analysis | Fertilizer shortage finally gives manure a chance

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Soaring chemical fertilizer prices are creating challenges across American cropland. But it has a silver lining. There is a recovery in desperate need of fertilizer.

American farmers cannot get enough organic waste from pigs, chickens, horses and cattle. Demand for manure has doubled in major agricultural states like Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois as commercial fertilizer costs have tripled in recent months. Fertilizers are now about 25% cheaper than synthetic fertilizers. This is reason enough for many farmers to make the switch.

But there are many more problems. Switching from chemical fertilizers to organic fertilizers could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and toxic runoff on farms, improve water quality, restore health to soils saturated with chemicals for decades, and revive rural economies.

Prior to World War II, American farmland was fertilized primarily with animal manure, but by the mid-1900s increasingly industrialized crop and livestock operations created severe imbalances in the natural nitrogen cycle. In some areas, chemical fertilizers are abused, while in others there are mountains of unused animal waste. The current trend towards natural fertilizers utilizes the wisdom of traditional agriculture. Link livestock and crop production and restore nitrogen balance in food systems little by little.

Manure has been in the spotlight as an alternative to chemical fertilizers in recent decades, and its popularity is rising or falling in direct proportion to energy prices. (Many fertilizers are derived from the oil and natural gas industries.) The burgeoning oil market in 2008 initially helped build a modern fertilizer market, but farmers reverted to commercial fertilizers as fertilizers became cheaper again. There was another rise in 2012 along with higher fossil fuel prices, but again the trend did not hold.

This time it’s different. This wave is tolerable,” said Daniel Anderson, a professor at Iowa State University, also known as @DrManure, on Twitter. Farmers are learning to trust their products while technology for handling and dispensing manure is rapidly improving. However, the current recovery of manure will not last unless the public and private sectors intervene to stimulate manure demand and build stability in volatile markets. USDA plans to launch a $250 million grant program this summer to support natural fertilizer producers. This is an important step, but more action is needed to encourage market growth.

The manure market is still small and difficult to measure compared to the $171 billion global fertilizer market. Chemical fertilizers are many times more concentrated in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus than natural fertilizers and have much less odor, so they are precisely dispensed in handling, long-distance transport and on-site. Animal droppings are not easily (or pleasantly) portable. The sludge is raw, shoveled onto trucks or pumped with long hoses from the lagoon to nearby farms. The market remains trans-regional, with products rarely crossing state boundaries.

But the livestock industry in the United States produces 1.5 billion tons of solid nitrogen-rich animal waste each year, and the value of this resource has been wasted for decades. Manure stimulates soil microbiology while adding organic matter. This means improved long-term productivity and improved carbon uptake capacity from the soil. .

This could provide value to farmers competing to enter emerging soil carbon markets. Moreover, synthetic fertilizers routinely used in excess on industrial farms evaporate from the fields, forming nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas up to 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Growing supply chain disruptions in global fertilizer markets due to Russia’s war in Ukraine are fueling concerns over growing climate change pressures on agriculture that help convince farmers the value of organic fertilizers.

Abe Sandquist, a former USDA soil conservationist who has established a manure market in the Midwest for decades, to a manure entrepreneur, is now regularly shutting down supplies. “The lights are on. Farmers understand that our natural products are superior to commercial fertilizers,” he said. Unable to keep up with demand, Sandquist is now selling futures contracts for the fertilizer he has collected. However, many manure entrepreneurs worry that the end of the Ukraine war will reduce interest in natural products as prices of chemical fertilizers fall.

Despite all the vast and timely benefits of manure in the nutrient-constrained agricultural industry, coordinated efforts have yet to be made to establish, for example, regional and regional manure treatment and storage facilities capable of collecting, processing and concentrating manure. didn’t Easier handling and transport while avoiding toxic spills. The U.S. Department of Agriculture should help build treatment facilities such as pilot projects in states such as North Carolina, for example, where the concentration of animal feeding operations is high and the local sustainable use of manure is relatively small. The USDA should also provide incentives and rewards to farmers switching from chemical products to natural fertilizers, especially those with long-term contracts that can help establish certainty in the marketplace.

To maintain momentum, USDA, along with individual investors, can invest in next-generation companies modernizing the manure market. For example, Bazooka Farmstar and Puck Custom Enterprises are making significant advances in liquid manure processing equipment. Jamesway and Houle are creating a so-called “honeywagon” that will help more accurately distribute solid animal waste across fields. Ohio-based EcoChar has developed a method for burning manure to create an ash product that acts as a dry fertilizer. And Phinite, a North Carolina startup, now makes the manure drying systems demanded by remote farmers like Minnesota and Illinois. These young businesses need public and private sector support as they expand their operations.

Today, manure, long misunderstood as waste from industrial agriculture, is finally being recognized as a treasure, and public and private sector leaders in agriculture must ensure that its value persists.

More from other authors in Bloomberg Opinion:

• High food prices don’t make farmers richer: Adam Minter

• New agricultural giants invade America’s heartland: Javier Blas

• The world’s food system is too dependent on wheat: Jessica Fanzo

Want more Bloomberg comments? The terminal reader goes to OPIN.

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP or its owners.

Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering agriculture and climate. She is Professor of Journalism and Science Writing at Vanderbilt University and author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World”.

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