Aren’t organic and sustainable farming two different terms for the same thing? Despite what you might read in papers such as this one, organic farming and sustainable farming are very different concepts – although both are growing in popularity in the US. Organic farming in the US, for instance, grew by 31% from 2016 to 2019, with sales totalling $9.9bn in 2019.
Given the significant recent discussion around this topic, we want to take you through the basics of conventional, organic, and sustainable farming practices, and explain the key differences between them.
Basics of conventional farming
Conventional farming is historically production and profit driven, and is characterized by efficiency and yield maximization. Its rise was driven by innovation in agricultural machinery and technology, along with a dramatic drop in the price of synthetic fertilizer and herbicides post-World War II. As a result, conventional farming often leads to a heavy focus on easily transportable and storable crops with multiple commercial uses, with corn being an obvious example.
Specialization of crops allows for simpler and more efficient operations, but as science has progressed, the drawbacks of conventional farming have become more apparent. Intensively farming the same crop year after year depletes soil nutrition, and leads to a heavy reliance on chemical application to support high yields. Soil tillage, a routine process in conventional farming, leads to erosion of nutrient-rich topsoil and pollution of waterways. Similarly, runoff from excessive chemical application has devastating downstream effects on the environment, as evidenced by the algae bloom-driven, Massachusetts-sized “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico (caused by excessive nitrate and phosphorus runoff into the Mississippi).
While not all elements of conventional farming are harmful to the environment, it is increasingly clear that agricultural practices will need to change in order to protect the health and resilience of America’s farmland.
Basics of organic farming
Organic farming is a method of farming that avoids using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, or genetically modified crops. In organic farming, growers must learn how to maintain nutrient levels in the soil without synthetic fertilizer, and address weeds and insects without herbicides and insecticides.
Common organic farming practices include:
- Employing crop rotations and cover crops to maintain nutrient levels in the soil, the latter of which also helps reduce erosion
- Applying manure or other organic-certified substances to improve soil health (however this is considerably more expensive than synthetic alternatives)
- Cultivating soil regularly (up to 2-3 times per week) to control weed populations
- Planting non-GMO seeds
Organic farming is a challenging operation that takes years to implement. In the US, a farm must be managed using organic practices for 3 years prior to the first ‘certified organic’ harvest. While the rewards come from significantly higher sale prices associated with ‘certified organic’ crops, the elevated costs of production during the transition period can be daunting. Cheap-to-produce crops are often grown during this period for that reason.
Basics of sustainable farming
Sustainable farming describes agricultural methods and techniques aimed at minimizing the depletion of natural resources in the ground. Sustainable farming practices are aimed at preserving higher levels of organic matter, reducing erosion, and keeping more carbon in the soil. These practices improve the resilience and long-term health of the soil, ultimately leading to higher yields.
Some common sustainable farming practices include:
- Implementing reduced tillage or no till practices
- Planting cover crops to minimize soil erosion
- Planting green – plant a cash crop into an unterminated cover crop, reducing use of herbicides
- Maximizing fertilizer efficiency through either spring application or split application of nitrogen, and implementing either subsurface banded or injected application
- Avoiding use of anhydrous, favoring more stable nitrogen sources
- Implementing buffer zones such as grass waterways, riparian zones, or filter strips to reduce runoffs of sediments, nutrients, and pesticides
Because of the carbon sequestration effects of many of these practices, they overlap considerably with practices required for enrollment in carbon credit programs. While sustainably farmed produce may not sell for a higher price like organic goods, the soil health benefits usually lead to long-term yield improvements, and carbon credits could ultimately provide additional financial incentives.
Organic vs. sustainable farming - so what is the difference?
The key differences between organic and sustainable farming come down to the fundamental intent of the two methods. Organic farming is focused on the inputs used in production (e.g. non-GMO, no synthetic fertilizer/pesticides/herbicides), whereas sustainable farming is focused on the physical treatment of the land (e.g. no till, cover crops, buffer zones). While both approaches are perceived as being environmentally friendly, they achieve it through very different means.
Certain elements of organic and sustainable farming overlap, for instance the efforts to reduce/eliminate the use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, and the planting of cover crops. However, on issues such as tillage practice they are somewhat in conflict, with sustainable farming looking to minimize tillage to manage erosion, and organic farming often requiring additional tillage to manage weeds.
While organic farming can be costly to implement, the produce drives a premium in the market. Organic corn and organic soybeans can each sell at prices 2x higher than their conventional counterparts, however this is partially offset by yields that are typically 25-35% lower. These lower yields could be problematic on a large scale, given the rapid increase in global demand for food production.
Sustainable farming doesn’t always lead to higher market prices, as the produce is non-organic (although sometimes premiums are commanded if crops can be proven to be sustainably farmed), however yields are comparable or better than on conventional farms, and the positive impact on the long-term health of the soil and the environment is enormous. Sustainable farming also requires far less chemical application than conventional farming. Finally, emerging carbon credit programs are attempting to provide additional economic incentives for sustainable farming.
How can I implement sustainable farming practices on my farm?
If you’re a landowner looking to implement sustainable farming practices, Tillable can help. We recently created the Tillable Sustainable Flex Lease, allowing landowners to sign a lease with their existing farmer that includes sustainable farming practice provisions. With input from leaders in sustainability and emerging carbon credit programs, we’ve designed a structure that is equitable to both the landowner and the farmer, and splits the rewards of adopting more sustainable outcomes equitably. Tillable will ensure lease compliance and provide real-time activity tracking for landowners.
Caring for America’s farmland is at the core of Tillable’s mission, and we want to help ensure as much of it is sustainably farmed as possible.
Download a FREE Sustainable Flex Lease
Organic farming is a method of farming that avoids using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In organic farming, growers must learn how to maintain nutrient levels in the soil without synthetic fertilizer, and address weeds and insects without synthetic herbicides and insecticides.
Sustainable farming describes agricultural methods and techniques aimed at minimizing the depletion of natural resources in the ground. Sustainable farming practices are aimed at preserving higher levels of organic matter, reducing erosion, and keeping more carbon in the soil.
Conventional farming is farming that is characterized by efficiency and yield maximization, and is historically production and profit driven. Its rise was driven by innovation in agricultural machinery and technology, along with a dramatic drop in the price of synthetic fertilizer and herbicides post-World War II. It often leads to a heavy focus on easily transportable and storable crops with multiple commercial uses, such as corn and soybeans.
Organic farms are not necessarily eligible for carbon credits. In fact, carbon credit programs are designed to reward farmers who carry out practices that keep carbon in the ground and/or promote carbon sequestration, which is more closely related to sustainable farming practices than organic farming practices.
If you’re looking for an organic farmer, Tillable has many organic farmers in its network and can help find one near your farm. Organic farm leases tend to be multi-year leases due to the long-term nature of organic farming certification, but they also tend to earn higher rents than non-organic farms (due to the significant price premium available for organic goods). Speak to a Tillable representative if you’re interested in finding an organic farmer near you.
Carbon sequestration is the removal (or capture) of carbon dioxide from the air, in order to prevent it from entering the earth’s atmosphere. Sustainable farming practices such as planting cover crops helps sequester carbon, and reducing tillage helps prevent the release of additional carbon into the atmosphere. Because carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas, capturing and storing it in soil (thereby stopping it from entering the atmosphere) helps prevent warming of the planet.