• John Ikerd

Worldview of Sustainable Agriculture

The hierarchical worldview of sustainability also characterizes the individual entities or smaller wholes that make up the larger whole of reality. These entities or wholes are more commonly referred to as “systems.” Economic systems exist within social systems, which exist within ecosystems. These same hierarchical relationships exist for the businesses, families, communities, watersheds, bioregions, and larger societal and natural ecosystems that span the entire earth. In other words, the worldview of authentic sustainability is reflected in everything that exists on earth.

These relationships are easier to see and understand in farming than in most other human endeavors because of the direct contact of agriculture with the earth. The three hierarchical realms of sustainable farming are depicted in the graphic. The farm business exists within the context of the farm “family.” The farm business affects and is affected by the families who operate the farms and the natural ecosystems upon which they are ultimately dependent for their productivity. The farm family in this case refers to the individual, nuclear family, or group that contributes to the management and benefits directly from the farming operation. The agroecosystem includes the soil, plants, animals, and all of the micro- and macro-organisms that affect and are affected by the farming operation. A farm is a microcosm of the earth.

Individual farms are component parts of the larger whole agriculture—which also is a microcosm of the earth. Agriculture exists and functions within communities, which affect and are affected by farming operations. Communities exist within larger bioregions, which affect and are affected by the human activities that take place within those communities, including farming. The worldview of sustainable agriculture is depicted in second graphic. Again, agriculture is a microcosm of the earth, as is every other identifiable economic or sociopolitical sector or system that exists and functions within the biosphere of the earth.


Everything that happens on an individual farm happens within agriculture as a whole and affects not only the family, agroecosystem, community but also the community, bioregion, and everything else in the larger economy, society, and whole of nature. Some of the impacts are insignificant and relatively unimportant. Others are critical to the economic, social, and ecological sustainability of human life on earth. Farmers must always be aware of the potential unintended consequences of their decisions.

Sustainable farmers must recognize and respect the interconnectedness of everything affecting their farms—the soil, plants, animals, farmer, family, community, society, and economy. Healthy soils contain at least 17 different nutrients that are essential for plant growth. The relative quantities or ratios of these nutrients affect their availability to plants to sustain their health and growth. A single teaspoon of soil is estimated to contain more bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, mites, nematodes, earthworms, ants, insects, and other living organisms than the number of humans in the world. The relative populations of these different organisms affect the availability of soil nutrients to plants and thus affect plant growth and development. Similar complexities and interconnectivities exist in sustaining the health and productivity of farm animals.


Sustainable farm management is not about specializing, standardizing, mechanizing, and scaling-up to maximize productivity and economic efficiency. The sustainability of a farm depends on effectively integrating a diversity of plant and animal systems to create farming systems that accommodate the preferences of farmers and farm families, as well as meet the societal and economic needs of the communities and societies within which, and for which, farms ultimately function. A sustainable farm must be managed holistically, as an integrated system rather than a collection of specialized components and functions.


The management decisions of a sustainable farming operation must be guided by the multiple economic, social, and ecological purposes and principles of agriculture. The most fundamental purpose of farming is to meet the food needs of society, but sustainable farms must also meet the economic and social needs of farm families, communities, and societies and accommodate the ecological needs of nature—of the earth. The principles by which sustainable farms must function reflect an understanding of and respect for the principles of nature reflected in water cycles, nutrient cycles, energy flows, biological regeneration, and ecological succession.


The acceptability of farms to the communities and societies they sustain, and are sustained by, depends on honoring the principles of the basic human relationships, including honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion and respect. The economic sustainability of farms depends on meeting the needs and preferences of their customers, as reflected in the economic value of agricultural products.


These same basic hierarchical and ecological relationships exist for all other economic and social enterprises. The health and well-being of individuals and societies ultimately depends on respecting these inviolable principles of how the world works and where we humans fit within it. We are not forced to respect the principles or laws of nature or to recognize our interdependence with nature and each other. However, we cannot avoid the ultimate consequences of our indifference or ignorance. As the late Robert Rodale used to say: In the game of life, “nature bats last.”


John Ikerd

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