Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): runoff

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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Controlled drainage is the new black

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

NC State University’s agriculture water management expert Mohamed Youssef, Ph.D, believes the time is ripe for controlled drainage to make a comeback.

Controlled drainage is one of the most effective ways to minimize nitrogen loss from croplands. It’s a management practice involving the use of a control structure installed at the outlet of a drainage ditch or subsurface drain to regulate drainage water outflow according to plant needs and field operations.

“A controlled drainage system can remove between 40 and 60 percent of the nitrogen present in runoff, if used at a large scale. These systems hold huge potential to reduce pollution from very large flows of water runoff,” Youssef explained during my recent visit to NC State’s demonstration farms in eastern North Carolina.

Despite the promise, adoption rates for this practice remain very low, in part because of functionality problems with the first controlled drainage structures. But thanks to new advances in the technology that I recently viewed in the field, adoption rates are rising.

Like any filter practice, controlled drainage is just one tool that can help solve regional water quality problems. It’s not a silver bullet, especially with some geographic limitations since they can be used only on low-sloping fields. While there is no perfect solution to stop farm runoff, after seeing drainage systems first-hand, I too believe we’re nearing a tipping point for widespread adoption of controlled drainage in agriculture – and big environmental benefits. Here’s the story. Read More »

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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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3 ways drones can help take agriculture to new sustainability heights

drone 1

A drone collects data while in flight. Photo credit

Drone technology has been around for decades, taking to the skies to capture movie sequences, collect scientific data and scout territory. But there’s another industry where drones are really beginning to take off: farming.

Agriculture is on tap to make up 80 percent of the market for unmanned aircrafts in the next couple of decades. With the invention of newer, more effective technologies, drones have the potential to launch the agriculture industry into a future of sustainability.

4 ways drones are helping people and nature prepare for climate change

Rules of the sky

In February of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed long-awaited rules on the commercial use of small drones in the agricultural sector. The new regulations require operators to be certified, fly only during daylight and keep their aircraft in sight. Although this proposed legislation could take one or two years for final adoption, it marks a major step for the industry, as the guidelines provide the formal structure needed to legitimize drone use and advance the market for their production.

Although drone technology is still modifying production to increase ease of use and lower prices, these machines already have the potential to go a long way towards improving farmers’ bottom lines – and the environment. Here are three key benefits of drone use in agriculture: Read More »

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Sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand, says Iowa corn farmer

TimRichter

Tim Richter, owner of Saratoga Partnership.

Farming is a tough business. With constantly changing crop prices, difficult to predict and increasingly extreme weather variations, and changing consumer demands, growers don’t have an easy time of it.

Like any business, profitability is the number one priority. And it should be – if you are not profitable, it’s very hard to stay in business.

All the growers I’ve worked with care deeply about their land. In a recent survey of a group of Midwestern farmers, “land stewardship” ranked as their top value. And sustainability is in a farmers’ best interest since healthy lands plays a huge role in whether farms will be around – and productive – for the next generation. But making agriculture truly sustainable will require investment from farmers.

Here’s the good news: sustainability and profitability can go hand-in-hand. Efficiencies like fertilizer optimization can result in cost savings. And with those savings, growers can invest in new technologies and cover crops, which can help make farms more resilient and increase yields, generating long term economic gain.

I asked Tim Richter, owner of a swine and corn farm operation spanning 9,000 acres in northern Iowa and Missouri, to tell me his profitability and sustainability story. Read More »

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