Farm-based nitrogen emissions are unavoidable but can be minimized

Posted on | August 26, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at

Growing up, one of the events we looked forward to was the church pot luck dinner. There were so many delicious choices to choose from as we worked out way down the table that it was easy to overfill the plate and the desserts were still ahead. It took more than one pot luck dinner to finally come to the conclusion—well mothers and a stomach ache or two helped—that it was possible to have too much of a good thing.

In the recent algae bloom that shut down the public water system, we have been faced with the problems caused by too much of a good—and necessary—thing, as excess phosphorus, some of which came from agricultural production, in Lake Erie fed the algae bloom.

A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Brief, “Nitrogen Management on U.S. Corn Acres” (, points out that while nitrogen is an important input that allows farmers to “produce high yields profitably,” excessive application can lead to problems. They note that “nitrogen compounds released into the environment can also be a source of environmental problems, including eutrophication and hypoxia in aquatic ecosystems, visibility-impairing haze, and the loss of biodiversity.”

According to another USDA publication, “Nitrogen In Agricultural Systems: Implication for Conservation Policy” (, “agriculture is the predominant source of reactive nitrogen emissions into the environment. In the United States, agriculture contributes 73 percent of nitrous oxide emissions…84 percent of ammonia emissions…and 54 percent of nitrate emissions.” [In what follows, quoted material taken from the Economic Brief will be marked (A) and from the second publication will be marked (B)]

Despite all that we know about the problems created by crop nutrients that make their way into the environment, “in 2006, 65 percent of cropland (producing eight major field crops) did not follow what are considered to be nitrogen best management practices” (A).

In addition, “USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) found that improvements in at least one aspect of nitrogen management…Nitrogen Management” were needed on 86 percent of cropland rotations in the Upper Mississippi Basin, 87 percent of cropland rotations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, 82 percent of cropland rotations in the Great Lakes watershed, and 93 percent of cropland rotations in the Ohio-Tennessee Basin” (A).

The problem that farmers face is that they do not know what the weather will be like in a given year and so they seek “to maximize economic returns by setting an optimistic yield goal for a given field based on an optimum weather year to ensure that the needed amount of nitrogen for maximum yields is available…. Thus, during the years in which weather is not optimal for maximizing yields, nitrogen will be overapplied from an agronomic standpoint. Almost by definition, optimal conditions are infrequent, so farmers overfertilize crops in most years” (B).

While giving farmers the best shot at high yields to maximize income in an optimum weather year, overfertilization shifts costs to others. It is “estimate[d] that consumers spend over
$800 million each year on bottled water due to nutrient-related taste and odor problems” (B).

In addition, “Using data from water treatment plants, ERS estimates the cost of removing nitrate from U.S. drinking water supplies is over $4.8 billion per year…. Based on the contribution of nitrate loadings from agriculture…agriculture’s share of these costs is estimated at about $1.7 billion per year. Most costs are borne by the large utilities, due to the volume of water treated” (B).

The use of three basis practices by farmers can reduce the amount of nitrogen that is released into the environment:

  1. Rate. Applying no more nitrogen (commercial and manure) than 40 percent more than that removed with the crop at harvest, based on the stated yield goal, including any carryover from the previous crop. This agronomic rate accounts for unavoidable environmental losses that prevent some of the nitrogen that is applied from actually reaching crops.
  2. Timing. Not applying nitrogen in the fall for a crop planted in the spring.
  3. Method. Injecting (placing fertilizer directly into the soil) or incorporating (applying to the surface and then discing the fertilizer into the soil) nitrogen rather than broadcasting on the surface without incorporation” (A).

While these recommended practices are generally well known among producers, the application of all three practices apparently has a long way to go.

Without significant progress in adopting all three practices, societal pressure will likely force stricter enforcement of existing conservation compliance rules on producers participating in farm programs or subsidized crop/revenue insurance programs. The next step could the introduction of far more onerous rules.


Toledo Mayor to residents: “Don’t drink the water”

Posted on | August 20, 2014 | No Comments

by Daryll E. Ray and Harwood D. Schaffer, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn.

Read the original post at

On Saturday, August 2, 2014, a toxin, microcystin, was found at the municipal water treatment plant in Toledo, Ohio. That discovery plunged a city of 500,000 people into a tap water ban that lasted several days and had people combing stores for bottled water while the Ohio National Guard was called upon to deliver untainted water to the city’s residents.

The microcystin was produced by a particular type of cyanobacteria found in the water of Lake Erie where Toledo gets its water. Ingestion of microcystin can result in the death of dogs and other small animals. In a large enough concentration, it can result in liver damage and even death in humans, thus the concern of the Toledo Mayor and Ohio Governor as they announced the tap water ban.

Unlike many other water contaminants, boiling the water does not destroy the threat, but instead serves to increase the concentration of the toxin in the water and thus its lethality.

