The Future of Agriculture: Embracing Organic Nitrogen Fertilizer & Microbes

Life is ever-changing, and the past two years have been a whirlwind. We’ve all felt the impact of supply chain disruptions and inflation, and one industry that has been particularly affected is agriculture. Among the challenges faced by farmers, the skyrocketing cost of nitrogen fertilizers stands out.

The United States, the world’s largest consumer of nitrogen fertilizers, imports a staggering 14.5% of the global supply. Since 2020, the cost of nitrogen-based fertilizers has quadrupled, and the situation worsened when Russia, the largest exporter of synthetic fertilizers, banned their exportation in early 2022, prior to invading Ukraine. This ban has further isolated Russia from global trade, compounding the supply chain issues in the agricultural sector.

Conventional farmers who heavily rely on synthetic fertilizers are grappling with high costs and low returns. Commodity crop growers, in particular, are dependent on government subsidies to survive due to extremely slim profit margins. The sharp increase in fertilizer and fuel costs may finally push farmers to seek alternative methods of crop fertilization.

In this article, we will explore the history of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and shed light on their detrimental impact on the environment. We will also emphasize that these chemicals are not the only solution and discuss natural sources of nitrogen that are essential for plant growth.

The Evolution of Synthetic Nitrogen

To understand the current state of synthetic fertilizers, it’s important to delve into their origins. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, German scientist Fritz Haber and his team developed the Fritz-Haber Process, a procedure that converted atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia through high-pressure and high-temperature techniques. This breakthrough paved the way for the industrial-scale production of fertilizers in partnership with Carl Bosch at BASF.

The increased plant yield resulting from the Haber-Bosch Process played a crucial role in preventing mass starvation and earned Haber the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. However, it is worth noting that Haber’s legacy is marred by the fact that he was also involved in the development of chemical weapons and defended their use.

The close connection between synthetic fertilizers and munitions manufacturing became apparent after World War II when factories that previously produced munitions were repurposed for fertilizer production. Today, about half of the world’s food production relies on the Haber-Bosch Process.

While synthetic fertilizers have contributed to increased food production, they have also led to the destruction of soil biology. Fortunately, we now know that there are alternative ways to cycle nutrients within ecosystems without the need for chemical fertilizers. As growers and stewards of the land, our primary responsibility is to ensure the presence of soil life that collaborates with the plants we aim to cultivate.

The True Costs of Synthetic Fertilizers

The Economic Cost

Farmers who heavily rely on petrochemical fertilizers are currently grappling with the escalating costs in 2022. In 2020, the price of conventional nitrogen, known as anhydrous ammonia, was around $450 per ton. By January 2022, however, prices were nearing a staggering $1500 per ton. This uncertainty surrounding conventional farming raises concerns about the affordability of chemical inputs such as fertilizers and fuel, leaving farmers unsure if they can even afford to plant their crops.

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The Environmental Cost

The environmental consequences of synthetic fertilizers are equally concerning. Most of the chemical inputs applied to crops are not fully absorbed by plants and end up seeping into the water table, eventually finding their way into larger bodies of water through streams and rivers. This phenomenon leads to the development of algal blooms, which deplete oxygen levels in bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

The excessive amounts of nitrogen fertilizers that travel long distances can cause algal blooms, resulting in the death of aquatic species. Algal blooms are a nationwide issue in the United States, leading to toxic algae in ponds, rivers, lakes, bays, and even drinking water supplies. Over the past decade, the US has spent more than a billion dollars to address the consequences of these algal outbreaks.

Algal Bloom Infographic

But what if we could avoid all of this?

What if we could rely on natural methods of fertility for our food crops and landscapes?

What if the Earth’s atmosphere already contained all the nutrients and minerals plants need to thrive?

Here’s a secret… it does.

Moving Away from Chemical Fertilizers: What’s the Alternative?

Long before humans roamed the planet, plants and microorganisms worked harmoniously together. Plants have the ability to manage their own nutritional needs, thanks to photosynthesis. They convert solar energy into chemical energy stored as carbohydrates and exude excess carbohydrates, such as sugars, starches, and proteins, through their roots to attract beneficial bacteria and fungi.

