The good news: We’re living in the most agriculturally productive era in history. In the U.S. alone, farm output has almost tripled from 1948 to 2017.
Now the not-so-good news. Those production increases have, of course, come with an increased need for materials and agricultural chemicals.
As agricultural productivity — and the global population — has increased, the importance of sustainability alongside that productivity is more important than ever. High yield volumes are great. But if those high yields depend on resource/water waste or production methods that harm the land, then those short-term gains might not be worth the long-term risk.
How can fertigation help with environmental and resource management?
Enter fertigation. We already know fertigating can help farmers save money and time. But fertigation isn’t just a way to boost ROI or grow healthier crops. It’s also a strategy for better land stewardship — and a tool to make farming more sustainable.
With the help of fertigation (especially in conjunction with a tool like N-Time), you can improve your nutrient use efficiency and avoid fertilizer waste by being more precise with fertilizer applications.This system can also help enhance water conservation while minimizing runoff and leaching.
A fertigation system can’t solve every sustainability problem the world (and ag in particular) faces. But it’s an important piece. And as the landscape evolves, its importance will only grow.
“Fertigation is a very interesting tool to help regulate the amount of nitrogen that’s going into the soil,” said Will Ruffalo, who works at the intersection of water resources and environmental stewardship as Strategic Planning and Market Development Manager at Valmont. “Back in the day with the first iteration of the pivot, it was a ‘pray and spray’ method. But technologies like what Sentinel has, I see as a very clear solution to that. With irrigation, farmers are using variable rate (technology) to apply certain amounts of water in certain areas. And that’s what people are looking for with fertigation too. That’s the future.”
What’s next for environmental regulations and the fertigation market?
Countless factors influence how agriculture, government regulations, and the environment continue to evolve. No one can predict how the whole landscape will shift over the next several decades — or even the next several weeks.
But there are some trends we can take note of.
The harm of excess nitrogen
Nitrogen pollution is harmful to the environment, whether it’s via nitrous oxide emissions into the air, or fertilizer runoff into waterways. In Nebraska, there is a growing concern about how high levels of nitrogen in well water is impacting the state’s youth.
But fertigation is an effective tool to maximize nitrogen use efficiency and reduce the amount of nitrogen that leaves the field.
“The cool thing about fertigation is if we all weren’t yelling about carbon and water, we’d all be yelling about nitrogen right now,” Ruffalo said. “There’s a dead zone right in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and that’s from nitrogen runoff. It’s a huge problem. But the fact of the matter is, you still need nitrogen to maximize yield and support the growing population.”
So, nitrogen isn’t going away. But we could see more attempts to regulate how much of it reaches our water sources.
Regulation: top-down or bottom-up?
As the impact of excess nitrogen becomes clearer — and more severe — stakeholders and regulators are poised to intervene with various solutions.
Advocacy organizations like the Fertilizer Institute, for example, are pushing for more government regulations to minimize fertilizers’ impact on the air and water. Most current regulations around fertilizer management and application come at the state level, and these can vary widely. In California, Central Coast farmers already have to report their nitrogen applications. And the standards are set to get stricter each year through 2051.
But a top-down approach might not be the only way to approach the problem.
“I think the better path is industry, producers, stakeholders, and regions all coming together to innovate,” Ruffalo said.
We could start to see more voluntary programs that include sustainable practice validation, potential certification, or opportunities for increased revenue for environmental stewardship.. Carbon credit programs have attempted to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through agricultural practices, but have run into challenges especially around practice measurement and additionality. Similar programs for nitrogen might actually be easier to implement because of more scalable measurement and monitoring.
If these sorts of programs pop up, Sentinel is well positioned to help farmers manage those credits, certifications, or validations. N-Time ties together data insights, application recommendations, and logged actions to help you demonstrate your stewardship practices.
A need for precision
No matter what the regulatory landscape looks like, one trend is clear: farmers need ways to more precisely apply their inputs. Whether that’s to conserve precious water resources or to reduce chemical runoff, precision ag will continue to be the name of the game.
The EPA already recommends precision ag practices to reduce runoff. As agriculture continues to evolve, there will never be a need for less precision.
Fertigation as a tool for the future
Regardless of where the regulatory landscape may end up, fertigation can help farmers of the future:
Reduce harmful nitrogen runoff into waterways
Conserve water resources and reduce nitrogen waste
Improve crop quality and yield
Increase precision and efficiency
As water supplies tighten across so much of the U.S., as inputs get more expensive, and as the impact of excess nitrogen becomes clearer, that efficiency will be more important than ever.
Farmers who are able to see that future — and adopt practices like fertigation that can help them navigate those changes — will be the most successful ones. In essence, fertigating with N-Time is a way for farmers to profit sustainably.
Because sustainability isn’t just about being a great steward of the land. It’s about being a better steward for your land, so your operation can keep thriving for years to come. Fertigation is an important piece of the puzzle to securing the future of your crops, your family’s land, and the planet at large.
“When we think of agriculture, stewardship is allowing farmers to fully maximize the time they have on their production area,” Ruffalo said. “But it’s also about conserving resources, so that three generations down the road they can do the exact same thing.”