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Alternative Farming Systems Information Center of the National Agricultural Library
Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture


ISSN: 1063-262X

Adopting Sustainable Alternatives

AFSIC Notes no. 1

Slightly revised January 1992

Prepared By:
Christophe Tant, Jane Potter Gates, Jayne MacLean
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Information Centers Branch
National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture
Beltsville, Maryland 20705-2351


Motivation for Changes

Sustainable agriculture is both a philosophy and a science. The philosophy recognizes that farmers have always tried to be good stewards of their land, within the economic restraints imposed by society. Now that some of the regulatory impediments have been removed, farmers are freed to try some science-based alternatives. A strong motive for wishing to adopt new ways is anxiety about damage to natural resources and to their family's health from overuse of farm chemicals. They are also concerned about the ever-growing costs of these off-farm inputs.

Where to Start?

To be conducted successfully, alternative or sustainable farming systems require knowledge and experience. The key question, "How do I get started?", is increasingly asked by farmers considering changing their way of farming to include more environmentally sound practices. Although many farmers have made this transition, there is no one model to show the way. Each farm differs in location, climate, crops, markets and many other variables. Thus, each farmer must plan strategies suitable to his own situation, and experiment with what strategies work best. Planning, preparation and a gradual transition are crucial to success.

What's the Situation Now?

To get started, the first step in a conversion plan is a thorough analysis of the farm and farming systems: what has been grown in each field; what have been the existing rotations, if any; what fertilization strategies have been used and what has worked best; what have been the major pests and weeds, etc. An assessment of available resources must also be done in order to define the weaknesses and strengths of the total operation. These might include existing equipment, livestock, labor, general farming experience and knowledge of local conditions, and financial resources. These kinds of analyses and assessments are crucial to deciding where changes should be made, and in what order.

What to Consider Adding?

Among the changes to be considered are theintro-duction of new crops. These crops must be selected carefully, with regard to such requirements as soil, climate, markets and integration with the general farming operation. Another introduction might be livestock, if that is not already part of the farming system. Experts say that the best approach is to convert a small portion of the farm at one time, in introducing a new crop, for example, or reducing chemical inputs, and not "going cold turkey". After all, the soil is a living, biological organism and must be given time to adjust to changes.

Homework to Do

In preparation for switching to a new system, some back-ground reading is recommended. As in many activities, information is a key to success. There are several documents available which can be very helpful. A good introduction to the literature dealing with the conversion process is "Transition Toward a Sustainable Agriculture", Special Reference Briefs no. SRB 91-04, available from the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC). It is an annotated bibliography listing publications which have been selected as containing the most useful currently available nformation.

Reading Matter

Three documents written by and/or for farmers are particularly valuable. They include Reshaping the Bottom Line, by David Granatstein for the Land Stewardship Project. It covers key factors in successful alternative farming, illustrated with examples of farmers' experiences. The Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society published a booklet by Fred Kirschenmann, farmer in North Dakota, entitled Switching to a Sustainable System, which is a practical guide for designing a conversion and field plan. Finally, there is Converting to Organic Farming, by N. Lampkin, published by Elm Farm Center in England. It is based to a large extent on a conference of farmers covering the topic of conversion.

Research Report

The Rodale Research Center in Kutztown, PA, conducted a conversion experiment in 1981, comparing three different systems: 1) organic farming system with livestock, 2) organic/cash grain farming system without livestock, and 3) conventional/cash grain farming system. The results of their research were published in an article by W. C. Liebhardt, et.al., "Crop Production During Conversion From Conventional to Low-Input Methods", Agronomy Journal, Vol. 81, No.2, 1989.

Across the Fence

The best source of information, however, could be neighbors and other farmers who have experienced or who are presently experiencing this challenge. They are often willing to share both the mistakes they made and the successful innovations they have tried. In many areas of the country, farmers have joined together for exchanges of information in organizations such as the Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. AFSIC can direct you to the group in your area. These local resources should not be overlooked.

New Legislation

As far as Government programs are concerned, the 1990 Farm Bill contained a number of forward-looking provisions. It reauthorized and strengthened the Low-Input/Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program which supports agricultural research and extension programs. Other provisions created greater flexibility in the commodity support programs. Although the Bill failed to target farm programs that would benefit family-sized farms, small-scale farmers can take advantage of other programs. One such is the Integrated Farm Management Program Option (IFMPO) which allows them to develop a plan to reduce soil erosion, protect water quality, and adopt resource-conserving crop rotations.

One Step at a Time

As David Granatstein said in his book, "the conversion prob lem need not be a problem if farm changes are approached in small, careful increments". The wisdom is "to go slow" (Kirschenmann, 1988), and use common sense and good judgment, in order to avoid putting the farm at risk economically. According to many farmers who have responded to the challenge of conversion to alternative farming practices, such a change can be both environmentally and economically sound. It is a challenge worthy of consideration.

Contacts for Further Information

Committee for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA)
P.O. Box 1300, Colfax, CA 95713
(916) 346-2777

Farmer's Own Network for Extension (FONE)
The New Farm, 222 Main St., Emmaus, PA 18049

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA)
P.O. Box 2176, 283 Water St., Augusta, ME 04330
(207) 622-3118

Northern Organic and Sustainable Farmers Network (NOFSN)
Farming Alternative Program
422 Warren Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853
(803) 255-9832

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI)
Route 2, Box 132, Boone, Iowa 50036

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program
University of California, Davis, CA 95616
(916) 752-7556

Further Reading

Converting to Organic Farming, N. Lampkin
Elm Farm Center, Hamstead Marshall, Berkshire RG 15 OHR, England

Reshaping the Bottom Line, D. Granatstein
Land Stewardship Project, 14758 Ostlund Trail North Marine, MN 55047
(612) 433-2770

Switching to a Sustainable System, F. Kirschenmann
Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (NPSAS), Box 36, Maida, ND 58255
(701) 256-2424

"Transition Toward a Sustainable Agriculture"
Special Reference Briefs no. SRB 91-04
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC)
National Agricultural Library, Room 304, Beltsville, MD 20705-2351
(301) 504-6559


For further information:

Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
National Agricultural Library, ARS, USDA
10301 Baltimore Avenue, Room 123
Beltsville MD 20705-2351
phone: 301-504-6559; fax: 301-504-6927

Web site: http://afsic.nal.usda.gov


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Revised 1992