These microbes store excess nutrients within them, and when they die or are consumed, they release these nutrients in a form that plants can readily absorb. As plants attract these beneficial microorganisms to their root zones, they ensure that the nutrients provided by the microbes are efficiently taken up and utilized.

To enhance the soil with beneficial biology, the best way is to use quality composts, vermicomposts, and liquid compost amendments like teas and extracts. Vermicomposts, in particular, are highly regarded for their rich microbial populations and plant growth hormones, making them the top choice for introducing beneficial organisms to soils and other growing mediums.

Apart from the microbial benefits, vermicompost offers another advantage. Worms have a calciferous gland that excretes calcium carbonate through their digestive system, resulting in higher quantities of calcium in worm castings. Calcium is an essential mineral for nitrogen uptake in plants. Vermicompost can also be transformed into compost tea or extract, which are more efficient at providing coverage to plants and soils compared to granular compost. Additionally, they can be applied to plant foliage, acting as a protective barrier against pests and diseases.

Organic Sources of Nitrogen

Organic nitrogen can be derived from various sources, with manure-based options being the most commonly used on medium to large-scale farms due to their cost-effectiveness and availability. Animals produce manure, and it becomes a valuable resource for nitrogen fertilizers. Poultry manure, for instance, has a high concentration of nitrogen per unit. However, most manures require aging or composting before application to prevent plant “burn” caused by excessive nitrogen. Other types of manure utilized for fertilizers come from animals such as sheep, pigs, cattle, rabbits, alpacas, and llamas.

When using manure, it’s essential to be cautious about possible herbicide contamination. Grazing animals or ruminants that have access to fields or ditches sprayed with chemical herbicides can lead to persistent herbicide presence in their manure. These persistent herbicides can remain active for up to two years, even after digestion by animals. Composts containing persistent herbicides have the potential to harm or deform future crops, so it’s crucial to avoid using such composts.

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If we are moving away from synthetic nitrogen due to its environmental and economic costs, what alternatives are available to us, especially on a smaller scale? Here are some natural sources of nitrogen that can replace synthetic fertilizers:

Animal-Based Nitrogen

Animal-based nitrogen sources tend to have higher nitrogen content compared to plant-based sources.

Feather Meal

A byproduct of the poultry industry, feather meal contains the highest concentration of nitrogen among organic fertilizers. Feathers are ground and dried until they become a grainy powder.

  • Average nitrogen content: 13-14%
  • Pros: Slow-release form of nitrogen, low cost
  • Cons: Not very soluble in water

Blood Meal

Blood meal is mainly sourced from slaughtered animals, particularly cattle. The blood is collected, dried, and turned into a powder.

  • Average nitrogen content: 12-13%
  • Pros: Highly bio-accessible form of high-nitrogen fertilizer, low cost
  • Cons: Easy to overuse, short-lasting, may attract carnivorous animals

Fish Meal

Fish meal is primarily derived from inedible parts of larger fish or smaller fish from the food fish and fish oil industry.

  • Average nitrogen content: 8-10%
  • Pros: Excellent source of phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients
  • Cons: Strong fish odor, highly potent

Crab and Shrimp Meal

Both crab and shrimp meal are byproducts of the seafood industry. The shells and exoskeletons of these crustaceans are dried and ground into a powder.

  • Average nitrogen content: 4%
  • Pros: High calcium, magnesium, and trace minerals content; promotes soil biology; slow-release form of nitrogen; features chitin
  • Cons: Potential odors that may attract animals

Human Urine

Another unique nitrogen source gaining popularity is human urine, also known as “peecycling.” Human urine is a largely overlooked source of nitrogen for crops. Organizations like the Rich Earth Institute collect and reclaim urine from willing participants, utilizing it as a natural fertilizer for croplands. So, when it comes to using human urine as a nitrogen source for crop growth, we say, “go” for it! Just make sure you wait until your bladder is full!

Plant-Based Nitrogen

Plant-based nitrogen fertilizers have lower nitrogen percentages, so a higher rate of application is required compared to animal-based sources.

Plant-based fertilizers can be sprinkled around the root zone or added to potting mixes when sowing seeds.

Alfalfa Meal

Alfalfa meal is derived from the nutrient-rich alfalfa plant. The plant is dehydrated and ground into a powder or pellet form.

