Farmers are the owners—and environmental stewards—of large swaths of agricultural and undeveloped, natural land across rural America. Without these privately-owned, beautiful landscapes, our communities would not be blessed with the vistas of prairies, forests, meadows and wetlands that intermingle with the crops that produce our food; we have become accustomed to enjoying their beauty. Farmers have always worked to maintain these landscapes of crops and natural areas in ways that promote their environmental and ecological health, because the whole farmstead is an interacting system that is dependent not just on the individual crops that are grown but on the diversity of all its parts acting together. To survive in a competitive world and be sustainable over the long haul, our farms and rural landscapes require careful tending, and in modern times when “sustainability” has become a buzz-word, we can take comfort in the knowledge that our farmers have been doing this all along.
The potato and vegetable growers in Wisconsin’s Central Sands have long been innovators and national leaders in developing programs that measure the sustainability of their practices and document adoption and improvement overtime. For the past dozen years, potato growers have been documenting advanced farming practices, which encourage ecological restoration, reduced pesticide use, and biologically based management in their systems, through a grower- led program called Healthy Grown™. This program has demonstrated that adoption of sustainable farming practices can produce positive changes overtime, and still provide a safe, economical food supply. Growers set out initially to become more sustainable because many believed that this was the right way to go, but after a decade of investment, they are finding that they have a competitive advantage in supplying potatoes to retailers and consumers who are increasingly demanding sustainably produced food.
Healthy Grown™ is recognized as an early model of large-scale sustainable agriculture, where growers themselves define what is sustainable and actively work to achieve it on their farms. Recently, a new national initiative has grown from these Wisconsin-based, single crop programs, which is expanding the scope of Healthy Grown to encompass whole-farm sustainability solutions with multiple crops. This national initiative is again led by agricultural producers and their associations from across the US who have banded together to promote and advance sustainable agricultural on whole farming systems. This program, called the National Initiative for Sustainable Agriculture (NISA) is now leading the way toward producer-engaged, whole-farm sustainability. NISA’s focus includes communication, education, and implementation of sustainable agricultural practices that will generate positive environmental, social and economic outcomes. Agricultural producers lead the NISA governing Board and provide on-the-ground insight into sustainable agricultural practices that can work effectively on the farm. Having farmers on the Board fills a critical need—as they have been and will continue to be the stewards of the ecosystem, resources, and communities in rural landscapes.
NISA is working with all agricultural systems (annual crops, perennial systems and animal agriculture) and developing tools to document achievements that have already been made and to advance sustainability programs on a regional basis. NISA is using innovative whole-farm assessment protocols that assess sustainability at the farm level and address broad criteria in Environmental (ecosystems, biodiversity, soil, water, crop nutrients, pest management), Social (labor, community, rural benefits, consumer needs) and Economic (profitability, energy, carbon, value added) sustainability. Individual-crop assessments are then used to examine sustainability criteria that are specific to each crop or animal system. NISA is partnering with the University of Wisconsin to ensure that practices and outcomes are research-based and advanced analytical techniques are used to identify key sustainability drivers, allowing farmers to determine their position on the sustainability continuum and develop plans to advance.
Successful examples of the NISA approach can be seen in Midwestern Soybeans, Wisconsin cranberries, Midwestern processing vegetables, and smaller crops like Wisconsin strawberries. Andy Wallendal, a Wisconsin vegetable producer and NISA board member states “the NISA approach has allowed growers to have balance and teamwork within sustainability efforts. Through this approach, growers are able to work with other growers, processors, and supply chain representatives to develop and share similar goals, which are new and unique! I am proud that our farm and other producers are working on such an effort for our future.”
Since most growers are already working toward sustainability on their farms, it is a natural next step to work with NISA to document, measure and communicate their advances. Farmers have long gone out of their way to manage their farms as whole systems that mingle crops and natural areas in ways that will maintain these landscapes for future generations and provide environmental, social and economic benefits for all of us. NISA is now providing a mechanism for farmers across the US to communicate these benefits to retailers and consumers!