Vermont farming vista, courtesy of exactly does it mean to be farming sustainably? I’ve always assumed it means that you’re producing a number of products—say, milk, chickens, eggs, veggies—and some large percentage of waste is recycled back into new production. Many of the small dairies producing raw milk seem like perfect examples of sustainable farming: cows and chickens feed off pasture, and produce manure that helps re-grow the pasture, without use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.

But I’ve obviously not filled in very many specifics, and it’s here that comments on the subject following my previous post are fascinating. Does it mean having animals pulling plows, as Gord Welch suggests? Or does it mean mainly raising bio-diverse products, as Mark McAfee suggests? Or must we account for all human activity, including such depleting activities as coal mining and natural gas production, as Dave Milano suggests? Does it mean that once you get beyond a certain size, perhaps 300 cows, that your dairy is unsustainable, as Milk Farmer argues?

Tim Wightman’s observation about the need to replenish soils depleted beyond the potential of normal sustainability practices prompts him to urge consumers to become involved in financially backing farms, to supply the capital necessary for replenishment. I sense we’re going to be hearing more stories like that of Michael Schmidt raising investment capital from his herdshare owners.

These comments aren’t, in my experience, just off-the-cuff ideas, but rather the result of a tremendous amount of innovation going on in the arena of small farming these days. The Joel Salatin model, articulated by him in books and in documentaries like Fresh! and Food Inc., has helped educate farmers about ways to be sustainable and profitable. Acres USA magazine is filled with stories about individual farmers’ techniques for sustainable practices and replenishing the soil. Growing numbers of farmers are using and refining such techniques.

There are even indications that the number of small farms is on the increase, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data—more than 300,000 new farms started from 2002 to 2007, accounting for nearly 2 million small farms.

Despite the divergence of opinions, I’m not sure there’s urgency to come to agreement on what it means to be doing truly sustainable farming. I say that because there are indications the government would like to give us a definition, and thereby push itself ever deeper into regulating farms beyond the damage it has wreaked by providing tax breaks and subsidies to encourage our current version of Big Ag.

I’ve just written an article for Grist about government intrusions into food production under the guise of “food safety,” and how  one area of new regulation we need to be on the lookout for is something called “Good Agricultural Practices,” a label formulated by a United Nations farming committee.  Right now, GAP, as it’s known in the field, is kind of nebulous, but it will likely become a much bigger deal once pending food safety legislation is passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama sometime in the next couple months.

The Senate’s food safety bill requires within one year the development of “updated good agricultural practices”—a seemingly benign term that is used by the Farming and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations to describe its establishment of standards covering use of fertilizers, crop rotation, animal grazing practices, and other such fundamentals of farming.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that the UN’s version of good agricultural practices would be in serious alignment with anything being advocated on this blog, in Acres USA, and among America’s bubbling small farm movement.

But what especially bothers me about this move is that it plays into a larger desire by President Obama and his minions to establish world standards to deal with some of our most significant challenges–most notably, health care and farming. While a world approach might make sense for confronting climate change, I see only problems for local matters like developing approaches for sustainable farming.