As chemical fertilizer costs skyrocketed last growing season, farmers took a hit, and many are considering switching to the old-school fertilizer -- manure -- to keep future yields from going down the drain.
Dave Lorence of Lorence’s Berry Farms in Northfield, Minn.,
has relied on a variety of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to grow his berries for decades, but recently he has started using more organic materials because of the ever-increasing costs of chemicals.
"Its a very dangerous situation to get food costs so high that farmers can’t afford to grow it," Lorence said. "It’s a catastrophe, and I don’t think people in the government are looking at it.”
Some of the chemicals Lorence uses more than doubled in cost in one season, and seed costs spiked drastically as well. "Basically, we're strangling the consumer," he said. Lorence relies heavily on a variety of food-grade fertilizers that he applies through chemigation, a process of injecting the nutrients into the irrigation water.
“Fertilizers are a very technical part of our business,” Lorence said. “We do a lot of leaf analysis and soil tests to keep everything safe. I sometimes call myself a chemist with all the work we need to do."
As a strawberry farmer Lorence has to be especially cautious with the large-scale machinery that is needed to spread manure and composted materials. He must also weigh the increased cost of labor created by the use of organic fertilizers.
“We’re looking at this for a longtime thing so we want to do the best we can,” Lorence said. “[But] if we go completely organic without finding where the fine line is, it could be so costly to grow this stuff for labor that we’d have to step backwards and go back to what we’re doing now."
When using manure, farmers like Lorence need to be cautious of bacteria that could cause E coli or salmonella and ruin an entire crop. But Lorence said he is confident that relying more on organic material is the right direction for his farm and for the environment.
“We have to do a better job and be more concerned about the future of our children and our grandchildren,” Lorence said. "Our ecosystem and everything else has to be in check. We have to make sure now that we are taking care of it, otherwise everything could be gone soon.”
A long-time organic farmer's view
"I've never done anything other than organics," Hart said. "It's the best thing for the planet and it produces food that is good for the body." Hart's operation is nearly self-sustaining -- she grows most of her own fertilizer and seed, pushing production costs exponentially lower.
But Hart said it isn't practical to grow everything she needs. (Even her operation isn't immune to budget-busting pressures.) “Some of the potting mix that we use as part of the national organic program went for four times higher than the price it was before,” Hart said. “And that’s a pretty significant cost for us because we do a lot of greenhouse starts -- and seeds more than doubled last year.”
Curbing costs by using more manure isn't as simple for Hart. An organic operation has strict guidelines.
“If you’re organic there is a whole protocol around the composting of manure,” she said. “There are certain temps it has to reach over a certain number of days to take care of bacteria, and certain diets for the cows whose manure is being used.”
Even with strict standards, Hart said manure and composting fertilizers make a huge difference in her produce and offer a better alternative to conventionally farmed goods.
“With conventional farming it’s like feeding your plants Kool-Aid,” Hart said. “You’re giving them the fast-growing energy they need, but you’re not giving them all the micro nutrients that come from organic material and those are what gives you the taste.”
David Schmidt, extension engineer at the University of Minnesota’s biosystems and agriculture engineering department, said most farmers use a combination of organic and inorganic material. Schmidt has been studying the most effective use and application of manure for several years, and he said its biggest drawback is that manure can be unpredictable in its composition.
“In terms of commercial fertilizer you have constant chemical levels,” Schmidt said. “So if you need a certain rate of nitrogen, you have a pretty good chance of getting that rate with chemical fertilizers. And when you apply manure, part of it has to break down before its nutrients are available.”
The biggest benefit is the variety of nutrients that manure contains, according to Schmidt.
“Most of the research says if you’re not applying manure to the soil, your soil is being depleted,” he said. “If your land has not had manure on it and you start applying manure, even if you’re applying the same rate of nitrogen, if you apply it in the form of manure you’re going to get more crops produced than if you just applied commercial fertilizer.”
Schmidt said he has seen an increase in interest in manure. Farmers from across the state have turned to this more sustainable means of fertilizer because it is cheaper and because its nutrients aren’t depleted as quickly, he said.
For organic and inorganic farmers, Schmidt said the future costs of chemical fertilizers will be hard to predict, but manure will likely always be readily available.
“Manure is a fairly renewable resource,” he said. “Unless animals get a severe genetic makeover, I think it’s safe to say manure will always be on hand.”