Farmer John: Soil is a key resource as we seek sustainable agriculture

“Sustainable: Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.”  – The Oxford Living Dictionary


SIGMA — I began using the word “sustainable” some years ago to describe the practices I used on my farm. The term “organic” lost some of its usefulness to me when the U.S. Department of Agriculture took over ownership of the word and corporate entities got a seat at the rule-making table. 

It became easier for corporate farms to get “USDA Organic” labels on their food and make extra money because the program was watered down to what I think of as an “input switching” game. 

By input switching, I mean exchanging a chemical fertilizer, herbicide or pesticide for one that’s on a list approved by an organization such as the nonprofit Organic Materials and Research Institute.

A great deal has been written in recent years about what constitutes organic, a lucrative sector of the agriculture industry, and some of it is concerning. My goal here is to note that there are plenty of products out there that have the organic label though they are not necessarily representative of sustainable agriculture practices.

I’m glad to have a national standard when I buy food, but we need changes which refer back to the ideals, standards and practices we used when we entered this field early on – well before the government acquired the use of the word organic. 

Since the beginning of my time with farming, I’ve thought about ecosystems, soil building, carbon catching and biologically based solutions and practices.

We can find some solutions not by examining organic labeling but by simply looking more closely at the soil in our own backyards.

So now I ask whether we as a nation are practicing sustainable agriculture? Let’s look at some of the elements in current practice.

Phosphorus is a key nutrient necessary for plant growth, heavily used on many farms. But a phosphorus shortage could leave us short of food. We could easily use up the phosphorus currently being mined for agricultural use. 

However, it is easy to step into the phosphorus nutrient cycling system in nature. When you plant cover crops for growing your own fertilizer, you can bring up lots of phosphorus from the soil into your plants. 

Then you mow it at just the right time and turn it into the soil immediately. When you mow grass or anything, the smell you get is the nutrients going back into the atmosphere. You must turn it under quickly to capture all these nutrients that escape into the air. 

As global populations increase, temperatures rise and our frustrations rise, too. Natural resources are being depleted and not replaced. This is not sustainable. There has already been warfare over natural resource allocation, including access to water.

Soil is a resource for farmers.

Farmers and even gardeners can grow their own nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. We can draw up important trace minerals by growing deep-rooted plants. For example, alfalfa has been known to grow as deep as 60 feet. There are even crops which trap and release calcium into a plant-available form.

If you do this, you are now switching inputs from ingredients mined or produced from oil to the most natural system. 

To have beneficial impacts, to sustain the systems that enable food production, we need to have a “first do no harm” mindset. Such systems require a few things.

First, they need clean water, air and soil.

We need to save and preserve bees and all other critically important insects, wildlife and microorganisms in soil.

We need to store carbon in the soil, where it won’t oxidize out into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

We should foster water retention in the soil so there is less need for irrigation.

We must promote healthy soil biology, a topic I’ll return to in another column.

With healthy soil comes nutrient dense food and better human health, both in direct food consumption and in clean air and water.

All these practices help prevent soil loss. 

We are currently losing our greatest national treasure – our soil. Every aspect of life is dependent on this thin layer of sand, silt, clay, organic matter and microbes. 

Now is the time to add sustainable practices to your garden or farm. Along with some of the advances we’ve made in food production, sustainable practices mean better land for today’s crops and those that will feed tomorrow’s families.

Wilson, a farmer and consultant who lives in Sigma, writes about sustainable agriculture for The Independent News. Reach him via

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