This article is part two of our three-part series on fertilizer. In the first installment, we looked at the supply chain issues that have led to high fertilizer prices and the environmental concerns that are encouraging some farmers to move away from synthetic fertilizer. In this article, we look at how farmers are navigating this moment and adapting their farming systems in response.
With fertilizer prices at an all-time high, farmers feel pressure and uncertainty concerning yields and profitability. Farmers who use synthetic fertilizers are directly seeing their input costs skyrocket, while farmers who use organic fertilizers, such as animal manures, are also experiencing higher prices as demand increases for alternatives. All farmers are finding that they must apply creativity, knowledge and innovation to meet the present-day and future challenges of nutrient applications. We spoke to farmers who utilize different farming systems to understand how they are being impacted by supply chain issues and navigating these evolving conditions.
Kip Tom of Tom Farms
Kip Tom is the Managing Member of Tom Farms, a family-owned agribusiness and global crop production company and one of Indiana’s largest farming operations that also operates a grain trading business and invests in agtech companies. Kip also served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture from 2019 to 2021.
According to Kip’s estimates, he is currently paying about 110 percent more for fertilizer than he was a year ago. At the same time, commodity prices have also risen, which has helped to lessen the burden. But Kip’s concern is that fertilizer prices will stay high while commodity prices drop. His objective has been to have as much knowledge as possible when deciding when to purchase fertilizer, and Tom Farms has the capacity to store fertilizer to provide some flexibility. But despite his knowledge and understanding of the market, Kip still emphasized that there is so much uncertainty. According to Kip, “Right now we’re in a place where a lot of people don’t know where this market is going to go. So it’s hard to determine whether to buy today or wait until later.”
Luckily, Tom Farms employs extensive technology to enable them to be incredibly precise with fertilizer applications. “We started about 15 years ago with a robust program of collecting data to understand where we’re applying, how much we’re applying, when we’re applying and the impacts to yield,” says Kip. “There are a lot of factors that go into how we look at fertilizer application on our farm.” This has enabled the Tom Farms team to use machine learning to drive their fertilizer application program.
While Kip’s goal is to be as efficient with fertilizer as possible, he is always on the lookout for other nutrient sources for his crops. The farm uses chicken manure to the extent that they can, but because of the operation's size and the availability of manure, it is unrealistic to rely on it entirely. Kip has also been trialing biologicals, which make nutrients in the air or soil available to plants, for over a decade but says he has “yet to find continued consistent results working with those products.” He emphasized that the financial risk of relying on biologicals today can be substantial for producers if they don’t see expected outcomes and even more consequential in countries that already have lower yields and high rates of food insecurity.
Farming inherently involves many risks, and farmers are understandably hesitant to “bet the farm” on new technologies. But Tom Farms is hoping to continue to investigate new products to see if they can incorporate them in the future. The key factor would be more comprehensive data to support the effectiveness of new approaches so farmers can feel comfortable relying on them in a meaningful way. According to Kip, “We need to try these products and seek new solutions, which many farmers are doing. Our land grant universities are testing these products too and working to collect this information and share it with others. So it's up to us to hold ourselves accountable to do these trials.”
While Tom Farms has always prioritized incorporating technology, data and innovative solutions into their operations, Kip says he is seeing all farmers become more open to new technologies “to try to squeeze every bit of performance out of that pound of nitrogen or phosphorus or potassium.”
“I've yet to find a farmer who wants to spend more money than he has on chemistries, synthetic fertilizers, seeds or equipment investments. That's been a big driver this year, and we probably have seen more people step into using some of these new technologies to understand how to be more efficient.”
- Kip Tom, Tom Farms
But Kip’s greatest concern lies outside of his farm. His governmental work has taken him to agricultural communities around the world, and he has seen firsthand the impacts that low yields and ensuing hunger can have on populations. He is currently working with farmers in several countries who are struggling to access fertilizer, and many of them are significantly reducing fertilizer use or not using it at all. “The impact is loss of yield, which leads to lack of affordable food,” says Kip. “When we have high prices, it disproportionately affects those that can least afford it.”
He believes we have a responsibility to help farmers in these countries access fertilizer and innovations in the short term to avoid the devastating effects of a dramatic decline in yields and the resulting increases in food costs.