  • Average nitrogen content: 3%
  • Pros: Sustainable source of nitrogen, can be grown on-farm, does not burn plants even in excess
  • Cons: Pelleted forms require moisture to expand and release nitrogen

Soy Meal

Soy meal is typically a byproduct of soybean oil production. Soybeans are crushed to extract the oil, and the remaining material is ground to produce a meal. Some soybean meals may contain soybean hulls.

  • Average nitrogen content: 7%
  • Pros: One of the highest plant-based nitrogen sources, slow-release fertilizer
  • Cons: Potential burning of plants or reduced germination, higher application may increase soluble salt levels

Cottonseed Meal

Cottonseed meal is obtained from the extraction process of cottonseed oil, similar to soybean oil extraction.

  • Average nitrogen content: 6-7%
  • Pros: High nitrogen content, slow-release form of nitrogen
  • Cons: May acidify the soil

Biology: The Key to Nitrogen Cycling

Let me share an interesting experience I had while applying compost tea for a client. A few days after the application, the client expressed concern that the compost tea had “burned” her tomato plants. I was puzzled as the compost tea was made by diluting about 10 cups of compost, a few tablespoons of humic acid, and fish hydrolysate in 20 gallons of water, which were further diluted in 100 gallons of water. It seemed implausible for such a dilute mixture to cause any harm.

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Upon further inquiry, it turned out that the client had applied a significant amount of blood meal to her tomato plants before my compost tea application. The microbial life in the compost tea rapidly activated the blood meal, causing an excessive release of nitrogen that “burned” the tomato plants.

This incident highlights the role of microorganisms in compost tea, which work in harmony with plants to provide available nutrients in the soil. However, moderation is important to avoid overloading plants with nutrients.

Microbes: Harnessing Nitrogen from the Atmosphere

The Earth’s atmosphere is composed of approximately 78% nitrogen. In nature, nitrogen-fixing bacteria play a remarkable role by extracting this nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and converting it into a plant-available form, effectively creating nitrogen out of thin air. The Haber-Bosch Process, mentioned earlier, is a man-made and more energy-intensive alternative to this natural nitrogen fixation process.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria can either be free-living or symbiotic with host plants. Free-living bacteria, such as Azotobacter, Clostridium, and cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), exist in the soil. Symbiotic bacteria, such as Rhizobium, Frankia, and Azospirillum, form associations with specific types of plants, including legumes and cereal grasses.

These mutualistic nitrogen-fixing bacteria establish root nodules within their host plants, where both the bacteria and plant cells multiply. Inside these root nodules, the bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which the host plant utilizes for growth. Some nitrogen-fixing bacteria even collaborate with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, increasing nitrogen fixation by enhancing the size and number of root nodules.

To harness the benefits of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, you can purchase specific strains to inoculate seeds before planting. Nitrogen-fixing cover crops can also be grown alongside cash crops or during the off-season. These cover crops help provide the soil with necessary nitrogen, eliminating the need for synthetic chemicals. Additionally, cover crops contribute to soil health and nutrient cycling. By choosing a mix of cover crops with varying root depths, plants can extract a wider range of nutrients from the soil. After cover crops die or are terminated, they decompose, making various nutrients and minerals available through microbial interactions.

Embracing Mother Nature’s Wisdom

When it comes to nurturing healthy plants and soils, nature has all the answers, as long as we are willing to work alongside it. The concealed costs of chemical fertilizers can be left behind as we embrace biological farming, a cost-saving, profit-increasing, soil-building, and environment-enhancing approach. By using small amounts of natural organic fertilizers in combination with active soil biology, plants can obtain all the necessary nutrients. Farmers and gardeners can help crops and soil microbes efficiently convert solar and atmospheric energy into chemical energy for plant growth and health.

Implementing cover crops throughout the year ensures the continuous presence of living roots that nurture soil biology and retain nutrients. It’s the collaboration between plants and soil microbes that makes this entire process possible. Let’s learn from soil biology and understand that teamwork truly makes the dream work.

If you need assistance in determining if your soil is suitable for your crops, or if you require help with any other agricultural matter, feel free to reach out to our team at Ames Farm Center. We are here to support you in your journey toward sustainable and fruitful agriculture.