The goal of sustainable agriculture is to develop new ideas and methods to improve farm and ranch profitability and to protect land and water and other natural resources. It serves not as an alternative to agriculture science, but as a companion that uses the natural laws of nature and environment to enhance agricultural efforts in a post-modern world.

What started more as a movement than an idea, sustainable agriculture is one part environmental stewardship, one part economic stabilizer and one part profit engine. It is the method of producing food, fiber and other plant and animal products using farming and ranching techniques that protect the environment, human health and animal welfare.

But an underlying benefit to sustainable agriculture research is that it is paving the way to better cash crop profits and, in many instances, providing measures that can save the farm from such troubling stumbling blocks as extreme drought, lack of irrigation, deadly plant and animal diseases, uncontrolled pests and undesirable weeds.

Early sustainable research projects were so successful in providing substantial benefits to agriculture that in 1988 USDA established the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program to provide financial assistance through a grant program to farmers, ranchers, researchers and educators to develop innovations that would improve farm profitability, protect natural resources and the environment, and to revitalize rural communities. Over the last 25 years, SARE has awarded nearly $200 million for more than 5,000 initiatives that have greatly improved agriculture across the nation and around the world.

Because of great geographical and environmental diversity between agricultural regions, SARE programs are developed to meet the specific requirements of each region and as such grant projects have been funded in every state and island protectorate of the United States. SARE projects are also diverse, including food programs, water programs, and energy programs that affect the way we grow crops, use natural resources like land and water, and the development of crops that can be used as an energy source.

SARE at work in Texas

 In a SARE-funded project, research­ers determined that cattle produc­ers could save money without sacrific­ing livestock body condition by grazing cows on bermudagrass and ryegrass over winter instead of simply feeding them purchased hay.

Cooperative Extension researchers found grazing led to an average an­nual cost saving of $53 per cow during the four-year study, conducted on two ranches. Widespread adoption of this practice could have a massive impact on Texas agriculture because 63 per­cent of the state’s cattle are raised in eastern Texas, where bermudagrass is the dominant forage.

Researchers estimated that beef cattle producers in the state could save a combined $180 million by incorpo­rating these grasses into winter graz­ing practices.

In the study, researchers allowed bermudagrass and ryegrass pastures to grow from late August to early Decem­ber. They then introduced cattle for grazing until late February or early March. Forage growth through the fall was sufficient to give the cattle body condition scores similar to control groups that were fed hay, the tradi­tional winter feeding approach.

Cooperative Extension agents have shared information from this study with more than 5,500 Texans at differ­ent educational events.

In all, Texas has received $4,107,519 to support 64 projects, including but not limited to, 23 research and/or education projects, four extension projects and 20 producer-led projects.

Other agriculture projects included but were not limited to:

  • Improving Soil Quality to Increase Yield and Reduce Diseases in Organic Rice Production ($225,000)
  • Improving Soil Quality to Increase Yield and Reduce Diseases in Organic Rice Production ($329,999)
  • Integrated Crop and Livestock Systems for Enhanced Soil Carbon Sequestration and Microbial Diversity in the Semiarid Texas High Plains ($160,000)
  • Crop-livestock Systems for Sustainable High Plains Agriculture ($200,000)
  • Marketing of locally produced sustainable animal fiber products ($140,000)
  • Pigeon pea: a multipurpose, drought resistant forage, grain and vegetable crop for sustainable southern farms ($200,000)
  • Sustainable and profitable control of invasive species by small ruminants ($178,000)
  • Expanding Marketing Opportunities for Organic Growers in Texas ($19,924)
  • Forage/Livestock Systems for Sustainable High Plains Agriculture ($251,805)
  • Systems for Sustainability of Alfalfa $149,750.00 Vincent Haby, Texas AES
  • Production on Acid, Coastal Plain Soils ($149,750)
  • Introducing Alternative Crops Into Traditional Cotton-Grain Farming to Aid Transition To "Freedom to Farm" Agriculture ($114,279)
  • Sustainable Crop/Livestock Systems in the Texas High Plains ($222,125)
  • Post-CRP Land Management and Sustainable Production Alternatives for Highly Erodible Land in the Southern Great Plains Farm Scale Evaluation of Alternative Cotton Production Systems ($196,100)
  • Whole-farm Low/Reduced Input Farming Systems and Educational Program ($90,000)

Additional SARE grants in Texas

In addition to agriculture programs in the field, professional development projects funded by SARE included but were not limited to: Achieving Rangeland Sustainability through Total Resource Management ($157,061), Sustainable Agriculture Training Initiative for Texas ($70,136), and Environmentally and Economically Sustainable Use of Rangeland ($72,570).

