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An orchard at Fullbelly Farms near Davis, California.
Image by Katy Langstaff.

Sustainable Agriculture

Conventional agriculture relies on massive application of pesticides, fertilizers, and fossil fuels. It tends to be very large-scale, use large quantities of water, and depend on a handful of highly competitive crops. It results in significant levels of soil erosion, as well as the contamination of groundwater and ecosystems.

Sustainable Agriculture eliminates the use of pesticides and hormones and largely maintains soil fertility by application of on-farm residues and rotation of nitrogen-fixing crops. Any external fertilizers must themselves be sustainably produced. It minimizes soil erosion through crop choices, cover-cropping, and low-till methods. It emphasizes crop diversity — both of species and varieties — which provides inherent resilience in the face of pests, disease, and weather extremes.

Sustainable Agriculture is extremely Resource Efficient, and avoids any water withdrawals which impair habitat. It provides buffers of native vegetation along streams to maintain favorable water temperatures and water quality. Sustainable Agriculture also requires that plant and animal wastes be carefully contained and treated to avoid any contaminated run-off.

Sustainable Agriculture is a compatible land-use in Buffer Zones. Farms and ranches in these areas should be managed with special attention to maintaining habitat connectivity and quality. For instance, in some areas, ranchers are accepting full compensation for livestock losses rather than opposing wolf reintroduction efforts.

Sustainable Agriculture can be profitable on an extremely small scale, and backyard gardens and small urban farms contribute greatly to the self-sufficiency and character of Human-Scale Neighborhoods. While Sustainable Agriculture can be practiced at the scale of thousands of acres, on the whole it tends rebuild Local Assets. Its reliance on local labor rather than expensive imports (seeds, pesticides, fertilizer, fuel) greatly contributes to Local Economies and Productive Rural Areas. Sustainable Agriculture emphasizes the health and safety of farm workers, providing a living wage and contributing to Social Equity. Farmer's markets, Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangements, and relationships with restaurants and stores help to establish Rural-Urban Linkages.

Most, but not all, aspects of Sustainable Agriculture are addressed by organic certification standards like those administered state-wide by California Tilth and Oregon Tilth and nationally by the U.S.D.A. This form of Product Labeling is well-accepted in the marketplace, and can attract a pricepremium of 50% or more. The organic food market is the fastest growing sector of the food industry, with a growth rate of 20% per year over the last two decades. Processors, handlers, marketers, and restaurants can also receive organic certification, creating a wide range of opportunities for Value-Added Production in Sustainable Agriculture.

Farms and gardens should maintain their own soil fertility, avoid pesticide use, and prevent erosion. They should be planted in a wide variety of crops, and maintain their genetic diversity over time. They should use water efficiently, maintain the health of nearby riparian zones, and provide as much wildlife habitat as possible.

Examples of this pattern in action:

An Educational Program about Sustainable Cuisine Adopt-A-School offers chefs, food professionals and parents a professionally- designed curriculum for teaching kids about sustainable cuisine. This new Chefs Collaborative program recruits chefs, parents and others who will "adopt-a-school" in their own community and teach eight one-hour classes about sustainable cuisine. Adopt-A-School is integral to the Chefs Collaborative's mission: Promote sustainable cuisine by teaching children, supporting local farmers, educating food professionals, and inspiring customers to choose good, clean food. Specifically, Adopt-A-School: Creates a clear, simple and sensory structure to waken children's natural excitement, curiosity, respect and interest in their food. Teaches children the elements of sustainable cuisine — organic gardening, the tastes of fresh food, simple cooking, and cultural models of healthy lifestyles.

In her keynote address to chefs during the Fifth Annual National Chefs Collaborative Retreat, Joan Dye Gussow said that if chefs care deeply enough about a safe, sustainable food supply, they should work first to support their local farmers, and then work on bringing them into the organic fold. Farms first, she said, and reform later…

Ten Commitments, a collabartive effort by farmworker organization and advocates from throughout the country. It provides an analysis of why current federal legislation is inadequate to protect farmworkers, and proposes ten steps, or commitments, that must be taken to protect farmworkers and their children.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) provides leadership and support for scientific research and education to encourage farmers, farmworkers, and consumers in California to produce, distribute, process and consume food and fiber in a manner that is economically viable, sustains natural resources and biodiversity, and enhances the quality of life in the state's diverse communities for present and future generations.

Organizations whose work incorporate this pattern:

Community Alliance with Family Farmers

Food News

Oregon Tilth

Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust


Jackson, Wes. New Roots for Agriculture. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, NE. 1985.

Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future. Island Press. Washington, DC. 1990.

Savory, Allan. Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making. Island Press. Washington, DC. 1998.

Soule, Judith D and Jon K. Piper. Farming in Nature's Image: An Ecological Approach to Agriculture. Island Press. Washington, DC. 1992.

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Pattern Index

A Conservation Economy

Social Capital

Fundamental Needs

Subsistence Rights

Shelter For All


Access To Knowledge


Social Equity


Cultural Diversity

Cultural Preservation

Sense Of Place

Beauty And Play

Just Transitions

Civic Society

Natural Capital

Ecological Land-Use

Connected Wildlands

Core Reserves

Wildlife Corridors

Buffer Zones

Productive Rural Areas

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Fisheries


Compact Towns And Cities

Human-Scale Neighborhoods

Green Building

Transit Access

Ecological Infrastructure

Urban Growth Boundaries

Ecosystem Services

Watershed Services

Soil Services

Climate Services


Economic Capital

Household Economies

Green Business

Long-Term Profitability

Community Benefit

Green Procurement

Renewable Energy

Sustainable Materials Cycles

Resource Efficiency

Waste As Resource

Product As Service

Local Economies

Value-Added Production

Rural-Urban Linkages

Local Assets

Bioregional Economies

Fair Trade

True Cost Pricing

Product Labeling