February 3, 2013

Sustainable agriculture a worthy goal

Peter Hagar, Agriculture Educator

— Is your farm sustainable?

I read a recent Department of Agriculture report that New York Farm numbers had decreased in the past year. This report states that New York farms now total about 36,000. While Clinton County has lost a number of farms in the past year, cropland values have been rising and much of the cropland continues to be utilized by other farmers. 

And while the report focuses on farm numbers, it doesn’t address the fact that overall, New York farms continue to increase production and sales of both crops and livestock. Our local farmers have continued to do the same. Continuing research and promotion of beneficial farming practices will help our local farms to succeed and remain a sustainable endeavor.

“Sustainability” is a term that has recently been tacked on to a variety of activities. It is often used in the same sentence as “holistic.” Both terms are often difficult to define and hard to understand. “Sustainable agriculture” has been defined by Congress as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term, satisfy our food and fiber needs, improve the quality of our natural resources, make efficient use of nonrenewable and on-farm resources, sustain farm operations and enhance the quality of life of farmers and society.

One key point is that sustainable farming is economically viable. If farmers can’t make a profit, farming is not sustainable. The whole point of sustainable farming is to maintain a long-term enterprise beneficial to the farm, the farm family and the community at large. Farms that can successfully adapt to changing economic times, adopt new management practices to better care for the land and the environment, and continue to make efficient use of their resources, will benefit the community as a whole with wholesome food, beautiful open spaces and preservation of our natural resources.

Another key point is that it is site-specific. What works for one farmer may not work for his neighbor. Adopting new agricultural practices are not always easy. Farms have a wide range of soils, environmental conditions and available markets. Not every farm can grow corn and not every farmer wants to milk cows two or three times a day. Developing a sustainable farm plan involves consideration of many factors; developing a long-term goal, a detailed financial plan, best practices for enhancing the environment and planning for prosperity. Often this is described as “holistic management,” considering the whole farm when planning rather than its individual parts. While holistic and sustainable agriculture are often associated with small farms and organic farming practices, conventional farmers are also making progress in this arena.

We have a number of local dairy farmers who utilize pasture and grazing to feed their herds during the summer. Even larger farmers are growing more and more of their own crops to avoid purchasing expensive grains from out of the region. Reduced tillage, improved crop genetics and careful manure applications have lowered inputs of fuel, fertilizer and pesticides while continuing to yield bountiful harvests. Agricultural research and education continue to look for new methods that will enhance the sustainability of our local farms.

One program that has focused on helping farmers in our region is the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA, the SARE program offers competitive grants for new ideas in farming that improve profits, stewardship, and the vibrancy of farm communities. Large, multi-year grants are offered to agricultural service providers — extension staff, consultants, nonprofits, state departments of agriculture, and others working in the agricultural community — who want to conduct on-farm demonstrations, research, marketing and other projects with farmers as cooperators. Smaller, farmer grants are issued directly to farmers who have an innovative idea they want to test using a field trial, on-farm demonstration, or other technique.

Our region will benefit from this collaborative effort later this month by hosting a Pasture and Grazing Meeting featuring Jennifer Colby, pasture program coordinator from UVM’s Center of Sustainable Agriculture. Colby will bring her experiences with grass-based livestock farming to farmers and others interested in sustainable agriculture.

For those interested in learning more, this meeting will be held Saturday, Feb. 23, in Chateaugay. Contact Peter Hagar at 561-7450 or to register.

Peter Hagar, agriculture educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Route 22, Suite 5, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450, fax 561-0183 or email