We would not be writing about this event—though it is certainly newsworthy—but for its connection to agriculture. It seems that the growth of cyanobacteria is fed, in part, by phosphorus that is contained in runoff from agricultural land. In the presence of key nutrients like phosphorus, the rapid growth of cyanobacteria results in algae blooms that can cover vast areas of Lake Erie. In this case one of those areas this year was right over the inlet pipe for the Toledo municipal water system.

But runoff from cropland into the Maumee River is not the only source of nutrients like phosphorus. Other sources of contamination include the fertilization of urban yards, livestock facilities, and municipal waste treatment plants that release their treated effluent into Lake Erie.

With the support of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the state passed a law that requires crop farmers to take a one-day class in order to receive a license to spread fertilizer on their land. It is expected that the classes will provide farmers with information they need to reduce the amount of fertilizer they use while maintaining yields. Animal agriculture is not affected by this legislation.

Will this be sufficient? Probably not, though it will help. But it is going to take more than legislation; it is going to take a change in the mindset of urban residents and urban officials who operate wastewater treatment facilities as well as crop and livestock farmers.

For too long, all of us have been willing to look the other way as our activities have resulted in problems for others. We have known that runoff results in a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico larger than the state of Connecticut. And yet the response to date has been minimal. On the other hand, no municipality has a water inlet under the dead zone, thus the lack of urgency.

Talk about the water pollution problems in the Chesapeake Bay and you will observe people acting like those in the political cartoon by Thomas Nast where Boss Tweed and others are pictured standing in a circle with each person pointing his finger at the person to the right.

It is our observation that the longer we deny an obvious problem, the more likely we are going to be faced both with increasingly serious problems and inflexible regulations.

The event in Toledo can be seen as a threat to business as usual as we whistle in the dark hoping that nothing else is going to happen. Or we can begin to work to find sensible solutions to problems that if ignored can only get worse. The Ohio Farm Bureau acting on behalf of its crop farmers has made a reasonable start. Will they be joined by others whose actions have also contributed to the problem that resulted in the two day tap water ban in Toledo?


Recent NFU COOL Op-ed Leaves Business Lobby Yelling “The Sky is Falling!”

Posted on | August 14, 2014 | No Comments

NFU President Roger Johnson’s recent op-ed in The Hill detailing why Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) ought to continue has left the business lobby and its multinational meatpacker friends running through the halls of Congress yelling “the sky is falling.”

Johnson’s guest opinion column simply argued that COOL is the law of the land and is extremely popular.  Pointing out that American consumers– roughly 90 percent of them – strongly support COOL, Johnson argued that “Congress understood that consumers have a right to know where their pet food, and their own food, comes from, and in 2008 passed a law known as COOL. In short, COOL says that muscle cuts of meat, and some fruits and vegetables, must be labeled with the country’s name where it was produced.”

The business lobby’s argument is that if the U. S. doesn’t roll over and play dead if the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules against COOL, then our economy will fall apart. That is simply a ridiculous stretch by a group that has opposed COOL since its inception and has stopped at nothing to keep it from being enacted even after it became the law of the land.

COOL has been assaulted in U.S. courts on three occasions by the powerful multinational meat industry and the well-monied business lobby.  Their arguments have been soundly rejected by U.S. courts.  Additionally, the business lobby has supported efforts by our largest trade competitors – Canada and Mexico – to take COOL to the WTO.

And now they have the audacity to argue that all they really want is for USDA to suspend COOL indefinitely only upon a final adjudication of noncompliance by the WTO, which everyone suspects will issue a very mixed decision.  This strategy, if wrongly agreed to by Congress, would be a guaranteed suspension of COOL. The business community should own up to their games. This isn’t reform. It is repeal.

The implication is that they’d like American consumers to be able to know where their meat and vegetable products come from but simply can’t support the notion because the WTO might allow other countries to retaliate.  And they make that argument with a straight face.

Whose side are they on anyway?

So if they don’t convince us all that the sky will fall because of COOL, they have one last desperate but quasi-clever trick up their sleeves:  An attempt to gut COOL in the name of ”reform” by insisting that products from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. be labeled “Product of North America.”

Johnson pointed out the ridiculousness of that ploy in his recent op ed:  “Simultaneously, powerful lobbying groups are bankrolling efforts to ‘reform’ COOL in Congress, and by reform, they mean gut it.  Instead of ‘Born, Raised and Harvested in the U.S.,’ they’re pushing for ‘Made in North America’ labels so consumers can’t differentiate between products of Mexico, Canada or the United States.

“What’s next?” he asks. “’Made on Earth’ labels?

“America has the safest, best homegrown food supply in the world.  Let’s be proud, not ashamed, of that accomplishment,” he concludes.

The business lobby has shown which side they are on – and it’s not the side of consumers, family farmers or the American people.   They’ve played Chicken Little before , and their latest ploy to scare Congress into rolling back COOL is not cause for taking away consumers’ right to know more about their food.

