Steve Diver explains why a low-input, sustainable form of agriculture is needed to preserve the environment and to serve true human needs.

by Steve Diver


Sustainable agriculture is an important element of the overall effort to make human activities compatible with the demands of the earth's eco-system. Thus, an understanding of the different approaches to ecological agriculture is necessary if we want to utilise the planet's resources wisely.

While sustainable agriculture is based on long-term goals and not a specific set of farming practices, it is usually accompanied by a reduction of purchased inputs in favor of managing on-farm resources. A good example is reliance on biologically-fixed nitrogen from legumes as versus manufactured nitrogen fertilizers. Low-input agriculture is one of several alternative farming systems whose methods are adaptable to sustainable agriculture.

Low-input farming is based on a reduction--but not necessarily elimination--of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides. Farmers are adopting these practices primarily to reduce costs, but also because they want to minimize impact on the environment or because they perceive future pesticide regulations.

In a search for information on how to farm with fewer chemicals, it is helpful to examine alternative farming systems in existence that largely exclude chemicals in favor of biological farming practices. Experiences of producers who've successfully practiced these methods are valuable to farmers considering a transition to low-input sustainable agriculture.

Alternative Farming Systems

There are four established approaches to alternative farming in the U.S. A common thread in all four schools is an emphasis on biological systems to supply fertility and pest control rather than chemical inputs.

Organic farming is the most widely recognized alternative farming system. Modern organic farming evolved as an alternative to chemical agriculture in the 1940s, largely in response to the publications of J.I. Rodale in the U.S., Lady Eve Balfour in England, and Sir Albert Howard in India.

 In 1980, U.S.D.A. released a landmark report titled Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming [1] in which organic farming was defined as such:

Organic farming is a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control insects, weeds, and other pests.

In the 70s and 80s, organic certification of farms emerged as a marketing tool to insure foods produced organically met specified standards of production. The Organic Foods Production Act, included in the 1990 Farm Bill, enabled USDA to develop a national program of universal standards, certification accreditation, and food labeling. Implementation, initially scheduled for October of 1993, was delayed due to lack of funding and complexity of issues and is anticipated to take effect in 1995.

 Biodynamic farming evolved in Europe in the 1920s following lectures on agriculture by the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamic farming parallels organic farming in many ways but places greater emphasis on the integration of animals to create a closed nutrient cycle, effect of crop planting dates in relation to the calendar, and awareness of spiritual forces in nature. A unique feature of this system is the use of eight specific preparations derived from cow manure, silica, and herbal extracts to treat compost piles, soils, and crops.

 Demeter (tm) is a certification program for food and feed produced by strictly biodynamic farming methods. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) marketing programs, gathering popularity as an innovative method of subscription farming, were largely introduced into the U.S. by the biodynamic movement. An article on soil quality and financial performance of biodynamic and conventional farms in New Zealand in the April 16, 1993 issue of Science. In a comparison of 16 adjacent farms, the biodynamic farms exhibited superior soil physical, biological, and chemical properties and were just as financially viable as their counterparts. [2]

 "Biological" farming has become synonymous with farmers using the Reams fertility system as the basis for crop production. Eco-agriculture is the term used to describe this system by the monthly Acres, U.S.A. The Reams system is based on the LaMotte-Morgan soil test and the use of rock phosphate, calcium carbonate, and compost to achieve nutrient ratios of 7:1 calcium to magnesium, 2:1 phosphorus to potassium, and so on. "Biological" farming allows the use of selected chemical fertilizers (avoiding disruptive materials such as anhydrous ammonia and potassium chloride) and adopts low-input approaches to use of herbicides and insecticides.

 Diagnostic instruments to monitor plant and soil conditions are frequently used in "Biological" farming; these include refractometers to monitor sugar content (Brix) in plant tissue sap; electrical conductivity meters to monitor ERGS (or energy released per gram of soil); ORPS meters (or oxygen reduction potential of soil); and radionics. Based on data gathered, foliar sprays containing biostimulants and soluble nutrients are applied. The Pandol Brothers, a large commercial fruit and vegetable operation in California, reduced their annual pesticide bill from $500,000 to $50,000 per year after adopting a "Biological" fertility program.

