Sustainable Farming

By: Anne Ross
BIO: use previous bio
WC: 942

Ask most farmers what sustainable farming means to them and you will get a variety of answers. But all of the responses will reflect passion, thoughtfulness and the dedication that they bring to their work. Sylvia Ganier, of the Green Door Gourmet farm in Nashville, says "Sustainable means, how can I endeavor to farm in a way that renews the land on an ongoing basis; using heirloom or good quality seeds, not using chemicals as the go-to resource for everything and by leaving something for the future."

For Ganier, who has a restaurant business background, the term sustainable also means farming practices that are cost effective. She says, "Sustainable also means putting into place the practices that will allow me to monetarily continue to do the things that renew the land. You have to make sure that the practices you're putting in place are ones that you can continue." Ganier certainly exemplifies the heart of a sustainable farmer.

Practically speaking, the term sustainable, when applied to farming, is more of a philosophy than a prescription for farming practices. The general principles of sustainable agriculture include enriching the soil in a way that allows the land to be productive each season while improving the environment using cover crops, beneficial insects, succession planting, crop rotation and organic soil amendments without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. In the purest sense, sustainable farmers don't take more resources out of the land to produce the food than they give back. A reliance on renewable resources, on symbiotic relationships with nature and the surrounding community means that these farms do not damage the environment.

The ideals of sustainable farming are definitely lofty. There are no real rules of the road. Farmers incorporate the ideals into what they're doing in all sorts of different and creative ways. Alyson Arnold of Buffalo Valley Farms in Bellevue is one such farmer. She speaks with a sense of purpose and dedication when she talks about the choices she and her family make. "We're very aware of what we're doing - every ingredient that we use, for example, to build our potting soil, the things that we purchase, that we try to save. We try to be super conscious from the beginning, with the soil and the seeds and the farm tools that we re-purpose - we make sure that what we start with is gold."

A common theme for sustainable farmers is a desire to be good stewards of the land while they grow food that has a high value for their customers. Ganier describes her methods, saying, "We make sure that we're putting truly natural elements back into the soil, constantly building the soil, instead of just depleting it." There are certainly easier ways to get a high crop yield, but Ganier is committed to growing food that provides the most health benefits possible. She explains, "You can get big plants, but the plant is not necessarily producing the best food for you if it's not going down and getting those trace elements that make food nutritious."

There are two types of certification for sustainably grown products. The Certified Organic label is overseen by the USDA to ensure that consumers are able to buy products that are grown by farmers who adhere to strict organic agricultural regulations. The organic certification, however, can be a difficult one to obtain for small farmers. They grow a large variety of crops and the certification requires fees and paperwork that are considered unduly burdensome by many farmers. Some farmers opt to be Certified Naturally Grown, instead. The Certified Naturally Grown label is a national, non-profit, farmer-based organization. They support small farms that distribute locally, directly to consumers. They require farmers to adhere to the same strict organic agriculture practices and materials list as the USDA Organic Certification, but do not expect the same fees and paperwork. Many sustainable farmers forgo any type of certification. Buffalo Valley's Arnold made a conscious choice not to get any type of certification, saying "If we do have a problem with pests, it's all hand labor. We might purchase an organic insecticidal soap or we use a natural fish fertilizer, but we don't have anyone to report to like if we had the organic certification. We're not logging purchases for any reason except that it's important to us. We want our product to be the best that it can be."

At the Green Door Gourmet, farmer Ganier says, frankly, "For me, I don't have the time and probably the patience to do the paperwork that is required. I believe the only real way to know what's in your food is to talk to the person who grew it. Visit that farm and poke around the shed. We love to have people come and let them see how much hand labor we put into keeping the weeds out and making sure that things look beautiful".

One thing is readily apparent when talking to someone who farms with sustainable methods: no farmer chooses to use these practices without a strong sense of mission. The expenditure of labor, time and dedication is enormous. And when considering these costs, it becomes clear the extent to which sustainable farming is a true labor of love.

For information on the farms mentioned in this article, you can visit their websites at: and