Shopping for food is an experience. We walk through aisles and scrutinize labels, looking for certifications, logos, countries of origin and ultimately values that we can support. One of these values is the knowledge about how our food is grown.
Sustainably grown fruits and vegetables stand out in the aisle as an alternative to products grown conventionally. However, the term sustainable is used so often that the actual meaning may seem lost. One definition of sustainability, by the United Nations, is meeting the needs of the present without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In other words, sustainability is an ongoing process to protect resources every single day.
In order to meet these goals most sustainable products must also meet environmental, social and economic goals. In fact, one certification by the Food Alliance requires farms to meet standards for water conservation, soil health, wildlife habitat, waste reduction, energy conservation, reduction of pesticides, safe and fair working conditions and demonstrating continual improvement. A certified sustainable farm must adhere to the Food Alliance’s standard and submit to rigorous and independent third-party inspections to ensure compliance.
In practice, a sustainable farm works in harmony with nature. An example is to attract local pollinators by planting species bordering fields to improve crop yields and biodiversity. Another is implementing a birds-of-prey program that creates a habitat for predators that help control small pests and birds that may injure crops.
Sustainable farms also use conservation tillage to reduce erosion and plant cover crops to enhance the soil. Tracking water use and needs is also an important tool for conserving water use. Monitoring weather, soil moisture and evapotranspiration data are ways to improve irrigation practices.
In addition to ensuring a safe working environment for employees and implementing programs to increase job satisfaction and fulfillment, sustainable farms also have a positive impact on local communities. One example is donating produce to local food banks, fundraisers, charities and community events. Another is setting up programs to teach children about farming and food while introducing them to new healthy foods.
However, the most important component of any sustainable farm is demonstrating continuous improvement. Sustainability is a life-long pursuit. It will never be accomplished, merely improved upon. One example is using innovation to cultivate within centimeters of the row, which eliminates space for weeds to grow and improves crop yield per acre. The next improvement on the farm could be building a biogas plant to generate electricity using fruit and vegetable by-product, things like cornhusks and cobs. In a nutshell, sustainable farming is improving operations on the farm, improving the environment and having a positive impact on the local community. There are many ways to implement sustainable farming, which is the beauty of it. There’s no box to fit into, just endless possibilities and ways to improve.