Value in a Three-Legged Stool

I had a general manager twenty years ago who was very good at explaining the basics ofThree-Legged-Stool-Outline-800px managing a business.  He would say, “think of your business as a three-legged stool.  Sales, margins, and expenses are the three legs.  If you don’t pay attention to one of them, the stool will fall.”  It’s a pretty solid analogy and applies to anything from someone’s first lemonade stand all the way to large businesses.  Underpinning all of this is one concept, and that’s called “value”.

Being the monetary worth of an asset, value is what primes the agricultural economy.  It is in the price that the farmer gets for the crop.  It is what pays the bills.  It sets the foundation for sales, margins, and profits for the entire supply chain of agriculture.  The agricultural world in the United States is searching for value.

There is a real search for value.

For example, take these few prices.  Anecdotal as they may be, it still drives home the struggle for value in commodity grains, fertilizer, and pesticides.  What we have typically done to offset such a condition is to look to ways to increase productivity and thereby keeping expenses under control.  Historical Prices





The use of technology allows us to make use of information and a lot of it.  With the ability to analyze massive amounts of data, we can now manage fields down to the exact plant.  Terra Byte the corn plant is an example.  Weighing in at a potential world’s record of 18.4 Gigabytes of data, Terra Byte was studied with all measurements recorded in a digital fashion.  Just to put this in perspective, if you had a 100-acre corn field and all the plants were studied and data logged like Terra Byte, it

seed, corn, creation, God

photo by author

would take 466,000 iPhones to hold all the data, for just one year’s crop.  This study was as much about digital farming and what we can measure as much as about anything else.  This is new, uncharted territory in how to make field decisions on a business-wide level.  Farms and their suppliers used shirt pockets with a notepad and pen, jotting down what information(data) they learned that day.  The important stuff was saved to be studied later, making it to a notebook in the office along with magazine articles thought important.  Those were the days of “analog living” Digital farming takes all this to the next level.

Information of all types is digitized into a format that many types of systems can manipulate and become part of the digital farm with data being called upon as needed in Copy of Yield Map pictureorder to track progress, make recommendations, or create some type of forecast.  Along with this comes all the accessories.  When data becomes transferable, then whole farm management programs like AgriEdge, Xarvio, and others allow farmers the ability to handle all the information that Terra Byte the corn plant and others send their way.  Decisions like fertilizer and seed needs by management zones, weather data, as well as pest, disease and yield forecasting, can all be brought under one digital roof, so to speak.

Buyers will certainly use the tools of digital farming in an effort to help advance their own efforts of meeting various demands, be they consumer, regulatory or internal goals.  In an effort to meet internally set carbon emissions goals, Walmart has committed to take a look at nitrogen fertilizer and how it is used in the production of the ingredients it purchases.  Some of us may be taken aback that such a large organization with a massive impact on farmers will begin utilizing digital tools to help promote their own goals.  However, I bet some really business savvy kids are taking advantage of some digital tools right now to help promote their lemonade stand!  That’s the thing about technology.  It allows the smallest entrepreneur as well as the largest corporation to promote their value to the consumer.

We have digitized the cow’s udder so the robot milker can milk the cow.  We even have robotic weeding units now coming available for commercial use.  All of this in an effort to reduce unnecessary costs while raising productivity and minimizing environmental impact.  All of these are necessary and worthy.  Will it all bring value to the farmer quick enough?  Perhaps we need to seek out other crops as well.  Maybe we will see days where we take the digitized farm and meld it into age-old practices like extended crop rotations growing more varied crops allowing more domestic sourced foods.  Perhaps that is part of the key to success.  Not only will we cut wastage on commodity acres, but maybe we will also take the new tools to help bring back crops that we have forgotten.

As any business manager knows, the quickest way to correct a budget imbalance is to correct both sides of the ledger at the same time.  Perhaps that is the long game for digital farming.  It will help us to cut back on waste while allowing farmers the opportunity to grow crops they have not considered so far.  We can hope!  As Bob Willard, Chairman of Willard Agri-Service said, “If the farmer isn’t making much money, it’s hard for us to make money.”  Such is the business environment of the agronomy supply business in the United States.



What are the benefits of growing multiple types of forage grasses for grazing animals?

Great article! Each plant species has its own unique effect on the soil and, just as importantly, helps the entire cover crop planting survive various weather patterns.

Soils Matter, Get the Scoop!

Although it might seem like grazing animals will eat any grass in the field, they are actually picky eaters. They prefer a “buffet” of grass choices. And while it’s good for the grazing animals, growing a variety of forage plants in the field also benefits the plants, the soil, and the environment.

Most of their grazing time, grazing animals are making decisions about what to eat with every bite. Luckily for the animals, they don’t normally have only one option for their meal in a pasture setting. Growing multiple plant species in the same space at the same time, polyculture, is the norm in pasture grazing scenarios.

alfalfa and grass in field Alfalfa provides the soil with nitrogen, and the animals with protein. Credit: Jesse Morrison

Usually, perennial grasses serve as the primary component in pastures for grazing. Most polyculture systems add in annual species because of their flexibility and low cost of establishment…

View original post 404 more words

The 4R’s and the Fertilizer Supply Chain

The stewardship of land and water is becoming a driving force in farming and the fertilizer retailer is taking up the challenge to help implement these changes.  The 4R’s are universal and adaptive to many different forms of farming.  They will affect both large and small, organic and nonorganic farmers as well as those who market themselves as being somewhere in between.

