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Local partnerships can enhance nutrient stewardship

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Improving nutrient management is one of the many challenges facing U.S. agriculture. The Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone—which is linked, in part, to nutrient run-off from cropland in the Mississippi River basin—is arguably the most visible agricultural nutrient management challenge.

In 2007 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reassessed Gulf of Mexico hypoxia and found that a reduction of 45% or more in nitrogen and phosphorous delivered to the Gulf from all sources is needed to reduce the size of the hypoxic zone. Along with other recommendations, the EPA Science Advisory Board recommended “improved management of nutrients by emphasizing infield nutrient management efficiency and effectiveness….” (Links to three EPA reports can be found at the end of this post.)

Calls are increasing for greater regulation to control non-point source losses of nutrients. Recent examples of pending regulations that could affect agriculture include the Total Maximum Daily Load regulations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the numeric nutrient standards in Florida. In addition, an October 2012 article in the Des Moines Register reported that “the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council believes it may be time to require fertilizer-management plans of farmers, similar to the manure-management plans already required of many livestock producers.”

To help accelerate enhanced nutrient stewardship, the Fertilizer Institute has been working collaboratively with the International Plant Nutrition Institute, the International Fertilizer Industry Association, and the Canadian Fertilizer Institute to advance the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Initiative, also known as the 4R Approach.

The science-based 4R Approach to nutrient stewardship—Right fertilizer source at the Right rate at the Right time with the Right placement—can enhance environmental protection, increase crop production, increase farmer profitability, and improve sustainability.

In the spring of 2013, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the Agricultural Retailers Association, the National Association of Conservation Districts, the American Society of Agronomy-Certified Crop Advisors, and the Fertilizer Institute sponsored a survey of agricultural retailers and soil and water conservation district staff. The purpose of the survey was to identify strategies to accelerate the adoption of nutrient stewardship through greater collaboration between agricultural retailers and conservation districts. [Disclosure statement: Blackwoods Group conducted the 4R Survey under contract with the Fertilizer Institute.]

The survey found that staff of agricultural retailer operations and conservation districts had limited awareness of the work each was doing. On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest level of awareness, agricultural retailers rated awareness of conservation district activities at 5.4, and conservation districts rated awareness of agricultural retailer activities at 3.3.

The survey also found low awareness by agricultural retailers of technical assistance available through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and NRCS financial assistance (4.9). As would be expected because of the long NRCS partnership with soil and conservation districts, their awareness of technical assistance (8.9) and financial assistance (8.9) was very high.

Both groups agreed “different objectives” of the organizations is a major barrier to working closer together. However, this may not be a significant concern since the skills of the groups are complementary and there is a common interest in environmental improvement.

A high number of agricultural retailers listed the following barriers: “lack of outreach from their organization” and “lack of understanding of the role of conservationists.” Conservation districts rated “lack of time” as their second biggest barrier.

Both groups rated “having a positive environmental impact” very high on a scale from 1 to 10:  agricultural retailers rated it at 9.1 and conservation districts rated it at 9.4. The groups also agreed that perceived cost and farming traditions are major barriers to adopting nutrient stewardship practices. These findings should serve as an excellent foundation for collaboration on helping farmers adopt 4R nutrient stewardship practices.

Although there are many differences between the two groups, these differences should not be a significant obstacle to improved collaboration with farmers to improve nutrient stewardship. The two groups focus on different practices, with agricultural retailers recommending 4R related practices, and conservationists recommending a broader array of practices. Since each group has distinct, yet complementary strengths—derived from their differing objectives—there is great potential for collaboration. The groups also evaluated the economic and environmental benefits of practices differently, largely because of the differences in their missions.

Opportunities exist to enhance collaboration between the two groups through improved information exchange. In fact, agricultural retailers and conservation districts agree that sharing information and regular meetings would improve their working relationship. Greater understanding of federal, state and local government programs is also needed. About 40% of respondents receive no information from the other group and both groups want information from the other. Agricultural retailers want information related to nutrient plans, farm plans, technology, and cost share programs from conservation districts. In turn, conservation district staffs want information associated with 4R nutrient practice cost data and general 4R information from agricultural retailers.

Here are links to three EPA reports on hypoxia and the Gulf of Mexico:
EPA: Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force
EPA: Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico an Update by the EPA Science Advisory Board, December 2007
EPA: Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan 2008

Doug Lawrence Doug Lawrence (
President, Blackwoods Group LLC
View more posts by Doug Lawrence

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.