Ag 101 Week 14

The Fourth R 


I never thought I would see the day when fertilizers are on the endangered species list of hard to source. I remember starting out back just a few short years ago, and a mentor in the industry mentioned that we could see the day that some of the components used to make organic or naturally derived fertilizers could be hard to get. I thought that’s crazy talk, that will never happen. However, within a few years it has become more challenging to find commonly used inputs such as greensand and raw aragonite, and once you do find them, the price disparages between suppliers and shipping cost can limit and or prohibit their use.

The previous paragraph is from a post from Week 6 of the Ag 101 52 Weeks of Agronomy Series that you can find here  

Ag 101 Week 6

But finding the right source goes beyond all that I previously mentioned.  It involves looking at a soil test determining what is best for the crop, the soil, what is available, and what a farmer can afford. I think people should also understand that no matter what type of farming system you use, i.e., management practices such as no-till or minimum-till, etc., inputs as I commonly refer to them as are all chemistries. Nothing more nothing less. Which type you choose to use -conventional, organic, all-natural, or otherwise they are still chemistries and influence the chemical and physical properties of the soil. Remember the triangle?



 At the heart of agronomy is managing the relationship between the soil, the crop, and the person responsible for them, aka the farmer. Inputs are one part of that balancing act between the three. The trick to being profitable is balancing them in a way that does just that, leads to a profit at the end of the season.

So, how do I determine the right sources for a farmer I’m working with?

For me, as a consulting agronomist, it has to meet certain criteria based first on the type of grower I’m working with. If they are certified organic, I go to that list, if they are conventional I go to that list, if they are a biodynamic grower I go to that list and so on. Just considering that can narrow the options considerably.

 Then I take into consideration everything that has been done to the area they are working whether it be a field, raised bed, or hoop house system.  I want to know it’s past, what has been grown there, what amendments have been used in the past 2-3 years, what fertilizers have been applied how and when, and what crop is going to be planted. The soil is a dynamic system that is constantly changing, however, done at an extremely variable rate due to all the outside influences on it. Getting as much of the back story as I can, will help me build what should be a long-term relationship with that field. Much as people act and behave based on their past so does soil. 

Next, and I probably mentioned this already, I take the future crop or current perennial crop, whichever the case may be into consideration. Considering the crop becomes more important when considering fertilizer because it feeds the crop first and then the soil. During a recent farm visit, I was asked how animal nutritionist and agronomist work together. I jokingly say they don’t. I look at the system with the crop in mind, basically making my decisions based on the crops needs, they look at a system with the animal in mind, making their decisions based on the animal’s needs. Growing up through my scouting days, I often heard agronomist referred to as cow killers for this very reason. Here is where balance can be more important than ever. Now, I consider the whole system.  Does it make an agronomist an animal nutritionist looking at things this way, no? I know some good ones you can get advice from. What it does is makes me a better agronomist so that can tailor a program specific to your farming system.

Next, I look at your soil through a soil test and crop performance. I work with a grower that determines 90% of their fertility program based on how each crop they grow tastes. They eat their way through harvest. We work together to fine-tune things with testing such as soil and tissue. Can every grower do it that way, no? But why not start and look at individual plants and take into consideration appearance and overall health characteristics that present themselves during each stage of growth. I often walk into a greenhouse or certain fields and look at nothing but leaves. Plants will tell you pretty much everything you want to know; the trick is to listen before they stop talking.

Last but not least, price and availability have to be considered. Ever hear the saying “The profit is in the buying?” You cannot outsell your initial investment, especially given the number of variables and costs associated with farming. Fertilizer is one of that growing season's initial investments.  When working with products that are naturally derived their price is largely determined by availability and transportation costs. Which can be good and bad, just because it’s free and abundant doesn’t mean it is what your soil or crop needs.

Having said all that, I’m not sure if any of you have noticed or not, but I have not gone into talking about specific inputs.  I did it for a few of reasons. First, there are books and resources dedicated to explaining individual inputs. One I'm currently reading is Practical Organic Gardening by Mark Highland. Don't let the title dissuade you from taking this book seriously as a market or larger size grower. Size doesn't matter, the scale is what is important. Input are still chemistries no matter if it's in your back yard or a 10 acre field. 

Second, when you realize that all inputs are a chemistry used to achieve a certain goal for that crop, the options become almost limitless unless you work through the steps I wrote about. I am merely attempting to get you to think beyond what your standard soil test recommendations call for. I work with all types of growers, what type of source a grower uses is personal to their system and needs.

It's similar to when I do a presentation. Things are general to be able to give the most number of people the most amount of information. If they have specific questions, they ask by either tracking me down that day, emailing or calling me. Feel free to all of that if you have specific questions. Last, I’ve put together a brief eBook including a section about specific inputs that you are more than welcome to download. It is not an exhausted list, however, it gives an overview of some of the more common inputs.