Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): nitrogen

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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Collaboration can save the Mississippi River watershed

By Suzy Friedman, Director, Agricultural Sustainability, Environmental Defense Fund and Max Starbuck, Director, Market Development, National Corn Growers Association

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Credit: America’s Watershed Initiative

Today, a diverse group of more than 400 businesses, associations, government agencies, science organizations, academic institutions and non-profit organizations released the first-ever report card evaluating the condition of one of our nation’s most storied and central waterways. This effort, known as America’s Watershed Initiative, was undertaken to provide information on the challenges facing the waters and lands that make up the 31-state Mississippi River Watershed and the 250 rivers that flow into it.

The overall mark was less than stellar, a D+. However, the process of grading has yielded a pathway to improvement.

Why the poor rating? The watershed continues to experience increased pressure from the demands of urbanization, agriculture, transportation and land development.

Fortunately, moving from a “D+” to an “A” grade is achievable – with new levels of understanding and collaboration. That’s why the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Corn Growers Association have a real desire to work together on this and similar initiatives. Read More »

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Agricultural carbon markets get yet another boost

farmIn the past three months, three new revenue opportunities have emerged for growers. In June, the first ever carbon offset protocol for crop-base agriculture in a cap-and-trade market was approved for U.S. rice growers by the California Air Resources Board (ARB). The “rice protocol” announcement was followed shortly after by approval of a voluntary grasslands protocol, which rewards farmers for avoiding the conversion of grasslands to cropland.

And now, USDA has demonstrated its interest in and support of another market-based approach for growers: increasing fertilizer use efficiency. Thanks to a new grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), EDF and partners will be helping almond and corn farmers reduce fertilizer runoff and nitrous oxide emissions, and earn greenhouse gas credits that can generate revenue.

Here’s what this project will entail: Read More »

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Strong market signal for sustainable grain

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Walmart, Smithfield Foods and USDA discuss sustainable agriculture in St. Louis.

The agricultural supply chain is shifting towards demanding more sustainably produced grains, according to some of the country’s biggest food companies and retailers.

Representatives from Walmart, Smithfield Foods, and USDA recently discussed the importance of and increased consumer demand for agricultural sustainability in front of 100 agricultural retailers in St Louis. They were there for a meeting convened by United Suppliers, Inc., with a primary focus of the company’s SUSTAIN™ platform.

Three messages were clear:

  • Demand for more sustainable crops is here to stay.
  • Growers’ connection with the consumers of their products is increasing.
  • Fertilizer optimization and soil health offer a business opportunity for growers, ag retailers, and food companies alike.

Read More »

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How cover crops can help growers beat droughts and floods

Cover crops can include grasses like cereal rye.

Cover crops can include grasses like cereal rye.

Corn is trying to fight this summer’s extreme weather, and unfortunately, the weather is winning.

There are serious floods in the Midwest, devastating droughts in California, and brutal heat waves along the eastern seaboard. Ohio for example had a record June rainfall of 11 inches, which stunted corn roots and prevented many growers from planting any corn crops. In Northwest Ohio alone, 100,000 acres were left unplanted. At the same time, places in my home state of North Carolina experienced a June heat wave during the critical corn pollination period, significantly damaging corn yields.

These extreme weather events leave many farmers searching for ways to make the best of a challenging growing season. Although June’s weather was the opposite in Ohio and North Carolina, cover crops offer a proven solution to deal with both conditions. Read More »

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SUSTAIN: navigating the boom in precision ag

There’s new proof that precision agriculture is on the rise.

Earlier this month, CropLife magazine and Purdue University released a survey that found more than 85 percent of agricultural retailers plan on investing in precision agriculture services in the next year. And more than 15 percent of the 2,000 retailers surveyed will invest over $100,000.

This is good news for increasing fertilizer efficiency, because precision technologies can go a long way toward helping farmers know when and where to apply fertilizer. Applying fertilizer when, where, and in the amounts it’s needed can help save on input costs and reduce the environmental impacts that occur when excess nitrogen runs off into nearby waters or is released into the air.

But there’s a caveat – with so many precision agriculture tools available today and even more coming to market on a regular basis, how is a farmer to know what is best? Growers need to have confidence that precision ag tools will help them optimize their fertilizer use, improve their farm’s sustainability, and protect their yields. Read More »

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Meet Brent Bible, state trooper turned farmer and mentor

BrentBibleA new Purdue University study released this week found that agriculture will create nearly 60,000 jobs each year for the next five years. But to meet this growing demand, more students will need to graduate with agricultural degrees. And as the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a recent interview, the farming sector must do more to work with students and the educational system as a whole.

That’s where growers like Brent Bible come into play.  Brent is inspiring the next generation of farmers, scientists, researchers, and agronomists through his work with Purdue students who help him operate his 3,000-acre grain farm in Indiana. He’s also promoting soil health, nutrient efficiency, and sustainable agriculture through changes in on-farm practices.

I asked Brent, a former Indiana state police officer, about his transition to the agricultural world, his work with the Soil Health Partnership, and what gets him out of bed every morning. Read More »

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How to end the fertilizer guessing game

TractorLanceCheungUSDAviaFlickrAs spring planting season gets underway, many farmers are starting to wonder how much nitrogen they should apply to their crops this year to maximize yields.

The traditional approach is to apply a bit of extra fertilizer as an insurance policy to protect yields in case some of it washes away. The problem is, this is costly – nitrogen fertilizer accounts for at least half of farmers’ input costs, even though on average, 50 percent of the nitrogen applied is lost – and harmful to air and water quality.

What we need is to get to a sweet spot of fertilizer application – meaning the right amount that both protects natural resources and maximizes yields.

I asked Thomas Morris, professor of soil fertility at the University of Connecticut, about ways that research, precision agriculture tools, and data analysis can help farmers determine the right amount of fertilizer to apply to their crops. Read More »

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Three reasons fertilizer retailers should promote nitrogen efficiency

14980820705_b8d28549c9_nAt first, the idea that fertilizer companies should help farmers become more efficient with fertilizer use is counterintuitive. After all, fertilizer retailers are in business to make money, so it makes sense that they would want to maximize sales of their core product.

Fortunately, using fertilizer more efficiently – even if this means less in some cases — can create more profit for retailers and growers. Fertilizer retailers have good reasons to incorporate fertilizer efficiency in their business strategies. Read More »

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Beyond regulation: making the business case for sustainable farming

BarnStream_shutterstock_1539474_RFRegulations and lawsuits generate more tension, disagreement, division, and, too often, failure to communicate, than just about anything else in the agricultural world. Regulations are on my mind of late because of several developments:

    • Ohio recently considered legislation to increase regulations on fertilizer applications after a toxic algae bloom last August shut down water supplies to nearly half a million people.
    • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the final stages of a proposal to resolve ongoing confusion about the extent of federal jurisdiction over isolated wetlands and streams under the Clean Water Act (CWA), clarifying which are protected and which are not, based on science. Sixty percent of our nation’s streams lack clear protection from pollution under the CWA, yet one of every three Americans gets their drinking water from streams that are vulnerable to pollution.  Just this week, new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted that Congress will address this proposal in the current legislative session.

    Read More »

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