NYT Op-Ed is Right, The Little Guy Has An Uphill Battle

Posted on | August 12, 2014 | No Comments

By: Roger Johnson, NFU President

A recent op-ed in The New York Times, Bren Smith does a wonderful job pointing out the many barriers faced by today’s farmers. Making a full-time living farming for many, like the author, has become a dream that they will never have.

One main reason is consolidation in agriculture, which has pinched the small farmer to the point that many of them have abandoned farming altogether. And the big just keep getting bigger, as we are seeing with the Tyson-Hillshire petition to merge.

Thankfully, many farm families have found a way to make a living growing this nation’s food, feed and fuel supply, and have blessed this nation with an incredible bounty that most consumers see as a birthright.

National organizations like National Farmers Union (NFU), founded at the turn of the last century, will continue to fight for family farms and the rural communities they support. NFU’s membership is growing, and the segment of the farming population addressed in Smith’s piece represents the fasting growing segment of NFU’s membership. These farmers are making an important contribution to their local economies and filling the food bins of the nation.

USDA has taken a leadership role in helping new farmers get started, while grassroots organizations like NFU will continue to help new and expanding farmers identify new niches and seize new growth opportunities.

Want to join NFU in that fight, or learn more about our policies?

Farmers Union Youth Discuss Current Issues at All-States Camp

Posted on | July 17, 2014 | No Comments

By: Andrew Slupek, NFU Government Relations/Education Intern

While attending the National Farmers Union All-States Leadership Camp, campers were given the opportunity to express their concerns about the issues of the day to Mike Stranz, NFU’s senior government relations representative.  The activity, called “Open Mike,” allowed campers to debate topics that other campers presented.  The younger members of Farmers Union wanted to learn more about legislation and NFU policy on the following issues:

  • College Tuition
  • Agricultural Education
  • Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Research
  • Oil Drilling Research
  • Keystone Pipeline
  • Pesticide Research
  • School Lunch Programs

Discussions led to several key points and well-rounded debates about each topic.

Most campers believe that the price of college tuition is too great for many capable high school graduates to attend. It was also stated that most scholarships are not sufficient in comparison the full price of tuition. They believe that a college degree in nearly a necessity to be successful in today’s world and the price holds back the ability of some young people to be successful.

Many of the campers’ lives are deeply rooted in agriculture.  They would like to see more agricultural education in today’s school system. The more educated the American public is about where their food comes from, the easier it will be to understand the importance of agriculture to the American economy and way of life. Farmers Union youth made it clear that they would like agriculture classes to be a requirement in grade school, too.

Genetically Modified Organisms, particularly corn, wheat, and soybeans, may well play a large role in the future of agriculture, but several campers thought it is very important for further research to be conducted regarding GMO safety.  They believe that when the public has a greater understanding of GMO safety, the agricultural community will be able to move forward confidently.  They would like to debunk myths from both sides of the GMO issue.

The Farmers Union youth are interested in the issues connected to natural gas and oil drilling.  They would like to see safer and ecofriendly ways to drill. They would also like research to be conducted pertaining to the benefits and consequences of drilling to the communities and farms surrounding extraction areas. Many campers also had deep concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and hoped for future action on climate change.

The Keystone XL pipeline is an issue that had the interest of many campers.  They are concerned with oil transportation though the American heartland.  Many were afraid that a pipeline accident could cause catastrophic damage to the surrounding community.  They are also concerned that Americans may not reap the benefits of the oil being transported.  Several campers, however, stated that all transportation methods include risks.

There was an interest in pesticide research from the campers.  They would like to see more information on the benefits and consequences of pesticide use.  Some campers pointed to the ill-effects of DDT on wildlife as an example. More research would also contribute to the development of more effective regulations on pesticide usage.

The issue that had the campers’ greatest interest, however, was the school nutrition program.  The majority of campers had strong opinions about the school nutrition program.  The issues that the campers brought to the table included the freshness of the food, portion sizes, and preparation. One camper referenced a comparison study that indicated the quality of food in prison is better in than the quality of some school lunches. Campers said that open campus policies, which allow students to eat away from school during lunch hours, are used by a majority of students when available. In some cases, snack bars school serve junk food, which defeats the purpose of recent efforts to bring better nutrition to school lunches.

Interestingly, a good portion of the campers felt their school lunch program was adequate, although most had some suggestions for improvement. They proposed including fresh, healthy produce from local farms to improve the quality of school lunches and to create economic opportunities in rural areas.

The “Open Mike” activity gave the campers the opportunity to stress their concerns to Mike, who took their ideas back to Washington for discussion with NFU leadership. The NFU youth are important members and their opinions matter in our grassroots organization. After seeing the next generation of America’s leaders at NFU All-States Camp, it’s clear that they want to be informed and involved in important policy issues.

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About NFU

National Farmers Union was founded in 1902 in Point, Texas, to help the family farmer address profitability issues and monopolistic practices. NFU works to protect and enhance the economic well-being and quality of life for family farmers, ranchers and rural communities through advocating grassroots-driven policy positions adopted by its membership.
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