By Keith Schneider
It’s been 33 years since an Iowa State University agronomist named Fred Blackmer thought he’d struck gold for Midwestern corn farmers. Using a fairly simple three-step method, Blackmer developed an analytical tool that could accurately tell farmers exactly how much fertilizer their fields needed to produce abundant harvests each season.
The analytics Blackmer perfected showed not only how much fertilizer the corn crops would need to meet production targets, but also exposed how much could be wasted. Blackmer ultimately determined that farmers were applying a staggering 500 million excess pounds of nitrogen each year, a practice that not only wasted farmers’ money but also wreaked havoc on the environment as the nitrogen not taken up by plants drained from farm fields to contaminate rivers, lakes, and streams.
Despite what Blacker saw as obvious benefits to producers, not to mention the environment, his method failed to gain significant traction in farm country. Farmer allegiance to the propaganda pushed by the so-called “Big Ag” chemical industry and aligned academic institutions left Blackmer’s common sense approach on a shelf gathering dust. He died in 2006.
State and federal data now show that since 1990, nitrogen spread on fields in Iowa and nine other major US corn-growing states has increased 26%, with more nitrogen than ever pouring off the land and into US waters. Demand for corn is high, both to supply ethanol refineries and to feed industrial livestock operations that add to water contamination themselves through manure runoff, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
In Iowa alone, according to state research, farmers apply about 2 billion pounds of commercial nitrogen annually to corn fields, and much of it is ending up in waterways that flow all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, worsening the conditions in a 6,500-square-mile “dead zone” where the waters are so oxygen-deprived that they can’t sustain marine life. Iowa contributes almost a third of the nitrogen scientists say causes the dead zone.