Nature Farming was developed in Japan in the 1930s by Mokichi Okada, who later formed the Mokichi Okada Association (MOA). Nature Farming parallels organic farming in many ways but includes special emphasis on soil health through composts rather than organic fertilizers, when possible. Kyusei Nature Farming, a branch group, emphasizes use of microbial preparations in addition to traditional Nature Farming. Nature Farming is most active in the Pacific rim, including California and Hawaii.

 Since the late 1980s, Nature Farming has gained wider recognition in the United States through the coordinated efforts of MOA and the Rodale Institute in the formation of the World Sustainable Agriculture Association (WSAA). The WSAA and MOA sponsor annual conferences on Nature Farming and sustainable agriculture. Kyusei Nature Farming conducts on-farm research in California.

In addition to these methods-based approaches to sustainable farming, regenerative agriculture and permaculture are widely recognized in the U.S. and abroad. However, these latter systems, like sustainable agriculture, are more conceptually oriented than methods-based.

 Regenerative agriculture became the preferred term of the Rodale Institute in the late 1970s and 80s under the direction of Robert Rodale. Regenerative agriculture builds on nature's own inherent capacity to cope with pests, enhance soil fertility, and increase productivity. It implies a continuing ability to re- create the resources that the system requires. In practice, regenerative agriculture uses low-input and organic farming systems as a framework to achieve these goals.

 Permaculture is a contraction of "permanent agriculture" and was coined by Bill Mollison, an Australian forest ecologist, in 1978. Permaculture is concerned with designing ecological human habitats and food production systems, and follows specific guidelines and principles in the design of these systems. To the extent that permaculture is not a production system, per se, but rather a land use planning philosophy, it is not limited to a specific method of production. Thus, practically any site- specific ecological farming system is amenable to permaculture.

 A common thread among all six schools is an opposing world view to the industrial model of agriculture. These competing paradigms were summarized in "Conventional Versus Alternative Agriculture: The Paradigmatic Roots of the Debate" [3] as:

  • centralization vs. decentralization

  • dependence vs. independence

  • competition vs. community

  • dominance of nature vs. harmony with nature

  • specialization vs. diversity

  • exploitation vs. restraint

These objectives obviously have more to do with societal and economic responses to modern industrial agriculture than they do with farming practice A or farming practice B. Nevertheless, they underscore the sometimes contentious debate between sustainable farming advocates and supporters of high-input conventional agriculture.

Evolution of Sustainable Agriculture

In the 1960s and 70s, a growing environmental agriculture movement evolved in response to increasing soil erosion, pesticide use, and groundwater contamination. Simultaneously, economic conditions for farmers were becoming more stressful and the number of family farms declined.

In 1980 Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Salina, KS, began using the term "sustainable agriculture" to describe an alternative system of agriculture based upon resource conservation and quality of rural life. Through the lobbying efforts of several nonprofit farming organizations, Congress passed legislation in the 1985 Farm Bill that mandated implementation of a low-input sustainable agriculture program by the Department of Agriculture.

In 1988 U.S.D.A. initiated the Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture research and education program, or LISA. In 1991 the name of this program was changed to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, or SARE. Funds made available through the LISA/SARE programs have resulted in significant additions to landgrant research and extension programs in the last five years.

While sustainable agriculture has become the umbrella under which many of the above-mentioned alternative farming systems fall, it is important to note that sustainable agriculture is really a long-term goal, not a specific set of farming practices. In Sustainable Agriculture in Temperate Zones [4] sustainable agriculture was defined as such:

Sustainable Agriculture is a philosophy based on human goals and on understanding the long-term impact of our activities on the environment and on other species. Use of this philosophy guides our application of prior experience and the latest scientific advances to create integrated, resource-conserving, equitable farming systems. These systems reduce environmental degradation, maintain agricultural productivity, promote economic viability in both the short and long term and maintain stable rural communities and quality of life.

Three indicators that appear most frequently in a definition of sustainable agriculture are:

  • Environmentally sound

  • Economically viable

  • Socially acceptable

In this context, sustainable agriculture embraces all agricultural systems striving to meet these criteria. Many aspects of modern conventional agriculture are included in sustainable agriculture, just as are many aspects of alternative farming systems.

One aspect of modern agriculture receiving a lot of attention in the sustainable agriculture discussion is the use of chemical inputs to supply fertility and pest control. While agriculture chemicals will continue to play an important role in American agriculture, many farmers are looking at alternatives due to environmental, economical, or regulatory reasons. In a transition to farming systems more reliant on biological methods of production, low-input farming serves as an intermediary step.