Direct grants to farmers supported by SARE include:

  • Development of an innovative forage crop system for pasture raised swine ($8,303)
  • Low Cost Geothermal Greenhouse Heating $9,999.00 Tanya Miller, Millican Farms, LLC System for Southern Climates ($9,999)
  • Treating Soil Compaction Using Woven Weed Fabric ($9,886)
  • Evaluation of Mulches for Organic Cantaloupe Production in Semi-Arid Regions ($9,855)
  • Cover Crop Optimization for Sustainable Forage Systems on a Southern Dairy Farm ($9,872)
  • Weed Control for Row Crops Using Corrugating Linerboard ($7,399)
  • Sustainable Pastured Layer Research Project ($14,992)
  • Increase Soil Organic Matter in Citrus Soils ($8,112)
  • Crop Rotation and Rotational Grazing Study ($9,876)
  • Marketing Workshop for Organic Growers and Ranchers ($7,561)
  • Effects of Conservation Tillage on Water Quality in Southern Texas ($8,000)
  • Cool Season and Warm Season Grasses to Stabilize Erodible Soils and Increase Profitability ($10,000)
  • Native Warm Season Grasses As Alternative Hay Source to Annual Sorghum/Sudan Grasses ($9,640)
  • Pecan IPM Using Black-Eyed Peas as a Trap Crop ($4,000)
  • Site Specific Applications of Seed/Fertilizer/Chemicals ($10,000)

The list of diverse funded SARE projects for Texas is extensive and includes numerous on-farm grants for various projects and Community Innovation Grants, plus a number of graduate student grants.

Many of the grant projects are still underway and new projects are being added routinely.

Breaking costly pest cycles with cover crops

The latest SARE research includes nationwide projects addressing protective cover crops to enhance agriculture production and to enhance the growth of cash crops.

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington may have been the first in America to sing praises for buckwheat. Today, the broadleaf grain is gaining new popularity as a powerful weed-suppressing cover crop because of its quick establishment and dense growth. In the Northeast, vegetable farmers are rediscovering how to manage buckwheat effectively, thanks to Cornell University research that demonstrated a well-established stand of buckwheat eliminated 98 percent of summer weeds.

The Cornell team, supported by a 2005-08 SARE grant, also developed a definitive, 18-page Buckwheat Cover Crop Handbook that outlines important management strategies. Based on their surveys and outreach, the team estimates that by 2008, their efforts had helped 3,000 farmers use buckwheat successfully on a combined 18,000 acres in vegetable production.

Buckwheat also shows promise in integrated pest management because its prolific flowering attracts beneficial insects. In South Carolina, farmer Daniel Parson is using a 2010 SARE grant to determine whether a buckwheat cover crop can help him control the invasive, highly destructive stink bug.

These projects are only two examples of how SARE is at the forefront of supporting the innovative producers, educators and researchers who are making cover crops one of the most indispensable cost-saving tools in the soil-health toolbox. SARE grantees all over the country are discovering cover crops’ dynamic and vital role in managing weeds, diseases and insects. For example:

  • University of Hawaii Extension specialists, partnering with local farmers, used three SARE grants to promote farmer adoption of sunn hemp as a cover crop by demonstrating its ability to suppress weeds and parasitic nematodes. They have found sunn hemp also promotes beneficial nematodes and microarthropods that aid in nutrient cycling. They have produced a video and two fact sheets.
  • In ongoing research supported by a 2010 SARE grant, University of Illinois researchers are investigating the role cover crops play in suppressing root and foliar diseases in soybeans. Testing a variety of cover crop species, the research team is finding early evidence that rye may aid in disease suppression.
  • In a 2008-11 project, University of Maryland Extension specialists helped one nursery farmer save $115 per acre per production cycle by planting a fescue cover crop between rows, which reduced the number of times he had to mow to control weeds. The team’s goal was to explore how to better use cover crops in nursery production.

Anyone  interested in cover crop research projects and applications or wish to know more about the SARE grant program or to read in depth information about SARE projects in the Southwest (by state) should log into the SARE web site and explore the latest sustainable innovations in U.S. agriculture.