By Steve Poindexter*
The legal definition of “sustainable agriculture” (U.S. Code Title 7 Section 3103) is an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that over the long term:
• Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
• Enhance environmental quality and the natural resources 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. That definition is the central element of the legislation of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. In simple terms, sustainable agriculture has environmental, social and economic dimensions.
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The main principle behind sustainability is that we must meet the food and fiber needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This is important as world populations grow. In 2009 the world population was about 6.7 billion — and projected to rise to about 9.2 billion people by 2050. In order to meet the needs of a hungry world, food production (including sugar) must increase in that period of time on similar acres as we have today.
Efficient use and management of water resources must be part of sustainability. The Great Lakes sugarbeet industry is located in the heart of one of the world’s largest fresh water reservoirs. Because of this, we farm in what is termed an “environmentally sensitive” area. In Saginaw County, Mich., alone, there are more than 1,800 miles of open drains. It is critical that both ground and surface water remain potable. Pesticide, phosphate, nitrate and coliform bacteria contamination are the largest concerns in the Greats Lakes growing region. Overuse or improper management by any of the four can spell disaster. Farming must be compatible with the natural resources surrounding it. If production of food or fiber degrades the natural resource base (soil or water), it decreases the ability of future generations to flourish.
Have the Great Lakes sugarbeet producers done a good job over the last 30 years of adjusting production aspects that have improved sustainability? In many ways, we have. Sugarbeet growers have implemented a variety of site-specific production practices based on soil characteristics, proximity to water, topography and climate. The result has been an improvement in soil and water quality, reduction of off-site movement of fertilizers and pesticides, and increasing yields. The Michigan sugar industry has averaged an annual yield improvement of 0.6 ton per acre since 1997 and, at the same time, improved beet quality. Productivity has increased, even though very little acreage is irrigated.
* Steve Poindexter is senior sugarbeet educator with the Michigan State University Extension Service and director of Michigan Sugarbeet Advancement. This article initially appeared in Michigan Sugar Company’s magazine, Newsbeet, and is reprinted here with permission.
Proper soil management protects and enhances productivity. It includes using cover crops, manures and reduced tillage. Over time, growers have reduced tillage operations, including converting from moldboard plowing to chisel plowing and/or some type of conservation tillage. Conservation tillage systems are good for the environment by keeping soil and water from running off fields and improving soil organic matter. In the last 10 years, cover crops — such as oilseed radish, clover and cereals — have become commonplace in Michigan. We now have a much better understanding of how to apply manure responsibly. Building soil organic matter is a sustainable long-term process that will improve soil health, tilth and soil microbial life.
We are fortunate, in the Great Lakes growing region, to have the opportunity to diversify in many crops and livestock enterprises. Many areas in the United States do not have the option of growing sugarbeets, dry beans, cucumbers or even winter wheat. Diversified farms are usually more economically and ecologically resilient. Longer rotations reduce insect, disease and weed problems. Longer rotations also will generally improve yields and offer economic diversity. These alternative crops also spur economic diversity. Examples of this are Michigan Sugar Company, Star of the West Milling and multiple pickle and bean companies.
Site-specific technology and practices are widely utilized and are now considered the “norm” in agriculture. We used to treat each “farm” differently when it came to fertilizers and lime. Now each “acre” can be grid sampled, and nutrients are applied accordingly. Growers now are selecting specific varieties for specific fields. These varieties may have certain disease resistance or nematode tolerance. The ability to use genetic resistance can reduce pesticide use and improve yield/quality. Sustainable agriculture systems do not mean “no” use of crop protection chemicals or fertilizers. They do mean, through good, sustainable management practices, that pesticides/fertilizers are used appropriately along with “natural processes.” Examples would be clover cover crops that reduce nitrogen fertilizer. Genetics have improved resistance to pests, which can reduce crop protection sprays.
The Michigan sugarbeet industry has averaged an annual yield improvement of
0.6 ton/acre since 1997 while also improving beet quality.
Have we done all that we can to farm in a sustainable
and responsible manner? Naturally, the answer to such a question is always “no.” As sustainable technology improves, there is always more to do. After all, sustainability in farming is a direction, not a destination.
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Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower