Agricultural Environmental Management

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Agricultural environmental management

The complex interaction of agriculture and environment has been an issue since the beginning of man. Humans grow food to eat and also hunt animals that depend on natural resources for healthy ongoing habitats. Therefore, the world's human population must balance farming activities with maintaining natural resources. The term agriculture originally meant the act of cultivating fields or growing crops. However, it has expanded to include raising livestock as well.

When early settlers began farming and ranching in the United States, they faced pristine wilderness and open prairies. There was little cause for concern about protecting the environment or population and for two centuries, the country's land and water were aggressively used to create a healthy supply of ample food for Americans. In fact, many American families settled in rural areas and made a living as farmers and ranchers, passing the family business down through generations. By the 1930s, the federal government began requiring farmers to idle certain acres of land to prevent oversupply of food and to protect exhausted soil .

Since that time, agriculture has become a complex science, as farmers must carefully manage soil and water to lessen risk of degrading the soil and its surrounding environment or depleting water tables beneath the land's surface. In fact, farming and ranching present several environmental challenges that require careful management by farmers and local and federal regulatory agencies that guide their activities. The science of applying principles of ecology to agriculture is called agroecology . Those involved in agroecology develop farming methods that use fewer synthetic (man-made) pesticides and fertilizers and encourage organic farming. They also work to conserve energy and water.

Soil erosion , converting land to agricultural use, introduction of fertilizer and pesticides, animal wastes, and irrigation are parts of farming that can lead to changes in quality or availability of water. An expanding human population has lead to increased farming and accelerated soil erosion. When soil has a low capacity to retain water, farmers must pump groundwater up and spray it over crops. After years of doing so, the local water table will eventually fall. This can impact native vegetation in the area.

The industry calls the balance of environment and lessening of agricultural effects sustainability or sustainable development . In some parts of the world, like in the High Plains of the United States or parts of Saudi Arabia, populations and agriculture are depleting water aquifers faster than the natural environment can replenish them. Sustainable development involves dedicated, scientifically based plans to ensure that agricultural activity is managed in such a way that aquifers are not prematurely depleted.

Agroforestry is a method of cultivating both crops and teres on the same land. Between rows of trees, farmers plant agricultural crops that generate income during the time it takes the trees to grow mature enough to produce earnings from nuts or lumber.

Increased modernization of agriculture also impacts the environment. Traditional farming practice, which continues in underdeveloped countries today, consists of subsistence agriculture. In subsistence farming, just enough crops and livestock are raised to meet the needs of a particular family. However, today large farms produce food for huge populations. More than half of the world's working population is employed by some agricultural or agriculturally associated industry. Almost 40% of the world's land area is devoted to agriculture (including permanent pasture). The growing use of machines, pesticides and man-made fertilizers have all seriously impacted the environment.

For example, the use of pesticides like DDT in the 1960s were identified as leading to the deaths of certain species of birds. Most western countries banned use of the pesticides and the bird populations soon recovered. Today, use of pesticides is strictly regulated in the United States.

Many more subtle effects of farming occur on the environment. When grasslands and wetlands or forests are converted to crops, and when crops are not rotated, eventually, the land changes to the point that entire species of plants and animals can become threatened. Urbanization also imposes onto farmland and cuts the amount of land available for farming.

Throughout the world, countries and organizations develop strategies to protect the environment, natural habitats and resources while still supplying the food our populations require. In 1992, The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro focused on how to sustain the world's natural resources but balance good policies on environment and community vitality. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture has published its own policy on sustainable development, which works toward balancing economics, environment and social needs concerning agriculture. In 1993, an Executive Order formed the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) to develop new approaches to achieve economic and environmental goals for public policy in agriculture. Guiding principles include sections on agriculture, forestry and rural community development.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM) is one of the most innovative programs in New York State. The program was begun in June 2000 when Governor George Pataki introduced legislation to the state's Senate and Assembly proposing a partnership to promote farming's good stewardship of land and to provide the funding and support of farmers' efforts. The bill was passed and signed into law by the governor on August 24, 2000.

Thepurpose of thelaw isto help farmersdevelop agricultural environmental management plans that control agricultural pollution and comply with federal, state and local regulations on use of land, water quality, and other environmental concerns. New York's AEM program brings together agencies from state, local, and federal governments, conservation representatives, businesses from the private sector, and farmers. The program is voluntary andoffers education, technical assistance, and financial incentives to farmers to participate.

An example of a successful AEM project occurred at a dairy farm in central New York. The farm composted animals' solid wastes, which reduced the amount of waste spread on the fields. This in turn reduced pollution in the local watershed. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets oversees the program. It begins when a farmer expresses interest in AEM. Next, the farmer completes a series of five tiers of the program.

In Tier I, the farmer completes a short questionnaire that surveys current farming activities and future plans to identify potential environmental concerns. Tier II involves worksheets that document current activities that promote stewardship of the environment and help prioritize any environmental concerns. In Tier III, a conservation plan is developed that is tailored specifically for the individual farm. The farmer works together with an AEM coordinator and several members of the cooperating agency staff.

Under Tier IV of the AEM program, agricultural agencies and consultants provide the farmer with educational, technical, and financial assistance to implement best management practices for preventing pollution to water bodies in the farm's area. The plans use Natural Resources Conservation Service standards and guidance from cooperating professional engineers. Finally, farmers in the AEM program receive ongoing evaluations to ensure that the plan they have devised helps protect the environment and also ensures viability of the farm business.

Funding for the AEM program comes from a variety of sources, including New York's Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act and the State Environmental Protection Fund. Local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) also partner in the effort, and farmers can access funds through these districts. The EPA says involvement of the SWCDs has likely been a positive factor in farmers' acceptance of the program.

Though New York is perceived as mostly urban, agriculture is a huge business in the state. The AEM program serves important environmental functions and helps keep New York State's farms economically viable. More than 7,000 farms participate in the program.

[Teresa G. Norris ]



Calow, Peter. The Encyclopedia of Ecology and Environmental Management. Malden, MA: Blackwell Science, Inc., 1998.


Ervin, DE, et al. "Agriculture and Environment: A New Strategic Vision." Environment 40, no. 6 (July-August, 1998):8.


New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, 1 Winners Circle, Albany, NY USA 12235 (518) 457-3738, Fax: (518)457-3412, Email: [email protected],

Sustainable Development, USA, United States Department of Agriculture, 14th and Independence SW, Washington, DC USA 20250 (202) 720-5447, Email: [email protected],

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Agricultural Environmental Management

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