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Farmers are Stewards of Ecosystems

What does it mean to be a successful, sustainable farmer? There are three elements to this: you must be able to maintain social harmony with the people in your family, operation, and community; to sell what you grow at a profit; and to maintain or enhance the planetary resources your operation relies on. People, profit, and planet. No one can guarantee sustainability for your operation, but in this lesson we will cover some very basic principles that can help you with this third element: being a good steward of your natural resources.

A. Farming is fundamentally a sunlight-harvesting business.

Whether you grow vegetables, fruits, flowers, fibers, building materials, or livestock, your business relies on using plants to capture sunlight. Plants turn sunlight into food for themselves, which can then be harvested by you or by your livestock and eventually sold for profit. The more effectively and efficiently you capture sunlight via plants and animals, the more raw materials you will have to convert to money in your pocket.

Thinking this way has helped some farmers save their businesses:
Bill Burrows, a former cattle rancher in CA, nearly lost his family farm in the 1980s as the beef prices plummeted. When he shifted his perspective to think of himself as a sunlight-harvester instead of a cattle farmer, he opened the door to creative thinking about ways to stay on the land. With help from family and friends he assessed all the natural assets of his farm and realized he wasn’t taking full advantage of them. Now the Burrows Ranch still raises some cattle, but thrives on income from no less than 7 enterprises, including offering nature retreats and hunting trips to urban visitors.

So how do you optimize your sunlight-harvesting ability? With a little creative thinking and by paying attention to the ecological processes described on the next page.

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