Growing Returns

Lake Erie cleanup efforts highlight need for market drivers

Every year, blue-green algae in Lake Erie impacts lake tourism and sometimes elevates concentrations of a toxin that can harm human health and impair drinking water. While multiple sources contribute to this nutrient-fueled problem, fertilizer runoff from farms is the largest.

Cleaning up the lake requires farmers’ active participation, and many agricultural conservation partnerships with farmers are underway in the Lake Erie basin. For example, the Lake Erie Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) helps farmers and landowners defray the costs of setting aside land and planting grasses or wildflowers, or creating wetlands to help capture and treat nutrients leaving the farm field.

Algae bloom along Lake Erie shoreline

Photo credit: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

The first wave of Lake Erie CREP contracts began to expire last month, highlighting a growing vulnerability for this conservation model: how to maintain conservation practices on marginal, less productive or flood-prone acres after the initial contract runs out.

This question is especially urgent for land in sensitive areas that provides disproportionately large ecosystem benefits like water filtration. Read More »

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This new geospatial tool makes NutrientStar accessible to farmers across the Corn Belt

NutrientStar geospatial map

Areas with the same color indicate zones where the soil and climate are comparable – and consequently, where a fertilizer management product or tool could perform similarly.

NutrientStar, which assesses fertilizer management products and tools using field trials and in-depth scientific reviews, was a game changer for farmers. Prior to the launch of the program last year, there was no expert review program – no Carfax, no Consumer Reports – to help farmers determine what tools would work as advertised.

The only downside of the program was its limited utility. Farmers had no easy way to extrapolate results from the relatively few number of field trials performed thus far to their own locations.

Now, a new geospatial feature called the Technology Extrapolation Domain (TED) framework will make NutrientStar accessible to tens of thousands of additional farmers across the Corn Belt.

I like to think of it as NutrientStar on steroids. Read More »

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If you’re marketing a product to a farmer, show them where and how it will work

Farmers should know how new products will work for them Farmers are bombarded by product claims these days – and they need help.

According to a recent report from Boston Consulting Group and AgFunder, venture capital firms increased their investments in agriculture technologies at an annual rate of approximately 80 percent between 2012 and 2015. The report claims “the surge in agtech investment has brought the agriculture industry to the threshold of a new green revolution.”

Yet amid this surge in technologies to help farmers grow crops more efficiently, reduce environmental impacts and save money, many start-ups and even established companies often forget to consider: what does the farmer actually want and need? And, what would make them decide to spend money after seeing years of low commodity prices and profits?

In agriculture, no product or technology works everywhere, all the time. Navigating this world of advertising and marketing can be a frustrating and time-consuming endeavor, often leaving farmers to wonder if a tool is going to work in their region and in their soil type. NutrientStar can help.

In a new video, farmers from across the Midwest clearly state what it is they want when it comes to technologies to manage fertilizer, their most expensive input: independent assurance that a nutrient management tool or product is worth their money. Read More »

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New guidance to maximize every drop of fertilizer in Ohio and beyond

Maximize every drop of fertilizerApplying the right amount of fertilizer to a grower’s field is tricky: too little fertilizer means lost yields; too much fertilizer means wasted costs and potential runoff that causes air and water pollution. Meanwhile, farmers cannot control the weather, which can wreak havoc on the best-laid plans.

One important tool used to answer the question of the right rate, timing, placement and source of nutrient application to croplands (the “4Rs”) is on-farm research trials. Farmers establish trials using their own fields and equipment, usually with guidance from a trusted advisor, university researcher or extension agent. Trials can inform many practices like nutrient management and seeding rate. Typically, they are conducted to determine practices’ effects on yield, nutrient use efficiency, soil health and profitability.

Using the data generated from these field trials, experts are now updating the Tri-State Fertility Guide for Corn, Soybean, Wheat and Alfalfa. This 22-year old document still serves as the main guidance on fertilizer applications for the Buckeye state as well as Michigan and Indiana.

Here’s how the update will benefit farmers. Read More »

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Two ways to reduce toxic algal blooms

Toxic algae. Photo: Eric Vance, US EPA

Photo: Eric Vance, US EPA

For a month now, South Florida Atlantic beaches have been blanketed by a sickly green, toxic algae sludge that has kept tourists away and caused local businesses to lose millions.

Florida has a bigger headache this summer than most states, but algae blooms are hardly unique.

Last week, more than 100 people were sickened from toxic algae in a Utah lake largely fed by agricultural runoff and treated sewage water. And just two summers ago, an outbreak in Lake Erie forced the City of Toledo to close off its water supply for nearly half a million residents.

Agricultural runoff also means wasted money for farmers, who can spend approximately half of their input costs on fertilizer.

There are ways to reduce the runoff that contributes to water quality problems and kills marine life, year after year. Algae blooms can be minimized and maybe even prevented if we scale up existing efforts to improve fertilizer efficiency and soil health – practices that can also save farmers money and boost their yields.

