Growing Returns

My two agricultural hats: scientist & advocate

Woman in the wild“It’s the hydrology, stupid!” a colleague once joked about the thrust of my career. I couldn’t agree more. I study what’s working and what’s not across agricultural landscapes — the Midwest corn belt is a current focus — and believe that the fundamental changes we’ve made to the land by draining it, removing native vegetation and altering the water flow have caused many of the environmental issues the region faces today.

I’m intrigued by agriculture, where people and nature intersect across vibrant landscapes to provide tangible benefits to individuals, local communities, and the surrounding ecosystem. My job, which allows me to indulge that fascination on a daily basis, requires me to simultaneously think like a scientist and an environmental advocate, a dual role that I first started to cultivate growing up in rural England. Read More »

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Fertilizer runoff is just one piece of the dead zone puzzle

Credit: Ohio Wetlands Association

Dead zones (also called hypoxic zones) are caused by a rapid growth in algae that leads to less dissolved oxygen in the water and the death of aquatic species. Credit: Ohio Wetlands Association

It’s true that fertilizer runoff, sewage, and other pollutants from the Corn Belt have significantly boosted dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. That’s because up to half of the fertilizer applied isn’t absorbed by crops, and in order to grow more food we’re using 20 times more fertilizer in the Corn Belt today than in the 1950s.

But even if we optimize fertilizer use on all cropland in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River Basins, nutrients will still be lost to rivers and streams and carried into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this loss is inevitable given factors like unpredictable weather, but my colleagues and I set out to quantify other reasons for why the Corn Belt exports so much nitrogen.

We discovered that an increase in fertilizer inputs is only one part of the problem. Three other distinct but interconnected factors also contribute to water pollution and the Gulf dead zone: the loss of perennial cover, the construction of artificial drainage systems, and the loss of wetlands. Read More »

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New research helps farmers set targets for reducing emissions

Credit: photos.com

Credit: photos.com

The easiest way to tackle fertilizer pollution is to lower the amount of nitrogen applied to crops, thereby reducing nutrient losses into the air and water. The problem is, reducing fertilizer rates can also shrink crop yields, which means less income for farmers and less food on our plates.

So here’s the question: how can we slash nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture without sacrificing productivity?

To meet this challenge, scientists need to understand the relationship between “nitrogen surplus” (the amount of applied nitrogen fertilizer not taken up by the plant), “nutrient use efficiency” (the ratio of how much yield you get from each pound of fertilizer applied) and nitrous oxide emissions that contribute to climate change. The more nitrogen a plant absorbs, the less it releases into the air in the form of nitrous oxide and into the water where it can contribute to harmful algal blooms. Read More »

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How nature can protect farmers against droughts and floods

medium_15820852967Wacky weather isn’t just a fluke. According to the National Climate Assessment (NCA), extreme weather events are becoming more common and are likely to increase in the future, which poses challenges for farmers and communities.

Traditional ways of responding to weather crises, such as building higher flood walls and digging deeper wells are expensive and often fail.

The good news is that farmers are increasingly turning to more natural solutions and practices, often referred to as “green infrastructure,” that use nature to reduce the impacts of both floods and droughts.

Green infrastructure is also needed to reduce fertilizer pollution and restore the Gulf of Mexico dead zone to safe levels, as a new study published today in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA) reports.

Read More »

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An agricultural marriage made in heaven: state programs & private sector initiatives

field-sun-350At last week’s State Ag and Rural Leaders’ summit in Florida, legislators from across the U.S. discussed sustainability initiatives in the food supply chain. The conversations and presentations were informative for all – but what was missing from the conference was discussion about the role the private sector can play in supporting public sustainability initiatives.

State programs to support farmers

State programs can go a long way towards supporting farmers’ conservation efforts without economic downsides (and potentially increased revenues).  Read More »

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Water filters can fight dead zones without hindering farm production

Updated (October 23, 2014): Interior, Agriculture Departments Partner to Measure Conservation Impacts on Water Quality 

A treatment wetland built under the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Photo from Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship

A treatment wetland built under the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Photo from Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship

“Is the water safe?”

In the United States, we take it for granted that the answer to that question is “yes.” But the residents of Toledo, OH, learned recently that their water wasn’t safe to drink for a few days because toxins associated with an algal bloom in Lake Erie had contaminated the city’s water supply. Meanwhile, a Maryland man was released from the hospital after nearly losing his leg and his life to flesh-eating bacteria contracted from swimming in the Chesapeake Bay.

These types of incidents are caused by nutrient pollution. Although nutrient pollution can come from many sources, runoff from agriculture is the dominant contributor to the problem in Lake Erie, the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Agriculture-associated nutrient pollution also impacts local streams and lakes, causing fish kills and closing swimming beaches. A recent study in Minnesota suggested that more than 70 percent of nitrogen in state waters comes from cropland.

What needs to be done, and how much will make a difference? Read More »

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