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Sustainable Fertilizer Work
Monday, October 27, 2014 9:30AM CDT

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

DES MOINES (DTN) -- Matt Carstens reached out to Environmental Defense Fund last spring to talk about fertilizer efficiency after seeing a news article about Walmart's push to reduce fertilizer usage for corn production.

Carstens, vice president of crop nutrients for United Suppliers, was looking for a relationship to better understand what major retailers expect from farmers regarding fertilizer use. He also had a network of 760 ag retailers in 20 states and four western Canadian provinces that were already wired into the fertilizer industry's 4Rs emphasis on nutrient management. Carstens saw a way to connect Walmart's interest in reducing its greenhouse-gas footprint with United Suppliers' work reducing nutrient loss.

Carstens said he began with a question: "What is it everybody wants and how do we achieve that?"

"It's really a combination of the four 'Rs' and going to EDF and saying, 'What is Walmart asking for?'" Carstens said.

The 4R program comes from the fertilizer industry and stands for the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, and the right time and in the right place.

Environmental Defense Fund announced earlier this month that the group had added United Suppliers to part of the group's Sustainable Sourcing Initiative to work up and down the supply chain to reduce fertilizer usage by improving efficiency.

EDF's initiative calls for increasing fertilizer efficiency on essentially half the U.S. corn crop by 2020, roughly 45 million acres, the group noted. Doing so would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by an estimated 25 million tons. In particular, lower fertilizer usage would reduce nitrous oxide, one of the more potent greenhouse gases. Reducing fertilizer applications, or rates, would also lead to long-term improvements in water quality as well. Working with farmers in 20 states means this kind of work could play a role in helping agriculture meet water-quality goals across several states.

Walmart announced just over a year ago that the retailer now requires food companies that use commodity grains to outline goals to reduce fertilizer usage. The retailer wants its supply chain to reduce fertilizer use on 14 million acres in the U.S. by 2020. That mostly involves pilot projects Walmart already has developed.

EDF worked with United Suppliers to develop a program that will be rolled out to farmers by the company's retailer network and own staff. United Suppliers plans to enroll about 10 million acres in the fertilizer efficiency program by 2020. As Friedman noted, that's a huge scale up that would translate into farmers helping corporations meet their sustainability goals.

"Without a real commitment and engagement from those who have a real large footprint in working directly with farmers and delivering those services, then you can't really get to the scale that those food companies retailers are calling for," said Suzy Friedman, director of EDF's Sustainable Sourcing Initiative. "So it's enormously exciting for EDF and a big, big priority for us."

As Carstens noted, more people are beginning to see that ag retailers play a key role influencing farmers by helping them improve the efficiency of fertilizer applications and add some conservation practices.

"It's really bringing both ends of the chain together," Carstens said, "It's a big task out there trying to reach all of corn country. It takes a lot of different options to take to growers and retailers so they can use the practices that are best for them."

United Suppliers calls its program "Sustain," which will focus on nutrient stewardship and conservation. United Suppliers also has an exclusive marketing agreement with the Carroll, Iowa-based company Agren to work with farmers on various conservation practices based on Agren's map technology and soil-erosion calculators. That work and concentration on conservation practices helps add to the ability to reduce fertilizer loss from farms.

United Suppliers is working to develop more workshops and training with farmers. The company is at the forefront of helping farmers better manage fertilizer and demonstrate to the rest of the food chain how farmers can perform better.

"You have got some people stepping out there trying some things and we have got to figure out how to do this on a bigger scale," said Chris Jahn, president of The Fertilizer Institute. "They are showing leadership. Nobody made them do this, and we're trying to figure out what works for everybody."

Tracking the footprint of farmers and the industry supply chain requires using the new range of data-collection and farm-management tools available. Friedman said EDF's initiative is looking at platforms to collect and aggregate data that will analyze fertilizer usage and efficiency on fields. Data would look at timing, split applications and other farm practices. Such information would look at performance and rates of adoption.

"Right now, we are looking at tracking data back to the field and be actual data, but it will be aggregated in a way it protects farmer confidentiality," Friedman said.

Such data collection then requires some feedback to help farmers better improve timing and fertilizer applications to seek an optimum balance between production and sustainability goals. What changes, how did you change it, and what did that do to your efficiency? Ideally such questions would be integrated into the farmer's normal farm-management program that would eliminate the need to track such information separately, Friedman said. She noted a couple of farm-management programs on the market have those capabilities.

"We want to try to avoid creating an extra loop or extra paperwork that a farmer or grower has to jump through," Friedman said. She added, "I think we're all at the beginning of a steep learning curve and we've got some good processes in place. I fully expect that a year from now we will have learned a whole lot more."

EDF also is active in Field to Market, which Friedman called "pivotal" in looking at some of these questions on sustainability and bringing together the critical players. Field to Market has focused on establishing farm-production benchmarks and metrics, then looking at ways to continually improve on those numbers.

"Field to Market really has picked up the pace, and there has been a lot of momentum," Friedman said.

Chris Clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com.

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN.


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