Monday, July 28, 2014

Sustainable Agriculture Equals a Sustainable Prince William

early summer at Yankey Farms
Since World War II, the world’s agricultural production has almost tripled while cultivated land area has grown only by 12%. This feat is often called the agricultural miracle or “Green Revolution” and was accomplished by doubling the amount of land under irrigation combined with the development of the chemical processes to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides, hybrid crops that more readily absorb nitrogen and mechanized agriculture. In the United States where agricultural production has even exceeded the world growth level, government policies were created that favored maximizing production. These changes allowed fewer farmers to feed more people and significantly reduced the relative cost of food, but favored mono-culture agriculture and have taken a toll on the environment.

For centuries the common practice in agriculture was a diversified farm integrating both crops and livestock in the same farming operation. Then with the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the government policies and economics resulting from those policies farmers were pushed to become more specialized, creating industrial agriculture and confined feeding operations and farms growing a one or two crops and a significant reduction in the diversity of those crops. Food security was vastly improved, but hunger was not eliminated. Today federal, state and local government policies often impede sustainable agriculture and local government seemingly encourages the conversion of agricultural land to suburban/urban uses and the continued consolidation of agriculture. Instead we should look to implementing sustainable agricultural practices. Sustainable agriculture within a community contributes to the quality of life and the overall sustainability of that community.

While post World War II government policies and farming practices increased agricultural yields and reduced the financial risks associated with farming, they also have resulted in the depletion of topsoil and contamination of groundwater and streams, the decline in family farms and rural communities. “In real life” I am the Treasurer of the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District and I care deeply about the survival of our Rural Crescent as a sustainable agricultural community, the conservation of our soils and protection of the streams, rivers and groundwater. Sustainable agriculture is agriculture that does not deplete the soil, but builds it, does not contaminate groundwater or surface water, but uses water sustainable and responsibly, uses pesticides and fertilizers sparingly if at all, uses non-renewable resources responsibly and rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable agriculture is stewardship of the land and natural resources to maintain and enhance these vital resources for the long term, for the future generations. Organic, conservation and conventional agriculture can be practiced sustainably.

For the most part irrigated agriculture is not sustainable over the long run. Unless there is sufficient rain during the year, salinity will ultimately destroy the soil. In arid environments fresh water with very low levels of salt evaporates concentrating the salt over time and ultimately will make the land useless for agriculture. Low volume irrigation can slow this effect as can tile drainage, but over time the land builds up salt. Salinization of the land is a huge problem in California and parts of the southwest. However, large sections of the northeast, mid-Atlantic and Midwest have adequate rainfall (most years) to support agriculture. Even with supplemental irrigation to assure the success of valuable crops (think berries) these lands can be cultivated indefinitely. Water availability is the major limiting factor in much of agriculture, but mismanagement of pesticide and fertilizer use can contaminate groundwater and surface water with pesticides, nitrates and selenium.

Sustainable agriculture must utilize specific strategies that take into account topography, soil characteristic, climate, pests and water. Chemicals if used at all should be used strategically. Soil is a fragile and living medium that must be protected and nurtured to ensure its long-term productivity and stability. A "healthy" soil is a key component of sustainability; that is, a healthy soil will produce healthy plants that are less susceptible to pests. Properly managed diversity can improve soil. For example crop rotation can be used to suppress weeds and pests; cover crops can stabilize the top soil by holding soil and nutrients in place, conserving soil moisture by using the mowed mulches of the cover crops and by increasing the water infiltration during precipitation because of the root actions. Cover crops can also attract and sustain beneficial arthropods.

In addition, diversified farms are usually more ecologically (and economically) resilient. While it is more difficult to manage multiple crops, by growing a variety of crops, farmers spread their risks. A strategy that works particularly well with crop diversity is the locally popular community supported agriculture, CSA, model. Properly managed crop diversity can also buffer a farm in a biological and ecological sense. For sustainable agriculture to work consumers must play an important role in creating a sustainable food system. Through their purchases, consumers can send a powerful message to producers and others in the system about what they think is important. Food cost has always been at the top of the list, but buying a farm share or CSA is an important statement and support of farming. Sustainable agriculture providing local food to our community is what the Rural Crescent in Prince William County should be used for- connecting us to the land and the environment. In addition, the costs of conversion of local farmland to suburban/urban uses have to be considered as well as the loss of locally grown food.

Maintaining the rural nature of the Rural Crescent can ensure that Prince William County is sustainable. The Rural Crescent also provides a significant portion of the green infrastructure that connects the still intact habitat areas providing corridors for wildlife movement and trails as well as pathways for pollinators. Maintaining intact, connected natural landscapes is essential for basic ecosystem and watershed preservation to ensure that there will always be clean air and water in Northern Virginia. The Rural Crescent is also about water, groundwater and watershed preservation. Maintaining adequate open ground surface for groundwater and surface recharge are vital to ensuring safe water supplies, water recreation and the ecological integrity of the region. Sustainable agriculture is an important part of a sustainable Prince William County.

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