We hear the term “sustainable farming” a lot in our industry – but what does it really mean?
Sustainability is made up of three parts: economy (profit), society (people), and the environment (planet). The legal definition of sustainable agriculture means "an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term satisfy human food and fiber needs, enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole".
Agriculture has an enormous environmental footprint, causing climate change, water scarcity, land degradation, deforestation and other processes. Production of sufficient human food, feed, fiber, and fuel to meet the needs of a sharply rising population, while protecting the environment and expanding natural resources is the goal of sustainable agriculture. Done correctly, sustainable farming helps crops grow themselves. Environmental sustainability in agriculture means good stewardship of the natural systems and resources that farms rely on. Among other things, this involves:
Building and maintaining healthy soil
Managing water wisely
Minimizing air, water, and climate pollution
Some steps sustainable farms take to preserve the environment might include:
Rotating crops and embracing diversity. Planting a variety of crops can have many benefits, including healthier soil and improved pest control. Crop diversity practices include intercropping (growing a mix of crops in the same area) and complex multi-year crop rotations.
Planting cover crops. Cover crops, like clover or hairy vetch, are planted during off-season times when soils might otherwise be left bare. These crops protect and build soil health by preventing erosion, replenishing soil nutrients, and keeping weeds in check, reducing the need for herbicides.
Reducing or eliminating tillage. Traditional plowing (tillage) prepares fields for planting and prevents weed problems, but can cause a lot of soil loss. No-till or reduced till methods, which involve inserting seeds directly into undisturbed soil, can reduce erosion and improve soil health.
Applying integrated pest management. A range of methods, including mechanical and biological controls, can be applied systematically to keep pest populations under control while minimizing use of chemical pesticides.
Integrating livestock and crops. Industrial agriculture tends to keep plant and animal production separate, with animals living far from the areas where their feed is produced, and crops growing far away from abundant manure fertilizers. A growing body of evidence shows that a smart integration of crop and animal production can be a recipe for more efficient, profitable farms.
Adopting agroforestry practices. By mixing trees or shrubs into their operations, farmers can provide shade and shelter to protect plants, animals, and water resources, while also potentially offering additional income.
Managing whole systems and landscapes. Sustainable farms treat uncultivated or less intensively cultivated areas, such as riparian buffers or prairie strips, as integral to the farm—valued for their role in controlling erosion, reducing nutrient runoff, and supporting pollinators and other biodiversity.
Organic versus Sustainable Farming
“Organic” and “sustainable” aren’t quite the same. Current organic standards leave room for some practices that are not optimal from a sustainability point of view, and not all farmers who use sustainable practices qualify for USDA certification or choose to pursue it.
Organic Farming is defined as farming that uses only natural fertilizers, such as manure and bone meal, encourages crop rotation and uses only biological pest controls. Synthetic substances are strictly prohibited. Organic farms who use these practices are codified into specific certification standards by the US Department of Agriculture. Farms that comply with the standards can label their produce as “USDA Organic”.
Certified organic fruits and vegetables at your local supermarket are highly likely to have been produced more sustainably than their conventionally grown neighbors, but organic and sustainable farming are different. The main difference is that sustainable farms may use non-organic materials and their approach typically leads to fewer crops in one plot so plants don't leach nutrients out of the soil. Organic farming does not take into account the amount of land used to produce the product.
So what can we do to create sustainability in our own industry?
The floral industry worldwide creates millions of tons of waste every year and not all of it is organic matter that easily breaks down in the environment. We need to be mindful about our part in contributing to the problem. It won't happen overnight, but here are a few things you can implement now to reduce waste into the environment:
Packaging and Delivery
Plastic is a huge offender to the environment and millions of tons of plastics are dumped in the ocean every year. Plain paper products and cardboards are biodegradable and in time, will break down in the environment. They require heat, rain, humidity and oxygen in order to be composted.
Instead of providing flower bouquets in plastic sleeves to customers, use Kraft paper wrap, which is biodegradable and will eventually break down in the environment.
Eliminate wax boxes in your deliveries and convert to plain cardboard boxes. Wax is typically not biodegradable, so any boxes with wax finished are a "no no" in the recycling world. There are cardboard alternatives that are less costly and are environmentally friendly.
Any packaging with ink or adhesive also adds to the problem. Soy-based inks and adhesive-free labels are becoming more widely available and provide another way to reduce harmful affects to the environment. Look for products that say "compostable" when shopping for labels.
Flower food packets are another source of risk to the environment. Floral suppliers now makes a paper food packet alternative. Most flower food is made of sugar, citric acid and bleach, while not intended for human consumption, are not harmful to the environment.
Consider delivering flowers in re-usable cardboard boxes that can be returned from customers. Recycling cardboard boxes helps eliminate the need to re-print and re-produce more packaging. Consider delivering product in buckets which can be returned to you. As a caution, you'll want to make sure you can deliver without damaging the flowers.
A few simple changes in the way you use product can make a huge difference in waste to the environment. Sustainability practices take time to develop, but each of us has a responsibility to future generations to do our part and little things done by many can make a huge impact on the world.
Sources: Union of Concerned Scientists, Wikipedia, SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education)
"The farmer has to be an optimist, or he wouldn't still be a farmer."