Low-Input Agriculture

The term low-input agriculture has been defined as a production activity that uses synthetic fertilizers or pesticides below rates commonly recommended by the Extension Service. It does not mean elimination of these materials. Yields are maintained through greater emphasis on cultural practices, IPM, and utilization of on-farm resources and management.

Although the term "low-input farming" has often been used to describe any system of alternative agriculture, it can be seen that it is distinctly different from organic farming, etc. Nevertheless, any system that reduces purchased chemical inputs can be called low-input farming.

As research funded through U.S.D.A.'s LISA/SARE program has emerged, it is apparent that many Extension programs are now offering low-input practices as a regular option for growers. Examples of low-input agriculture Extension Service programs in the United States:

  • University of Arkansas reduced herbicide program for soybeans

  • University of Massachusetts low-spray apple orchard program

  • Pennsylvania State University living mulches for vegetables program

In Oklahoma, speakers have reported at Horticulture Industries Show meetings that: (1) poultry litter can replace nitrogen fertilizers in the production of watermelons; (2) legume cover crops can supply the total nitrogen requirements of pecan trees; and, (3) two timely applications of a synthetic insecticide can produce a full crop of worm-free apples.

In Arkansas, speakers have reported at the Arkansas Society for Horticultural Science meetings that: (1) compost amended potting mixes produce superior vegetable transplants than traditional soilless mixes; (2) no-till vegetable systems are feasible using reduced herbicide rates to kill cover crops; and, (3) subterranean clover living mulches supply nitrogen and weed control in peach orchards.

Integrated pest management is probably the oldest and most widely recognized Extension Service program devoted to low-input agriculture. However, only recently have the "non-chemical" approaches--such as cultural, mechanical, and biological--within the IPM framework been emphasized over the chemical component. Some programs, in fact, are now termed "biologically-intensive IPM."

In Oklahoma, low-input sustainable agriculture is being practiced on many farms and ranches. Extension efforts are needed to photograph and document these practices for wider distribution. Research efforts are needed to validate practices through on-farm research for wider application.

Finally, in the adoption of sustainable farming practices that depend on a higher degree of management of biological resources, it is helpful to remember one or two ideas about priorities in farming:

"Any system that allows people to get started, however imperfect it might be, is the right system for that situation."

That is to say that during these rough times in U.S. agriculture, it is far more important to help young people get into farming, and keep established farmers financially secure, than it is to worry about eliminating tools--including fertilizers and pesticides--that support farming. In other words, "get the engine running first, then adjust the carburetor."



  1. USDA. 1980. Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. 94 p.

  2. Reaganold, J.P., et al. 1993. Soil quality and financial performance of biodynamic and conventional farms in New Zealand. Science. April 16. p. 344-349.

  3. Beus, C.E., and R.E. Dunlap. 1990. Conventional versus alternative agriculture: the paradigmatic roots of the debate. Rural Sociology. 55(4): 590-616.

  4. Francis, C.A., C.B. Flora, and L.D. King. 1990. Sustainable Agriculture in Temperate Zones. John Wiley & Sons, New York. 487 p.


    Alternative Farming Organizations

    Organic Farming

    Rodale Institute Research Center
    611 Siegfriedale Rd.
    Kutztown, PA 19530
    (610) 683-6383
    Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA)-International
    3185 Township Rd. 179
    Bellefontane, OH 43311
    (513) 592-4983

    Biodynamic Farming

    Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Assn.
    P.O. Box 550
    Kimberton, PA 19442
    (215) 935-7797
    Josephine Porter Institute of Applied Biodynamics
    P.O. Box 133
    Woolwine, VA 24185
    (703) 930-2463

    Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
    West 2493 County Rd. ES
    East Troy, WI 53120
    (414) 642-3303

    Biological Farming

    Acres, U.S.A. Book Store
    2617-C Edenborn Ave
    Metairie, LA 70002
    (504) 889-2100

    Nature Farming

    Mokichi Okada Association
    c/o Pacific Cultural Center
    1835 Vancouver Drive
    Honolulu, HI 96822
    (808) 595-6344
    (808) 595-8014 Fax

    Nature Farming Research & Development Center

    6495 Santa Rosa Rd.
    Lompac, CA 93436
    (805) 737-1536
    (805) 736-9599 Fax

    Steve Diver is a farm advisor at a sustainable farming information center in the U.S. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it."> This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

    Click here to read his FAQ on permaculture .