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Sustainability Index

Sustaining farmers and society while preserving environmental resources is a central goal of sustainable agriculture. Farmers need tools to determine the impact of their management practices on agricultural and resource sustainability. These tools, whether they are field assessments or novel ways to use existing information, must be based on easily measured characteristics and provide easily interpreted information if they are to be adopted. The need for approaches to assess agricultural sustainability has never been greater given the widespread economic hardship among farmers and societal concerns over the impact of agriculture on the environment.

Proposed indicators for a simplified approach for assessing the sustainability of agricultural systems at the farm level include (after Gomez et al., 1996):

Farmer & Society Needs
Resource & Environmental Conservation (Adequate/Acceptable)
Yields relative to locale, climate, and soil type Soil Organic Matter
change with time, relative to inherent potential
Profits relative to net returns & degree of subsidization Soil Depth
of topsoil and rooting relative to local potential
Risk / Stability as economic shortfall in 1 of 5 years Soil Protective Cover (%)
effective continuous or stratified
Input / Output Ratio of energy (renewable and non-renewable) and costs Leachable Salts (NO3)
at planting and post harvest as indexed by soil electrical conductivity

(During focus groups with Iowa and Illinois farmers, crop advisors, extension agents, and NRCS personnel, many participants specifically asked for tools that help show the relationships and tradeoffs between social, economic, and environmental outcomes. Plans exist to design a sustainability index that is user-friendly, easy to update as knowledge expands, and applicable across regions, practices, and user-preferences. The index will use farmer-approved indicators of economic viability, social acceptability, and environmental protection. As a starting point, potential indicators identified in surveys of SARE-affiliated producers by researchers at Michigan State will be examined.)


Gomez, A.A., D.E.Swete Kelly, J.K. Syers, and K.J. Coughlan. 1996. Measuring sustainability of agricultural systems at the farm level. In: Methods for Assessing Soil Quality. SSSA Special Publication No. 49, Soil Science Society of America, Madison, WI.