As the market for organic products continues to spread beyond the produce aisle into the realm of potato chips and cleaning solvents, it seems that many Americans are beginning to wonder if traditional industrial farming is sustainable. But measuring what makes a farm sustainable or not – and understanding what sustainability means – is a complex process.
Jennifer Reeve, an associate professor of organic and sustainable agriculture at Utah State University, draws on an array of expertise to understand how ecological processes and cultural practices influence farm sustainability. Reeve, a soil scientist by training, studies the health and diversity of soils to help predict the long-term productivity of the land that provides food to people across the United States and beyond. Soil is just one aspect of agroecology – the study of all of the ecological and cultural processes that have an impact on the health of a farm – but through their research, Reeve and her colleagues are learning what it takes to make a farm truly sustainable.
For most of human history, farmers have used what are now considered organic methods of farming, simply because there was no alternative, but it is important to note that modern organic farming employs many techniques and technologies not available to early farmers and is not simply reverting to the ways of the past. In the 1940s and ’50s, farming became more industrialized and fertilizer and pesticide use dramatically increased.
Reeve’s work in agroecology does not necessarily promote the switch to strictly organic farming. Instead, her research has shown that both organic and traditional farmers have room to improve their efforts to become sustainable. To be fully sustainable, a farm must be productive, profitable, maintain or improve environmental quality, conserve natural resources, and sustain local communities.
It is important to note that modern organic farming employs many techniques and technologies not available to early farmers and is not simply reverting to the ways of the past.
“If we’re doing the first two at the expense of our soil and our water and depleting other resources such as fossil fuels, that’s not sustainable in the long term,” Reeve said. Researchers measure a farm’s use of natural resources such as oil, gas, fertilizers, and pesticides as well as the system’s impact on the surrounding environment to understand how sustainable the farming system is as a whole. Reeve has found that many farms rely too much on external inputs while depleting their natural resource base, all at the expense of soil and water quality.
“A lot of rural communities are dependent on farming,” said Reeve. “When you have larger and larger farms, fewer families farming, fewer businesses supporting those farms because those farms are only growing one or two crops, you have huge problems in terms of community function, and that’s happening across the U.S.” Community health is often overlooked when the question of sustainability arises, but Reeve believes that ultimately, farms must have positive effects in all five areas to be considered sustainable.
Reeve uses soil quality to understand the productivity of a farming system. On a large scale, problems with soil quality can result in erosion, where top soil that has taken thousands of years to form is lost. Erosion is a symptom of poor soil management and overuse of tillage, but the amount of organic matter, nutrients, pH, beneficial microorganisms and pathogens, as well as the physical structure of the soil, all factor into Reeve’s determination of soil health.
Soil organic matter – soil carbon – is an important indicator of soil quality, according to Reeve. Organic matter content can be a good measure because it influences so many aspects of soil quality. Microorganisms in the soil break organic matter down as they consume it, producing sticky substances that hold the soil together and prevent erosion. Organic matter also prevents the loss of soil nutrients though leaching.
Soil quality is measured through comparisons, and Reeve works with a number of collaborators to conduct comparative systems experiments at various locations throughout Utah. One such experiment is at the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station’s Kaysville Research Farm, where she measures the effects of various input combinations on peach orchards. By looking at productivity, soil quality, pest pressure, biodiversity, water use, and economics, over time, Reeve and her colleagues can determine the combinations of inputs, rotations, and crops that promote the most sustainable farms.
Studying farms over time actually takes a very long time, as evidenced by another of Reeve’s research projects. In experiments done more than 16 years prior to Reeve’s arrival at USU, researchers applied compost to replicated organic plots and measured wheat yield and soil fertility. “They had over double the yield where they applied compost, but despite that, it wasn’t economical to apply,” Reeve explained. She decided to revisit the research plots and measure the productivity of the same soil – soil that hadn’t had inputs added since the initial experiment. “After 16 years, soil carbon was still double and yields were still double. Nobody had imagined that composted organic matter would have such a lasting effect,” Reeve said.
Making organic farming economically viable is sometimes a challenge, so research like Reeve’s makes a difference to farmers who may be considering organic practices on their farms. Organic farmers can’t rely on the same inputs conventional farmers use, so they must build long-term soil fertility with targeted use of expensive inputs and diverse cropping systems. Organic practices tend to promote better soil quality because farmers are more reliant on diverse crop rotations and use of organic matter like cover crops, compost, and manure.
However, Reeve explained, organic farming is not necessarily better when judged by all five measures of sustainability. Organic can be more expensive in many regions, and organic farmers still use some of the same problematic practices as conventional farmers – such as leaving fields fallow and unprotected from erosion during an off-season. In fact, Reeve has found that a third kind of farming system may be the most sustainable overall.
Reeve’s research has shown that both organic and traditional farmers have room to improve their efforts to become sustainable.
“Integrated farming that takes the pragmatic approach and uses the best of organic and the best of conventional methods often is the most sustainable option in many respects,” Reeve said. Research has shown integrated farmers who increase the number of crops in a rotation can cut inputs like fertilizers by 85 percent, improving the overall soil health. Integrated farming is not bound by the all-or-nothing approach of conventional or organic farming systems, which can make it more practical; yet, farms like these are not very common.
“In the economic model that we have, organic farms tend to be more economically viable than integrated farms because there can be costs associated with increasing the diversity of your system,” Reeve said. “Customers know the word ‘organic,’ and they trust it. They don’t know the word ‘integrated.’ Integrated products can’t necessarily get the premium prices that organic products can.”
For now, a rapidly growing market for organic products is helping expand organic farming and research. Reeve has also seen money for organic research increase during her years as a soil scientist, and students have a renewed interest in sustainable agriculture and local food.
Reeve added, “While I suspect there will always be a market for certified organic produce, from a sustainability point of view, it makes a lot of sense for a grower to retain the flexibility of an integrated farming approach provided they can make it work economically.”
Caption for top photo: Associate Professor Jennifer Reeve, who studies organic and integrated farming systems, examining an experimental plot of quinoa. Reeve advocates improving soil health for all types of farms to control erosion and improve crop yields.
Lynnette Harris, Utah State University College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, Editor
Elaine Taylor, Utah State University College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, Staff Writer