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‘We’re too dependent on synthetic fertilizers’

iStockphoto Vehicle spreading fertilizer on a farm field of corn stubble
Corn that can capture its own nitrogen is still on the drawing table. What about microbials?

When your most critical crop input suddenly doubles in cost, it gets people’s attention. Fertilizer companies blame high world demand, natural gas prices, and supply chain issues. But they’re also making record profits as a monopoly of mainly four U.S. producers push farm gate prices higher and higher, eating into the pocketbooks of farmers who, right or wrong, feel gouged.

So it’s no surprise that people are asking questions, and looking for relief. The National Corn Growers Association wants a federal antitrust investigation.

But until anything in that arena happens, farmers look for alternatives.

Research has come a long way in finding out how to help corn act more like soybeans – i.e. capture its own nitrogen from the air, as we reported three years ago in this story. Back then, researchers looked at a 5-10 year window before they could market corn that could secrete mucus-like gel that converts atmospheric air into nitrogen usable by the plant.

Until that happens the next best thing appears to be soil microbials, N-fixing bacteria that perk up the soil and act like caffeine to plant roots. While they may never fully replace synthetic fertilizer, there is compelling evidence that upwards of 50% of a crop’s nutrient needs could soon come from groundwater-safe, sustainable biologicals.

It can’t happen fast enough for independent agronomists like Larry Eekhoff.

“I feel like I’m trying to fix what I screwed up in the first 33 years of my career, doing what everybody’s been taught to do – sell fertilizer,” says Eekhoff, who led the precision ag division of one of Iowa’s largest ag retailers before launching Agronomy Rx a few years ago. He now does research and consults for 170 farmers in north central Iowa.

“Microbials can make us more profitable in light of today’s nitrogen costs, but we’re still learning,” he says. “We’re too dependent on synthetic fertilizers. In the past, nitrogen has been cheap enough that it didn’t concern people so much. We’d put 80 to 100 pounds of extra N on just for insurance because it was inexpensive. But now microbials are probably some of the least expensive ways to feed the crop out there.”

Eekhoff says most of the benefit from using a biological comes from improved soil health.

“We’re making the soil more prone to releasing nitrogen, getting more from our organic matter, by using better biology,” he says. “One of the big things my customers see is that increase in soil health after we use these biologicals for several years. We’re changing things, we’re putting the soil back to the way it was intended. In doing so we’re improving plant health and improving nutritive value of the crop we’re growing.”

Eekhoff has been in the agronomy business over 40 years and believes practices once considered sound are now more and more problematic.

“I feel guilty because of what we’ve been taught out of university, that we need to put fertilizer on, more fungicides, more pesticides,” he says. “It seems over the last several years, the more we do, the more we have to do."

“Twenty years ago we never thought of applying a fungicide in the Midwest on corn and soybeans, but now it’s almost a must. When we use fungicides, it’s not selective – we’re not only killing bad things, we’re killing good fungi in the soil, too. If we start spraying fungicides three times a year, nothing will be effective anymore. This happened with glyphosate starting in 1996 – we used it, misused it, overused it, and now it doesn’t work anymore. It really bothers me that we just keep pouring pesticides on."

“We need to unwind chemical-intensive agriculture and focus more on biology.”

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