Mission: Soil Restoration

Approach: Sustainable Agriculture

Before the Civil War, the land that is now Spring Valley Ecofarms had been part of a 3000 acre cotton plantation near Athens, Georgia.  In 1864, a Confederate soldier named John Anderson purchased 100 acres and he and his descendants continued to raise cotton and other crops until the early 1900s when the boll weevil wiped out cotton throughout the South. The family moved away but leased the fields to a local farmer who grew wheat and sorghum using intensive cultivation and fertilization until 1993 when the farm became Spring Valley Ecofarms. The rich organic topsoil that once had enriched the early pioneers was gone, and all that was left was severely weathered, infertile, highly compacted red clay, the legacy of a century of erosive agriculture.  The mission for Spring Valley Ecofarms was clear - bring back the productive capacity of the farm through soil restoration.

The nearest description of what we wanted to do was “organic agriculture”.  At that time, there were no official standards for this type of agriculture in the U.S., although IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) developed guidelines beginning in 1972. The national organic standards rule was published in 2000 by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and the law was activated April 21, 2001.  The rules were intended to make organic agriculture more environmentally friendly than chemical agriculture.  Over the years, however, it became clear that some practices allowed by the organic rule were not beneficial for the environment. For example, use of black plastic for weed control is permitted, but the plastic heats up the soil and kills beneficial micro-fauna, and disposing of the plastic presents a huge environmental problem.  Other practices such as use of herbicides are forbidden in organic agriculture, despite the fact that herbicides are far less damaging to the soil than plowing and harrowing, permitted in organic agriculture. To describe what we were doing, we adopted a catchword that was gaining popularity – Sustainable Agriculture.

But what does “Sustainable” mean, in the context of agriculture?  One definition is: Sustainable agriculture emphasizes production and marketing practices that are profitable, environmentally sound, and that improve the quality of life for farmers, farm workers and the community. That  sounds good, until one examines more closely what  the words “profitable”, “environmentally sound”, and “quality of life” mean. Does “profitable” include the subsidies that farmers receive from the government?  Does “environmentally sound” mean having an environmental impact only slightly greater than that of undisturbed  ecosystems such as native prairie or old growth forest?  If so, how much greater?   Does “quality of life” mean having something more than food and shelter?  If so, how much more?” Like the definition of  “Beauty”,  the definition of ”Sustainable Agriculture” is in the eye of the beholder. 

The absence of an objective definition of Beauty does not affect the everyday decisions of most people, except perhaps art critics.  In contrast, many scientists, including ecologists, agronomists, and economists use the term “agricultural  sustainability” to defend differing opinions about the approach to agriculture that is best for the environment and for society.  We need a definition that is objective, that is, a definition of sustainability that specifies how it can be measured.  Only when sustainability can be measured will various scientific groups begin to agree on farm management that is best for the long term interest of society and its environment. 

Spring Valley Ecofarms has taken up this challenge.  Its mission is to:

  • provide an objective definition of Sustainable Agriculture(See "Energy Use Efficiency and Sustainable Agriculture" on the "Theory" web page).
  • carry out research on management techniques that will restore soil organic matter (Soil Restoration) and at the same time provide economic income (See "Sustainability Research" on the Application web page).  
  • provide a forum for discussion on agricultural sustainability

Dr. Carl F. Jordan, Professor Emeritus, Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, and Founder and Director of Spring Valley Ecofarms.

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