Yellow dandelion growing in the grass(109796)Credit: wordspeller

A Guide to Sustainable Agriculture

Taking good care of our Earth is about respecting and preserving the land so that it remains a natural and life-enhancing environment for all that live in and above it. Since healthy soils create healthy life, there cannot be much chance or hope of sustained living or abundance of crops, trees, animals or human beings, without it. “No species whether human or otherwise can be any healthier than the soil from which their food is derived.” (Coleby, p. 39)

Plowed groundCredit: User:hotblack / morgueFile

Sustainable Soil Management

When considering sustainable management of the soil, it is often in relation to the organic production of animals and crops, home gardening and permaculture courses. Biodynamic methods are becoming a greater known part of this system, and promote a higher awareness of how the land can be cared for and managed in a meaningful and ‘in tune’ way.

By sustainably managing the Earth, we have the fore-knowledge that by taking care of what we have now, it will be there for us in the future. “Soil and water are limited natural resources. Their conservation is as important an issue as the improvement of soil fertility.” (Plaster, p. x)

The soil is a vital factor in the generation of all life. “Before we really use soil properly, we must be fully aware of its importance.” (Plaster, p. 1) Soils provide anchorage for the roots of many crops and trees, as well as a living space for insects, bacteria, fungi, earthworms and nematodes. They are also a medium that nourishes numerous plants and grasses with the transference of nutrients, moisture and gases.

“Sustainable agricultural systems are based on ecological soil management practices that replenish and maintain soil fertility by providing optimum conditions for soil biological activity . . . sustainable agricultural systems are modeled on natural ecosystems in which diversity, complexity and recycling of energy and nutrients are essential.” (Smillie & Gershuny, p. 6)

Young field cropsCredit: Kevin Connors / morgueFile

Fertilizing the Soil Naturally

Instead of applying costly chemical fertilizers by machinery, soil fertility is established in a gradual and affirmative manner. Humus content is one indication of soil health, and its dark, decayed matter is known to improve the structure and moisture-holding capacities of soils.

Humus acts like a sponge, and its particles hold water so roots can absorb it . . . it improves aeration and water movement (drainage), as well as making the soil less dense, which improves root growth.” (Zimmer, p. 47) It also naturally supplies nutrients to plants and when in sufficient quantities, it ensures good plant growth.

Adding fresh organic matter, such as animal manures and green crops, is a method of naturally increasing fertility in a sustainable way. Green crops include plants such as oats, rye and buckwheat, and these are usually incorporated into top soils through tillage.

As ‘living mulches’, they help to fix nitrogen in the ground (eg legumes such as clover) and add to the humus content of the soil. They also provide a source of food for earthworms and other benefits, including preventing weed growth. “A growing green manure crop can also act as a cover crop, protecting the soil from erosion as well as smothering weeds.” (Zimmer, p. 256)

View inside a compost tumblerCredit: User:suezoo / morgueFile

Using Mulches and Compost

Activities, such as composting and mulching, have valuable, longer-lasting effects on the soil than the instantaneous and artificial fertilizers found in farming retailers and garden centers. There is no risk of poisonous run-offs when using ingredients made from nature and then returning them back to nature.

Compost may not seem very time-efficient in its making but it is quality-efficient in the breakdown of raw materials, and provision of balanced nutrients and healthy soil micro-organisms. “Compost – contains an average of two percent nitrogen. Very effective because it is a balanced plant food. It also has plant growth stimulators, and humus to improve soil structure.” (Zimmer, p. 147)

Garden shovel in the earthCredit: User:corena / morgueFile

Sustainable Weed Management

Sustainable soil practices avoid the use of toxic herbicides, which are an all-too-common form of weed control on many farms and horticultural properties. Natural methods like crop rotation, mulching and cultivation are used instead, to control weed populations mindfully and appropriately.

“Weeds are controlled but never eliminated under ecological management systems. Knowing the life cycle of problem weed species can enable you to decide on the best method of control. A well-tuned crop rotation is the basis of ecological weed control.” (Smilley & Gershuny, p. 83) 

While weeds can present certain challenges in their removal, they can be beneficial in signaling poor soil conditions. “Weeds can often be reliable indicators of potential fertility problems.” (Smilley & Gershuny, p. 55)

In sustainable weed management, cultivating the soil is another way of controlling weeds. It lessens plant numbers, while at the same time, improving soil aeration. Allowing more air into soils, biological activity is increased and organic matter can move deeper underground. “Mechanical weed control saves on expensive herbicides and aerates the soil at the same time . . . done at the right time does not seriously harm earthworm populations.” (Zimmer, p. 247) 

Choice and desired outcome are of high importance when it comes to managing soils and weeds correctly. A sustainable viewpoint always questions what will make the greatest difference long term, and makes a decision based on that.


Sustainable agriculture is a dependable system for working on, and with, the land. It acknowledges the inter-relatedness of all organisms, large and small, and gives more thought to growing and farming than profit for profit’s sake.

Cultural values – ethics, aesthetics, and spiritual beliefs – have a profound influence on how is soil is treated. Not only the farm itself, but also the society of which it is a part must be viewed as components of the soil ecosystem, for all support and maintain one another and none can exist independently.” (Smillie & Gershuny, p. 50)

Next article: Post-War Farming And How It Affects Us