Greg Schreiner of Silver Reef Organic Farms
Greg Schreiner runs Silver Reef Farms, which comprises 2,000 acres of organic farmlands in Northern Colorado and produces grain, edible beans and fodder feed. The farm is the oldest organic farm in Colorado, and Greg has farmed it organically since 2013. He does not apply synthetic fertilizers and instead uses animal manure and several other practices to improve soil nutrient content.
For years, Silver Reef would get most of their fertilizer by sending their trucks to a feedlot, cleaning the pens and hauling away cow manure. Then around three years ago, synthetic fertilizer prices started going up, albeit not to the degree they have today, and more conventional farmers became interested in using cow manure to save on fertilizer costs, driving up the price of cow manure. But according to Greg, organic farming is all about being presented with problems and finding creative solutions. Silver Reef switched to using chicken manure, which turned out to be helpful in many ways. Chicken manure has 90 pounds of nitrogen per ton, compared to the 5 pounds per ton in cow manure, which means Silver Reef saves time, money and labor by transporting less manure while also generating fewer emissions.
Today there is increased demand for chicken manure as well, further driving up prices and leaving Greg to figure out how to adapt again and become even more efficient. For example, Greg is working to improve the precision of fertilizer placement. This involves applying fertilizer only where the crop is growing, as well as some even more innovative techniques. According to Greg, “in conventional farming, they can place the synthetic fertilizer two inches down from the seed, and two inches over. As that plant grows, it takes in the fertilizer. It's called two-by-two placement of synthetic fertilizer. So how can we replicate that for the organic farmer?” Greg is working with a company that is creating pelletized slow-release chicken manure that he believes will be a real game changer for organic farming.
It is important to note that while chicken manure is sourced more locally and may not be susceptible to the same level of disruption that synthetic fertilizer supply chains are currently experiencing, it is certainly not foolproof. There is currently a wave of avian flu sweeping through poultry farms in the United States, which means chicken manure may be in short supply next season.
Luckily, Silver Reef Organic Farms does not just rely on one nutrient source for their crops. Greg also emphasized the key role that cover crops play in increasing available nutrients in the soil, controlling weeds and reducing soil compaction. He spoke about creating a cover crop seed mix based on a field’s needs–for example, to fix nitrogen he uses sweet clover, or wheat, or peas which convert atmospheric nitrogen into usable plant compounds. To help with compaction, he would use turnips and radishes. According to Greg “These cover crop mixes provide our farm with operating efficiency by reducing manure applications and purchases of supplemental nitrogen.” He emphasized that while “there are many advantages to cover crops for operating efficiency, they also provide the soil with additional organic matter by sequestering carbon, fixing nitrogen and thereby reducing soil nitrous oxide emissions.”
When it comes to biologicals, Greg agrees that he is not able to completely rely on them just yet. “Everybody's in their test mode for different biologicals," says Greg. "But organically you have to be OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified and there's no OMRI certified biologicals out there yet.”
Greg’s multi-pronged approach highlights the importance of not just relying on one nutrient source but employing different methods and techniques. His goal is to reach a point where he can feel confident about the nutrients he is getting from cover crops and biologicals so that he can reduce the amount of manure he needs to purchase. Greg also spoke to the fact that it can be difficult for farmers to put all their trust into new approaches and technologies. As an organic regenerative farmer, he is always experimenting with ways to improve his operation while also serving as a proof case for other farmers looking to take on new practices. But at the same time, he needs to see the data and have the verification capabilities to understand how these new technologies and practices will support his operation.
When it comes to yield, Greg believes farmers can get the same yields with organic inputs as with synthetic fertilizers, if they use cover crops and other helpful practices. “In the fall of 2020, we did all of our corn fields in cover crops,” he says. “Before that we had a three year average of 157 bushel-per-acre for our corn. It's okay, but it's not great. Then we did the cover crops, the strip tilling, and all that. We averaged 204 bushels to the acre last year. I mean, that's unbelievable.”
But at the end of the day, Greg agrees with Kip that there is simply not enough manure to transition all of our agriculture to organic and go cold turkey on synthetic fertilizers. “There's only so much manure being produced,” he says.
“A lot of people are saying, 'Boy, we need more transition in America to organic.' I get it, but where are we going to get the fertilizer source?”
- Greg Schreiner, Silver Reef Farms
In our last article in this series on fertilizer, we will look at some of these practices and technologies currently being employed by farmers or are still being trialed that can help farmers diversify their nutrient sources and become more resilient in the face of supply chain disruptions and other obstacles.