Sustainable farming practices, explained

Sustainable farming practices, explained

Nok-Noi Ricker | BDN
Ellen Mallory (right), University of Maine sustainable agriculture research program leader, talks about grain stalks with Bangor native Alex Bennett, who is developing a drinking straw made of straw, on Thursday at the University of Maine sustainable agriculture research farm in Orono.

With all the lingo and jargon, farming sustainably can seem like an inscrutable task. Once you have sustainable farming practices explained, though, the whole process appears less daunting.

The exact definition of sustainable farming depends on who you ask. In general, farming practices are considered sustainable when they are done in a way that will not compromise the ability to farm in the future.

“I like to refer back to the sustainability triangle,” said Caleb Goossen, organic crop and conservation specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “[Sustainable farming] is ideally environmentally sustainable, economically sustainable and socially sustainable.”

“I like to refer back to the sustainability triangle,” said Caleb Goossen, organic crop and conservation specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “[Sustainable farming] is ideally environmentally sustainable, economically sustainable and socially sustainable.”

In other words, sustainable farming is rooted in the health of the land, but also considers social and economic aspects of farming, like finding a market for products and managing labor.

“Most people want to leave a legacy,” said Carol Williams, executive director of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. “One of the biggest things of concern in sustainability is economic resiliency. A farmer can manage their farm in such a way to withstand risks and uncertainty.”

For many farmers, sustainable farming practices are a matter of survival in a changing world.

“I think that to survive these days in farming, you really have to think ahead and think of the changing economic [and] social landscape,” said Mickie Swisher, director of the Center for Sustainable and Organic Food Systems at the University of Florida. “Every sustainable operation is going to be different. There are no recipe books for sustainability.”

Sustainable farming uses a number of different practices and techniques. Here are 16 sustainable farming practices explained by experts in the field.


Agroforestry is the practice of growing trees and shrubs amongst crops and grazing land.

“[Agroforestry] increases the structural complexity [of the land] because you have different layers of habitats,” said Amanda Rodewald, professor and senior director of conservation science at Cornell University. “It reduces the need for chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, as well as irrigation that is oftentimes needed in different agriculture systems.”

The inclusion of trees can also reduce temperatures on the land and prevent runoff and erosion, which conserves soil and water. The increased plant diversity makes the system less susceptible to disease. Trees and shrubs can also aid soil health.

“Many of the trees planted in agroforestry are nitrogen-fixing trees helping to improve the nutrients in the soil,” Rodewald said.

Moreover, agroforestry practices additional income for farmers.

“One of the things that people are really interested in, especially small-holder farmers, is that it can provide another revenue stream,” Rodewald said. “You can harvest the trees. You can harvest some of the fruits and fibers and sell those on the market.”

There are some challenges to agroforestry, including the cost of purchasing, planting and establishing the trees.

“Costs are going to vary based on agricultural system and region that you’re working,” Rodewald said.

Rodewald primarily studies wild birds in agroforestry systems in South America and said agroforestry is a great tool to marry wildlife conservation with social and economic prosperity.

“There are so many benefits on the social side, the economic side and the ecological side that come together,” she said. “It’s not necessarily some altruistic decision. There are real benefits.”


Composting is the process of gathering and managing organic waste in order to break it down into fertilizer. There are a variety of different methods for composting, including aerated composting, which feeds the microbes that break down organic material by agitating the soil and introducing oxygen to the system, and vermicomposting, which uses worms to break down organic material.

Composting helps reduce food waste while sustainably returning nutrients back to the soil. Quality compost can also reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.

Many gardeners are farmers purchase compost, but they can save money on gardening supplies by making compost for themselves. Even city dwellers can keep compost bins in their apartments and bring the material to local farms, farmers markets or other drop-off points.

Conservation tillage

Conservation tillage is reducing or eliminating tillage in order to promote soil health.

Tilling is digging, stirring and breaking up soil after harvest. The act reduces soil compaction and helps prevent weeds from taking root. However, tilling also oxidizes the soil, which speeds up the decomposition of the organic matter and removes the vegetative matter left behind from the previous harvest, both of which are essential to the structure of the soil and the growth of healthy crops.

Conservation tillage improves soil health, which leads to higher yields. By improving soil health, conservation tillage also increases resilience against extreme weather events.

Weed management when implementing conservation tillage can be more difficult initially, especially for farmers who do not use herbicides. The risk can be mitigated, however, if farmers plan carefully beforehand.

The best method for conservation tillage will depend on the land. Conservation tillage also pairs well with other sustainable agricultural methods, like planting cover crops.

Cover crops

Cover crops are crops sown between seasons after a harvest in order to maintain healthy soil.

By adding roots back into the ground, cover crops hold the soil together and outcompete weeds. Some cover crops also return nutrients to the soil through nitrogen-fixing. Farmers generally use cover crops to break up the compaction of soil that comes from seasons of use, which helps with their long term health and sustainability. Cover crops have other benefits, including moisture retention and weed control.

Cover crops can also reduce the need for inputs like pesticides, as well as providing forage for pasture-raised animals through the winter.

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