problems. Well written and very readable.

Ophuls, W., Ecology and Politics of Scarcity (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1977, 302pp.). A comprehensive, pessimistic view of the political and economic conditions that affect issues leading to conditions of scarcity. Strong opinions backed by excellent research and documentation.

The Cornucopia Project, Empty Breadbasket (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1981, 170pp.). A compendium of what’s wrong with modern agriculture in the U.S. with lots of data. They also publish specific guides to agriculture in various states.

Sampson, R.N., Farmland or Wasteland – A Time To Choose (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1981, 422pp.). An excellent guide to the problems of agricultural land loss, from erosion to urbanization. Good charts and illustrations, copious data. Written for the layperson.

Brenneman, R.L., and S.M. Bates, eds., Land-Saving Action (Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1984, 249pp.). A written symposium by 29 experts on private land conservation in the 1980s. Includes sections on case studies, organizations, transactions, taxation, and more. A good reference for anyone actively involved with land conservation.

Fletcher, Wendell, and Charles Little, The American Cropland Crisis (Bethesda, MD: American Land Forum, 1982, 193pp.). Why U.S. farmland is being lost and how citizens and governments are trying to save what is left. A very well-written narrative that tells the whole story simply and elegantly. Highly recommended.

Steiner, F.R., and J.E. Theilacker, eds., Protecting Farmlands (Westport, CT: AVI Press, 1984, 312pp.). A very up-to-date and comprehensive reference. All the major workers in the field are represented in the various chapters. This book is the most complete and recent work available in the field.

Bailey, Gordon A., ed., Land Use and Forest Resources In A Changing Environment (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1984, 222p.). The urban/forest interface is the theme of these papers that deal with legal, political, social, and biological issues, as well as presenting a variety of action alternatives.

Jackson, Wes, New Roots For Agriculture (San Francisco: Friends Of The Earth, 1980). Wes presents an excellent capsule analysis of the current state of agriculture and goes on to propose a possible solution involving perennial polycultures. The book is a good progress report on his ongoing efforts.

(All these books and more are available from Agricultural Access, 615 Merchant St., Vacaville, CA 95688, or 707/448-8287.)

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!