March 16, 2022

Making The Transition - Sustainable Agriculture At A Glance

by Sara Wensley

Director, Growth and Marketing

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Making The Transition - Sustainable Agriculture At A Glance
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Let’s take a look at the history and evolution of sustainable agriculture, its applied definition, where it’s headed, and ultimately how we can help farmers make the transition.

Once an outlying niche, sustainable agriculture has slowly moved into the mainstream, with consumers demanding more and more from their food systems. It’s no longer just enough to generate profits, but rather farms and food-based companies are expected to simultaneously prioritize both people and the planet.

However, the transition of our global food systems will take time, policy change, an evolution of on-farm practices, and an overall shift in mindset. Farmers, in specific, must implement a new set of practices in the field to transition conventional systems towards more sustainable farming systems.

Let’s take a look at the history and evolution of sustainable agriculture, its applied definition, where it’s headed, and ultimately how we can help farmers make the transition.

A Brief History of Agriculture

The first signs of agriculture date back 12,000 years ago, coinciding with the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the current geological epoch. In the long view of human history, this is just a flash in the pan compared to the nearly 2 million years since our ancestors first emerged.

Yet, despite being a relatively new phenomenon, the introduction of agriculture played a paramount role in how humans eat, live, and interact, thus paving the way for modern civilization.

Over the next several centuries, civilizations gradually began using crop rotations, complex irrigation systems, and advanced metalworking techniques that could be used to create new tools, like the plow. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, there was a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity, known today as the Agricultural Revolution. During this time, farmers developed new methods of crop rotations, began cultivating land that was once considered unsuitable, and invented revolutionary machinery, like the mechanical combine harvester and tractor.

In the early 1900s, synthetic fertilizers were first introduced, dramatically increasing crop yields. This innovation, coupled with new advancements in technology, ultimately led to the population boom of the early 20th century; from 1900 to 2011, the global population grew from 1.6 billion to 7 billion.

The Rise of Sustainable Agriculture

In the late 1940s and 1950s, U.S. farms began to shift toward specialized, monoculture production systems, known today as “industrial agriculture.” These systems were often heavily reliant on intense tillage and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Over time, these practices lead to soil erosion and water pollution, ultimately decreasing the productivity of the farm and negatively impacting the surrounding environment.

Conservation advocates began to argue that farmers – and in turn, humanity – could not continue to survive if topsoil began to erode. In response, these advocates began to push for sustainable farming methods, such as minimal tillage methods, micro-irrigation, and crop rotation practices to maintain precious resources.

Defining Sustainable Agriculture

While sustainable farming methods have been around for centuries, the term “sustainable agriculture” rose to popularity in the late 1900s. The 1990 Farm Bill sought to codify and clarify previously-murky definitions of sustainable agriculture by providing a legal definition:

“an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long-term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends.
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

These key principles remain a guiding light for farmers transitioning to a more sustainable production system.

Putting the Definitions into Practice

It is important to note that this definition serves as a guide rather than a strict set of rules to which farmers must adhere. Let’s take a closer look at some of the core components of the USDA’s definition and break down what they might mean from farm to farm.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that sustainable agriculture is “site-specific.” The methods that a farmer might implement are heavily reliant on a particular farm’s soil type, climate, water availability, and a host of other considerations. For example, a farm in the Pacific Northwest will likely have different irrigation needs than a farm in southern Texas. Thus, the farming practices that encourage sustainable water use will look different in either location.

Second, sustainable agriculture calls on farmers to not only preserve their land, but to actively improve their resources, like soil, water, and the surrounding ecosystem, over time. There are many ways that farmers might put this principle into practice; they might implement no-till practices to regenerate the soil or maintain the surrounding land to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects or animals. By emphasizing long-term environmental health on the farm, farmers can not only magnify their yields, but they can also reap long-term financial benefits too.

Beyond Sustainable

Over the past 50 years, sustainable agriculture has transformed into a booming industry. The economic growth and scientific research within the space have led to new practices and a new set of definitions.

Certified Organic, a specific subset of sustainable agriculture, is currently a $220 billion industry, with projections that the space could triple in the next five years. Certified Organic, regulated by the USDA, is commonly understood by consumers to be absent of synthetic chemicals.

Beyond organic, consumers and producers are increasingly moving toward regenerative agriculture practices. Regenerative agriculture entails using nature-based methods to restore the health of soils and farm ecosystems. Methods such as cover cropping, minimizing tillage, crop rotations, and agroforestry can improve nutrient cycling and even sequester atmospheric carbon into the soil.

Challenges to Conversion

By conserving water, emphasizing organic and nature-based farming methods, and leveraging technological and agronomic innovations to make farms more efficient, farmers can help ensure a healthy planet and food security for future generations. They can also reduce their costs and increase their profits, meaning better returns.

Unfortunately, the transitional start-up costs to sustainable agriculture can be steep, presenting a barrier for most farmers. The conversion from traditional to sustainable farming often requires a large undertaking, including implementing new irrigation systems, establishing a crop rotation and rest periods, and more. The transition also requires access to educational resources, time, and an understanding of other considerations such as markets, branding, and price points.

Farming for People, Planet, and Profit

As the future of our food supply largely hinges on preserving our natural resources, many farmers and their investors are making sustainability a top priority. At FarmTogether, our mission is to bring creative and transformative capital to farming while opening up a vital asset class to all investors.

Interested in Learning More About Farmland as an Asset Class?

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Disclaimer: FarmTogether is not a registered broker-dealer, investment advisor or investment manager. FarmTogether does not provide tax, legal or investment advice. This material has been prepared for informational and educational purposes only. You should consult your own tax, legal and investment advisors before engaging in any transaction.

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