Principles of Sustainable Agriculture

July 1, 2016

GAINESVILLE, Florida – Taking charge of change, building community relationships, recognizing resource limitations, striving for a high-quality product, and balancing passion with practical business sense are just some principles that tend to make a farmer a role model in sustainable agriculture practices.

University of Florida researchers took the knowledge and expertise of agricultural professionals and combined them with concepts that farmers use to operate their farms to determine what themes define a sustainable farm and a sustainable farmer. In a case study of sustainable agriculture farm tours that took place across the state as part of the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Fellows program, the researchers identified nine principles that dictate how farmers practice sustainable agriculture, as well as guide them in their daily decision-making and long-term planning.

The study, “Principles Guiding Practices: A case study analysis of the principles of sustainable agriculture for diverse farms” was published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.

“The research examined the broad, underlying principles that farmers (and others in agriculture) use in the practice of sustainable agriculture. We explored these issues as part of a field experience supported by USDA’s SARE Fellows program,” said Kelly Moore, with the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Florida.

The SARE Fellows program allows members of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA) to participate in a two-year training experience to explore sustainable agriculture principles and issues throughout the country by touring various farming operations.

“Our overall goal was to examine whether there are generalizable principles that inform how farmers practice sustainable agriculture,” said Moore. "The goal was not to define what constitutes sustainable agricultural practices, but rather to understand the principles that guide practitioners of sustainable agriculture in their decision-making."

The six farms analyzed in the study were not chosen based on characteristics like size, enterprise mix, or form of ownership, but rather on their reputation as outstanding practitioners of outstanding sustainable agriculture by other farmers and agricultural professionals. For example, one farm was identified because it is an outstanding model of how to manage conflicts between agriculture and wildlife; another farm was considered a superior model of sustainability for its regional marketing efforts.

The SARE Fellows reviewed the background of each farm to be visited and developed a set of questions so that each farmer could be interviewed. After each farm visit, the SARE Fellows reflected on their observations and identified ideas or concepts that the farmer managers employed to describe and explain their decision-making process. The group then used their own prior knowledge and experiences with sustainable agriculture to examine how the farmer’s practices are related to sustainable agriculture. From those discussions, principles were identified that can be applied more generally to how sustainable agriculture is practiced.

“We identified nine key themes and explored how the themes are expressed in the different farm operations,” said Moore. “They are not intended as rules, but best conceived as components of an emerging model of ‘how farmers create sustainable agriculture’.”

The nine principles are as follows:

1. Sustainable farmers anticipate change ­– they recognize, accept, plan for, and create change.

All six farmers indicated they expect many changes in agriculture in the future. Some of those changes included new regulations, decreasing or increasing consumer demand, fluctuating market prices and weather. Many of the farmers interviewed were already looking ahead to those changes by making changes to their management strategies.

“Thinking about and planning for change rather than ignoring it was a common thread in the farmers’ comments,” said Moore.

2. Sustainable farmers recognize and identify limitations and resources and create strategies to develop their resources and to minimize and overcome limitations.

The farmers interviewed recognized and acted upon resource limitations, such as capital, water and skilled labor. They make the best use of any limited resource and use existing resources to contribute to the success of their farming operations.

3. Sustainable farmers build strong, mutually beneficial relationships with individuals, institutions, and organizations based on a sense of responsibility to the community and the need to give back to the community.

The farmers recognized that their farms are not isolated from their communities and, as such, express a sense of responsibility to people, businesses and organizations. Many integrate themselves into surrounding communities, ensuring that residents realize farms are valuable assets to the community as a whole.

4. Sustainable farms invest in their employees to create a loyal, dedicated, and engaged workforce that shares responsibility for the success of the farming operation.

Employees are a critical key to a farm’s success and are as seen as a critical asset. Farmers foster an environment that enhances the work experience for their employees, including living wages and benefits, financial rewards, and allowing employees to be a part of the decision-making process.

5. Sustainable farmers are not satisfied with average business practices or products; high quality characterizes every component of their business.

Farmers see quality as a key to a successful and sustainable business operation. They create loyal customers who appreciate the value of a high-quality product and identify markets that demand high-quality products.

6. Sustainable farming operations are management-intensive, distribute responsibility and decision-making among employees, draw upon diverse skill sets in management, and integrate management functions and decisions across the farm operation.

Diversity, efficiency and effectiveness are all critical components of a successful management plan, and the farmers use several techniques to improve management, including allocating responsibility, stressing clear and precise operating procedures and expectations, and giving the employees the freedom to make independent management decisions.

7. Sustainable farms are businesses first and foremost, but profits are used to grow the business and to address broader social and environmental goals.

Farmers identify economic success and growth as prerequisites for sustainability. They are seen as preconditions to investing in many aspects of the farm as a business, a resource, and a home. The farms are run as a business first because the success of the business is what allows the farmers to pursue other personal and social goals.

8. Sustainable farmers take appropriate risks, incur reasonable debt, and make investments based on mid-to long-term challenges and opportunities.

Farmers are planners and have clear long-term plans. Many interviewed could articulate clear farm goals with timelines. They took limited risks to accommodate opportunities. These farmers were fiscally conservative but not risk avoiders.

9. Sustainable farmers have a passion for farming reflected in their dedication, integrity, and honesty as professionals, but their passion is practical because they understand that the success of the business makes it possible to pursue their passion.

For the farmers interviewed, their businesses are the pathway to do what they love. They talked about their work as a passion, but also recognized that being practical and prudent were keys to their business success.

“The degree to which these principles incorporate key ideas about the environ-mental, social, and economic components of sustainability varies,” said Moore. Nonetheless, most of the research focusing on concepts about environmental, social, and economic sustainability is reflected in the operating principles of these businesses. This suggests that these principles are relevant for the practice of sustainable agriculture.“

Other researchers participating in the study include: Mickie Swisher and Christine Kelly-Begazo, University of Florida; David Redhage, Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture; Mark Blevins, North Carolina State University; Michael Hogan and Suzanne Mills-Wasniak, Ohio State University; Lauren Hunter, University of Idaho; Stephen Komar, Rutgers University; and Juan Carlos Rodriguez, Roca Consulting Group.


Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region. This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Topics: Sustainability Measures, Sustainable Communities
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