Two initiatives and private-sector partnerships are making real headway in doing just that. And if these efforts are replicated at scale, they could have a national – and even international – impact. Read More »

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Meet Eric Davidson, NutrientStar’s newest review panel member

Dr. Eric Davidson. Image Credit: Jennifer Amendolara

Dr. Eric Davidson. Image Credit: Jennifer Amendolara

A panel of experts forms the foundation of NutrientStar, the newly independent, science-based program that reviews the performance of commercially available nutrient management tools. This panel reviews all tools based on established scientific criteria and their ability to improve fertilizer efficiency in the field. The panel is a “who’s who” of fertilizer efficiency experts from across the country – from academia, government agencies, and the private sector.

And now, this eight-member panel can add to its ranks a new member: Eric Davidson, professor and director of the Appalachian Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Davidson, an ecologist, researches biogeochemical processes including the exchange of plant nutrients from the land to streams and groundwater, and the exchange of greenhouse gases between the soil and the atmosphere.

I asked him about his current research, his nitrogen expertise, and why he believes the NutrientStar model can be replicated at scale to improve water quality in places like the Chesapeake Bay.

Read More »

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New guidebook explains how and why to build a farmer network

Farmers educating about cornAmidst all the new tools and technologies being developed to make agriculture more sustainable, there is one tried and true method for testing on-site conservation practices that doesn’t get much attention: farmer networks.

Farmer networks consist of growers within a region working directly with advisors, agronomists and/or scientists to conduct on-farm trials. These trials can test the economic and environmental impacts of changes in crop management, adoption of soil health practices, or use of precision agriculture tools.  The data is then aggregated and analyzed to determine best practices for specific farm conditions and to inform future management decisions.

Originally established by the Iowa Soybean Association, the innovative farmer network model has since taken off, with Environmental Defense Fund and others establishing additional networks across the country. As University of Connecticut soil fertility expert Thomas Morris explains, participation in farmer networks has led to greater efficiency on hundreds of thousands of acres across the U.S – benefitting both the planet and yield. The potential for replication is limitless.

That’s why EDF created a how-to guide for other organizations, companies, and universities interested in creating a farmer network. The new Farmer Network Design Manual provides a roadmap to support sustainable agriculture practices, increase farm profits, and build resiliency. Read More »

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From my grandfather’s farm to NutrientStar: Why I believe in growers

Old photo of men on a family farm

My grandfather, John Beall, with his brother, on the family farm in Ohio.

I once dreamed of pursuing a career in public radio and becoming the next Cokie Roberts. Not surprisingly, my life took me in a much different direction. The catalyst was a two-year Peace Corps stint in biodiversity-rich Ecuador that led me towards a career in conservation. But I never steered too far from my agricultural roots, and today my farming life has come full circle.

I grew up on a small farm in rural Ohio, surrounded by fields, woods, wetlands and a menagerie of animals. My grandfather lived next door and every day I’d tag along with him and help vaccinate the chicks, collect eggs, bale hay, and feed the cows.

Thanks to the responsibilities he gave me as a young child, I feel a special connection to the farmers I work with today as they face pressure to increase their yields without polluting the water supply or surrounding ecosystem.

Here’s my agricultural story, and why I believe that a new program called NutrientStar will positively impact both farmers’ businesses and the surrounding ecosystem. Read More »

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Targeting conservation dollars makes good sense

Harmful algae bloom in Lake Erie

Summer algae bloom in Lake Erie. Credit: NOAA

A University of Michigan study released late last month implies that in order to meet the U.S. and Canadian governments’ 40 percent phosphorous reduction target for Lake Erie by 2025, farmers will need to significantly ramp up their conservation efforts.

Some of the stories covering this study focused on the more drastic measures called for, such as converting thousands of acres of productive cropland to grassland. But I’m optimistic that we can indeed work with farmers to meet this goal by 2025, without having to impact production so drastically – we can do so through targeting.

Targeting refers to directing conservation dollars and practices to places on the landscapes where they’ll be most effective. In Ohio, that means targeting the areas delivering the highest amount of nutrients into Lake Erie.

Here’s the background on targeting, what the research says, and why targeting should be even more finely tuned and amplified at scale in order to accelerate on the ground environmental improvements. Read More »

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New program verifies claims of fertilizer efficiency tools

NutrientStar LogoBig name food companies are starting to source sustainably grown grains to increase transparency and reduce climate and water risks in their supply chains. Precision agriculture tools can help farmers meet this new demand, but it’s difficult to tell which ones perform as advertised because little data exists – or is publicly available – to prove a tool’s effectiveness on the ground.

That’s why EDF developed NutrientStar, an independent, science-based program that verifies the fertilizer efficiency claims of products on the market.

NutrientStar identifies fertilizer management tools that effectively keep nutrients on the farm, reduce fertilizer losses, and improve air and water quality. Scientific assessments conducted by an independent review panel provide valuable information on a tool’s performance, and on-the-ground research trials show performance in working fields. As tools and products are reviewed, the analysis will be posted on the NutrientStar website. Tools and products assessed to date include:

  • Adapt-N (made by Agronomic Technology Corp.), an online software program that uses a linked crop model and soil model to estimate nitrogen rates for individual fields or areas within fields.
  • Fertilizer management products including N-Serve® (made by Dow AgroSciences); AGROTAIN®, AGROTAIN PLUS®, and SUPER U® (made by Koch Agronomic Services).

Here’s what this new program means for the entire commodity crop supply chain – from farmers to food companies. Read More »

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