Professional Development Program






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Unit 1: Conceptual Framework and Historical Foundations of Sustainable Agriculture


To begin our exploration of sustainable agriculture, let's begin with some questions to get you thinking about your own situation and context, and the individuals with whom you work. Consider how you would answer each of these questions and then click on the question to learn more:
  • What are the most pressing concerns facing farmers and ranchers in your community?
  • Producers in most parts of the country have a wide range of concerns, some technical, others may be environmental, economic, or societal concerns. A recent survey of Extension agents in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia indicated the following topics as a high priority for information and training:

    • Economics of sustainable agriculture

    • Innovative farming systems

    • Marketing of sustainable agriculture products

    • Grazing/forage management

    • Farm management practices

    • Integrated insect pest management

    • Crop rotations

    • Organic matter management

    • Recycling farm wastes

    • Educational communication/Extension in sustainable agriculture

    • Water quality

    • Grass fed livestock

    • Restoration of the family farm

    • Natural resource conservation

    • Composting

    • Systems theory including biological systems

    A 2011 survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition showed that the major concerns and challenges for young and beginning farmers are:

    • Lack of capital

    • Access to land

    • Affordable health care

    • Access to credit

    • Business planning and marketing

    • Profitability

    • Education and training

    Forward-thinking ag educators will be thinking about the challenges facing the next generation of farmers and ranchers in their own communities, and strategize accordingly.

  • What types of innovative marketing strategies have you seen farmers in your region use to sell their products?
  • Marketing is crucial to the success of farm and ranch businesses, yet many producers do not give marketing much thought. Those producers may have a difficult time selling their products or are forced to accept less-than-fair prices. One way farmers can take charge of the marketing component of their business is to get involved in direct marketing. Farmers' markets are one example: There were about 8,268 farmers markets operating in the U.S. in 2014, and trends indicate the number will continue to grow. Direct marketing is not limited to small fruit and vegetable farmers. Other strategies used by larger scale grain or livestock producers include value-added products and cooperative marketing.

  • What type of crop rotations and cropping systems do you see in your region of the country?
  • Crop rotation is a key component of developing a sustainable farming or ranching operation. Crop rotations can break insect and disease life cycles; with the right crops and cover crops, rotations can help improve soil quality. They also can lower economic risk by diversifying the products being sold from the farm. Two sample crop rotations from different parts of the U.S. are described below:

    Example 1
    North Dakota 7-year rotation used to bring a poor producing field into more sustainable production.






    oats seeded with yellow blossom sweet clover


    cover incorporated with tandem disk at first blossom

    tillage to control weeds

    rye seeded


    rye harvested late summer

    chisel plowing for residue decomposition and to germinate volunteer rye


    tillage to knock out volunteer rye and weeds; sunflower planted

    rotary hoe and cultivate to control weeds

    sunflower harvested; shallow disking to destroy insect habitat leaving enough residue for soil cover


    tillage to knock out weeds and volunteer sunflower

    buckwheat seeded + sweet clover interseeded

    buckwheat harvested leaving 12-15 inch stubble


    clover and buckwheat stubble incorporated with tandem disk

    tillage to control weeds

    barley seeded for soil cover


    spring wheat planted no-till

    From: Switching to a Sustainable System by Fred Kirschenmann. 1988. Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society.

    Example 2
    A long-term vegetable rotation plan





    Cover Crop

    years 1-3

    alfalfa hay

    legume sod



    year 4

    sweet corn



    winter rye

    year 5

    squash, pumpkin



    interseed ryegrass

    year 6

    broccoli, cabbage



    interseed oats

    year 7

    lettuce, spinach, beets



    hairy vetch + rye

    year 8

    tomato, pepper



    winter rye

    year 9

    onion, carrot

    lily / umbel


    winter rye

    From: Sustainable Vegetable Production from Start-Up to Market by Vern Grubinger. 1999. Natural Resource, Agriculture, and Engineering Services, Ithaca, New York.

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