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Sustainable agriculture is a means of producing food without depleting the earth’s resources or polluting the environment. It works to mimic nature’s self-sustaining processes by promoting biodiversity, recycling plant nutrients, protecting soil from erosion, conserving and protecting water, and integrating livestock with crop production. Farms that rely on sustainable practices tend to be of smaller scale and can be labeled by many different names; natural, organic, low input, permaculture, holistic, and biological farms. The difference between them is in the practices and farming models that they follow, yet they all share the same goal of protecting and improving ecological health.
Conservation buffers are vegetation strips that, when properly done, can provide a variety of natural services; they reduce erosion and polluted run-off, provide areas for habitat, increase soil productivity, protect areas from winds and flooding, and enhance the visual aesthetic of a property. These practices can be ineffective without an understanding of the natural process that is being addressed. The size, shape and structure of the buffer will determine how effectively it will perform. If interested in implementing a conservation buffer, contact the Marion SWCD or the NRCS for assistance in implementing conservation buffers.
No-till is a technique that does not disturb the soil to the extent of conventional tillage practices. No-till helps keep the soil intact, reducing soil erosion while helping the soil hold more water. No-till leaves residue cover on the field that would normally be tilled into the soil prior to seeding. The residue helps with reducing soil erosion, but requires regular monitoring for the presence of slugs and other pests. No-till does require more management throughout the year because of the increased monitoring and treatments needed to keep land pest free. No-till can be done with any seeded crop.
Preparation: First you should understand the soil’s current condition. Does the soil need any amendments, or are there pest problems, like slugs or cut-worms? Pest problems should be treated prior to beginning no-till. In most cases, if pests are present you should wait at least a year after exterminating pests to start no-till. Expect to have a slight loss in crop yield for the first couple of years while the soil is rebuilding itself. No-till farming should be done for multiple consecutive years to experience the full benefits of the practice.
Cover crops are essential to preserving and maintaining healthy soils in the county. Cover crops help protect the soil from erosion, reduce soil nutrient leaching and provide additional nutrients to the soil by green manuring. Cover crops can be placed between crop rows, under fruit and other trees, and on unvegetated land. Choose a cover crop that won’t shade out cash crops, won’t wrap around trees, grows well in the shade, and will crowd out weeds. Contact OSU Extension for information regarding cover crops that can help meet your farm goals.
Establishing a crop rotation may help with erosion, plant disease, and other problems that a mono-culture might intensify. Rotating crops can leave built-up bug populations without food or habitat; rotation disrupts their life cycle and reduces the need for chemical control. For vegetable production, it is recommended to wait three years before repeating a crop in the same plot. Crop rotation can be done for all scales of agriculture production. Take into consideration soil types, climate, and available water when deciding on a rotation crop. Implementing a crop rotation along with cover crops takes good planning and management.
Integrated Pest Management is a strategy for pest management that utilizes both natural and chemical based practices, though pesticides should be used only when natural management is ineffective. IPM utilizes the most effective and environmentally conscious practices for controlling pests on a farm. IPM uses information about the life cycle of pests and their interaction with the environment to develop a management strategy that is economical and least hazardous to the health of people, the land, animals, and the environment. These techniques can be used for non-agricultural uses as well. There are currently a variety of online tools available to property owners for using local pest infestation forecasting. One of the best tools is the “IPM Pest and Plant Disease Models and Forecasting” website. (see Additional Resources.) Property owners can monitor possible pest infestations related to specific crops for scheduling pest management. Most farmers already implement a form of IPM; they can move farther along the continuum to more ecologically friendly pest management practices region-ally through the use of advanced warning and scouting tools.
Organic agriculture is a complex process that requires extensive accountability through diligent record keeping and documentation. Organic agriculture provides benefits to the environment by requiring practices that are more in tune with nature and promote biodiversity, water conservation and soil enhancement. Property owners are required to stop all non-organic practices on their land for three years prior to the certification process. Farmers who are interested in organic agriculture should fully understand the process, requirements and additional work associated with adding the label of “ORGANIC” to their product.
The amount of record keeping and documentation required for an organic operation is much more detailed than for conventional production. Records must “fully disclose all activities and transactions in sufficient detail to be readily understood and audited” (NOP Section 205.103 (b)(2)). In addition, the Organic System Plan which is an additional component of the documentation, must be up to date and on file at all times.
One criteria for being certified organic is to use organic seeds. If an organic seed type is unavailable, the farmer must provide documentation of efforts to acquire the seed from three different sources prior to being able to use a non-organic seed. The non-organic seed must be non-treated and not a GMO.
Organic producers, processors, and handlers must use materials that meet the requirements set under the National Organic Standard. A list of these materials can be found at the Washington State Department of Agriculture website and at the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). (see Additional Resources.)
Utilizing natural methods to address issues on the farm is encouraged and must be used prior to utilizing any organic sprays. Sprays and unnatural methods that meet organic requirements are considered a last resort to natural methods. The property owner must prove that natural methods of pest con-trol have been ineffective before being allowed to utilize alternative methods.
Depending on the animal and what you are producing from the animal, different requirements apply regarding what it means to be “organic” (see NOP Section 205.236 – 205.239).
Any changes to an agricultural operation from when it was certified requires farmers to contact the certifier; i.e. undocumented drift coming from adjacent fields, planting a new crop, new management practice.