Not that long ago, sustainability was considered by many area agriculturalists to be on the fringes of Upper Midwest ag. But sustainability — which the dictionary defines as "pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse" — has gone mainstream.

"There's more acceptance. People are more environmentally conscious," said Karl Hoppe, a North Dakota co-coordinator of the Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education, or SARE, program.

SARE, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says it "offers farmer-driven grassroots grants and education programs." The organization is split into four regions nationally. Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota are in the north central region; Montana is part of the western region.

Two examples of sustainable ag practices, both of which have become common in the Upper Midwest, are cover crops and no-till farming.

The first new SARE guide, available online at, deals with sustainable water management. The guides note that "Incorporating water management techniques is crucial to the success of agricultural production."

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The second new guide, available online at, covers a "whole-farm approach to managing pests." The guide describes itself as "lay(ing) out basic ecological principles for managing pests and suggests how to apply them to real farm situations — along with cutting-edge research examples and anecdotes from farmers using such strategies in their fields."

Generations of area farmers have recognized the importance of sustainability, Hoppe said, stressing the decades-old focus "on turning over the farm to the next generation in better shape than what you inherited. But I think that's taken on a different focus these days."

In recent years there's greater awareness of the importance of soil health and "other things that sustain themselves," said Hoppe, who's been involved with SARE for eight years.

Once, many farmers equated sustainability with protecting soil from wind and water erosion. In contrast, today's concept of sustainability has three major components: environment, profitability and social interaction/community viability, Hoppe said.

SARE has emphasized helping beginning farmers in recent years, a goal that will continue, Hoppe said.

But he noted that beginning farmers come in different forms. In North Dakota, for example, a beginning farmer generally means a member of a new generation who takes over family land and begins to farm it, while a beginning farmer in an urban area typically refers to someone brand new to ag.

Inevitably, there's always more to learn about sustainable ag, he said.

"Just when you think you might have it figured out, the environment changes. Weather changes, crops change, the dynamics of crops change, (new) diseases show up. So you'll always be learning," he said.

SARE's home page,, offers a wide range of information about the organization and sustainable agriculture, Hoppe said.