October 21, 2004 | By: Aimee Heald-Nielson
LEXINGTON, Ky.

Sustainable agriculture is a concept that unites the goals of consumers and farmers. It focuses on systems that protect the environment, enhance communities and are profitable to farmers.

“Many farmers think in sustainable agriculture terms,” said Lee Meyer, agricultural economist for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. “Many of their approaches are creative and innovative. Kentucky farmers are protecting streams with fences and forested or grass-covered borders. They’ve found ways to give cattle access to water without damaging the water or stream bank.”

Many farmers have taken advantage of improved technologies to provide solutions to sustainable agriculture issues. Some grain producers have learned that by reducing tillage and by direct seeding, erosion can be dramatically reduced. The drought in the western United States in 2002 and 2003 was worse than the dust bowl years in some places, but improved farming practices virtually eliminated the wind erosion of the early 1900s, Meyer said.

Farmers also are learning that marketing is an essential part of a sustainable system.

“They often need to create new markets for non-traditional products, like fresh water shrimp, and products produced using fewer chemicals or otherwise contributing to a more sustainable system,” Meyer said. “Some vegetable producers sell season-long ‘subscriptions’ which entitle their customers to weekly packages of produce. Others have to develop processing to access markets.”

Kentucky has a mobile processing unit managed by Partners for Family Farms, which allows trained farmers to process range-produced poultry under sanitary conditions and market it to consumers, as well as restaurants.

“While farmers are innovative by nature, they still need help,” Meyer said. “Land-grant universities like UK and Kentucky State University do research and have Extension services to help.” 

Meyer is involved with the Sustainable Agriculture Research Education (SARE) program, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. SARE promotes sustainable agriculture through grants that improve profitability, stewardship and quality of life.

“The efforts of SARE are targeted through all types of organizations and directly to farmers,” he said. “Farmers can get grants to develop truly sustainable practices and researchers can get funds to develop basic technologies.”

While farmers make the ultimate decisions, Meyer said their success in becoming completely sustainable is dependent upon their customers.

“The buyers are the key to creating sustainable farming systems,” he said. “Those who seek out products from farmers’ markets, buy directly from farmers or who pick up locally produced products where they normally shop, contribute to healthier farming, rural and urban communities.”

Contact: 

Writer: Aimee D. Nielson 859-257-4736, ext. 267

Contact: Lee Meyer 859-257-7272, ext. 228