College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences

Small-Scale Agriculture Development

Sustainable agriculture uses green farming practices intended to be environmentally friendly and economically viable. The World Wildlife Fund defines sustainable agriculture as "an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term."

Sustainable agriculture differs from conventional agriculture because of its emphasis on ecology, biodiversity, and cyclical farming practices, such as crop rotation. According to the EPA, sustainable agroecosystems have the following features:

  • They are diverse.
  • They maintain growth and productivity through internal inputs (organic matter, nutrients).
  • They recycle waste; they avoid pollution.
  • They do not use non-renewable resources or produce food, fiber, or energy at unsustainable rates.
  • They function with a minimum of external inputs and management.
  • They exhibit low levels of externalities associated with production and consumption.

Why Sustainability Is Important to Farm and Agribusiness Management

In the United States, agriculture is a $1 trillion industry. Farmers and ranchers in North Carolina produce more than $64 billion worth of food, fiber, and fuel each year. Most of this production occurs on small farms owned by families or individuals passionate about their work.

Sustainability is essential to farm business management and agribusiness management because it allows farmers to use their land to maximize long-term economic benefits while maintaining environmental integrity. Sustainability is achieved by applying sustainable agriculture practices to increase efficiency, productivity, and profitability while reducing environmental impacts and protecting natural resources.

Sustainable farms and small-scale agriculture are important to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, and sustainability with food is a big deal in the agriculture sector. According to a report from the U.N., the world's population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, and the demand for food will increase. Therefore, agricultural production must continue growing to meet this sustainable supply chain demand.

Types of Sustainable Agriculture in North Carolina

In North Carolina, sustainable agriculture is integral to fueling innovation in our economy. Our state is home to more than 4,000 farms and farmer's markets, including many small-scale operations that rely on local resources. While sustainability can be pretty broad, here are some examples of sustainable agriculture in North Carolina.

  • Hoop Houses — Hoop house structures use plastic or polyethylene film to control temperature, humidity, and sunlight intensity to produce plants earlier in the growing season than they otherwise would be planted outside. They are used for vegetable production in areas where outdoor temperatures are lower than optimum for plant growth or where there is insufficient sunlight for optimal vegetable production.
  • High Tunnels — Grow tunnels are similar to hoop houses, except they use plastic sheets instead of hoops to control temperature and sunlight inside the tunnel greenhouse structure. Grow tunnels can be used for early-season vegetable production or as low-cost greenhouses extending the growing season into late fall or early winter when outdoor temperatures are too cold.
  • Small-Scale Hemp Farming — Small-scale hemp farming is a growing industry in North Carolina. N.C. A&T and Cooperative Extension are among the top resources in the state, helping farmers learn about hemp and how to grow it. N.C. A&T's Hemp Research Program provides information to prospective growers about planting, harvesting and marketing.
  • Hydroponics — Hydroponics is the process of growing plants without soil. Plants are grown in water with added nutrients. The plant's roots are immersed in the nutrient solution to absorb food. NASA has used this method for years to grow food in space.
  • Organic Farming — A&T supports sustainable agriculture by providing farmers with resources and essentials that help improve their stewardship practices while ensuring that consumers have access to safe, nutritious food produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
  • Small-Scale Vegetable Farming — Small-scale vegetable farming remains a viable and profitable option for many people. As part of our work, Cooperative Extension provides educational programs that support small-scale farmers in North Carolina , sharing guidance on small farms leadership, farm safety, community gardens, resilience, and more.

Agriculture Practice and Agromedicine

Cooperative Extension at N.C. A&T Connects farmers to healers to promote sustainable agriculture practices. This initiative promotes good agricultural practices and agromedicine by providing resources for small farmers who may otherwise not have access to them. The goal is also to help farmers access markets for their goods while promoting greater awareness among consumers about how food is produced locally or regionally.

In addition, Extension also supports healing for veterans suffering from mental health struggles like PTSD. Agromedicine promotes both physical and emotional well-being in a powerful way. This digital News & Record article explains more about the link between growing and good mental health.

Engage Underserved Populations with Career Opportunities in Agriculture

In the U.S., agriculture is an industry that white males traditionally dominate. As of 2017, there were 5.3 million farmers in the U.S., and 82 percent were white males older than age 50. A&T is working to change this statistic by encouraging minority students to enter agriculture-related careers, supporting local community gardening efforts, and providing work for veterans and people with disabilities.

North Carolina A&T State University works to engage underserved populations with career opportunities in agriculture. The Center is a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Regional Food Hub Network and is also a partner with the USDA Agricultural Research Service to develop regional food systems that support small-scale farmers and promote sustainability.

The Center's work focuses on strengthening local food systems and improving rural communities through research, education, outreach, and training. It provides hands-on learning opportunities for students through programs such as its student-run farm stand located at the university's Greensboro campus. The farm stand sells produce grown by students, their families, and other local farmers from around North Carolina.

Lead the Way Through Good Agriculture Practice Guidance

The A&T Small-Scale Farmers Leadership Initiative is a learning community that provides training, resources, and practical, on-the-job applications to farmers in North Carolina. We deliver Good Agriculture Practice Guidance, connect small-scale farmers and local food buyers, and host workshops on food safety, marketing, and business planning.

The Small-Scale Farmers Initiative began in 2014 as a pilot program at A&T. Designed to address the challenges faced by small-scale farmers in North Carolina, the program provides tools and resources to help farmers meet the challenges of being an entrepreneur and running a business.

Our goal is for all farmers to access information about Good Agriculture Practices (GAPs) and processes, which are guidelines for food safety practices that help protect consumers from illness caused by contaminated food products. GAPs are voluntary standards created by industry groups like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Farmers who follow these standards can sell their produce without fear of losing markets or being shut down because they don't know how to produce safe food products.

Support Resources for a Self-Sustaining Farming Community

Extension’s Small Farms Program is an excellent resource for underserved farmers. It provides educational programs for anyone interested in starting small-scale farming or increasing their production capacity.

The program offers several workshops throughout the year, covering topics ranging from soil fertility management and  irrigation to integrated pest management and farm entrepreneurship.

Soil Health for Climate and Resilience

Soil health is the foundation for sustainable agriculture development. Soil is the living, breathing foundation of our food system. It is where we grow crops and raise livestock, where we find water and fight pests, and where we live, work, and play. The health of our soil depends on how it's managed.