The 4R’s is nondiscriminatory as the concept can be applied in any farming environment.  Technology does not have to be complex to use the 4R’s as farmers in various parts of the world can attest. However, in technology driven markets such as Canada, Europe, and the United States, technology will play a key role in helping to make more precise prescriptions as well as in the application methods used.  Technology is driving a more precise version of 4R Stewardship.  Take our broadcast spreaders, for example.  At one time these stalwarts of productivity were designed to apply one rate across a set spreader width.  Today, these units are able to not only adjust spread rate but also pattern width and pattern position with the interconnected movement of spinner fan frame side to side and front to aft, to the rate of product coming out of the product.  The inclusion of a multiproduct bin makes for a limitless amount of pattern combinations and rates.  With the choice of power units available today, we have a vast range of equipment options to choose from.  No one would argue that the equipment we have today can perform more than ever before.

What products will you apply?  Will its physical properties and crop response patterns be on par to the equipment demands to do an accurate job?

It does not take a whole lot of imagination to see the opportunities for those who are looking to excel in quality, consistency, and compatibility to meet regional demands.  If you have been around a few truck loads and rail cars of various products, you realize that there are differences from time to time and load to load.  As we strive for higher efficiencies in our fertilizer programs, we will find ourselves pushing the envelope on application accuracy and placement.  Will things like SGN size, fines, and increased ease of storage and mixing be driven by the Right Rate at the Right Place of our products?  One would think this would be the case.

As we enter this new realm, products less known may find themselves being a good fit in certain markets.  How will the supply chain adapt?  Will we need a few more smaller bins or tanks for more precise windows of application?  How will it be sourced?  Will we need more regional terminals for less than rail car shipments?  How will new products effectively enter a grain market that is during a very tough multiyear economic cycle?

The Last Mile in Retail Services

Retailing, regardless of type, is undergoing a dynamic change in how products and services are delivered.  Retailers like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and others are advancing their customer value proposition with the delivery of heavy products to the customer while maximizing inventory turns and minimizing the cost of money by developing Last Mile Delivery Services.  Kind of sounds like the fertilizer business, doesn’t it?   Delivery services are being leveraged to build value to the customer as well as reducing excess inventory which minimizes carrying costs and asset value erosion.  The phrase “Last Mile Delivery” is coined to describe the entire process.  Granted, we in the ag supply industry haven’t been driven by e-commerce or purchase of kitchen appliances.  We may call it, “keeping in product”, “keeping up with the planter” or “beating the rain”.  The 4R process will revolutionize the way in which we manage inventory and its timely delivery, based on crop stage and environmental conditions.  All the while we will be factoring in various business constraints and market opportunities on the local and regional.  Might we see a supply chain that is even more driven by local and regional crop needs?

The days coming are very exciting ones.  Those who are nimble and adaptable, always keeping their suppliers well informed, will stand to offer the best in 4R services.

The Customer Experience Relay Race


In ag retailing, we can get it all right. We can have the best product; we can have the best social media campaign; we can have the best in class customer service policy. It’s our drivers and delivery staff that are the final, and most important leg, on what I will call the “Customer Experience Relay Race”. All other members, or processes, can execute flawlessly, but the race is won or lost in the final leg.

The spring rush can leave all of us a little frayed. Let’s try to be the driver’s advocate as we consider our daily and weekly schedules. Demands of weather and customers can push us hard and ours is an industry that is given an exemption from many of the hours of service rules that others must follow. However, we are all still human. A fatigued driver can be a danger to themselves, others, equipment, and the customers they service. Driver fatigue is something that needs to be recognized and prevented.

Another key to helping them do their job is having safe equipment. Not only do safe trucks help keep our DOT CSA scores low, they help to keep drivers focused on what matters most- the delivery of products safely and effectively in a courteous and timely manner. Our maintenance programs can’t afford to take a break in the heat of the season. Meanwhile, labeling of things like fuel and hydraulic tanks and what direction to turn a valve can appear to be over-kill but is a great reminder to the driver who is in the thick of a planting or spray season that broke hard and fast. Often these folks wind up going to a delivery site that can be ambiguous. A good preseason plan could include addressing some of these delivery point issues so that the customer, driver, and the company they serve all make it safe and sound to the end of the relay race.

Have a safe and successful season!

Point or Nonpoint Water Issues?

The discharge end of a drain tile

The water issues in Lake Erie were mainly about water quality and the general reasons for the massive harmful algal blooms[i].  Des Moines, IA, escalated from “merely” being about safe drinking water being to specifically about nitrates and who was going to pay to remove them[ii],[iii].  For decades, this topic has been gaining the attention of government entities.  For example, states around the Chesapeake Bay were the first to develop very comprehensive nutrient

A roll of drain tile to drain water from the field into the drainage ditch and onto the creek or river.

management regulations for even the smallest of farms[iv].  Terms like Point Source and Nonpoint Source were developed to help those involved in water quality management to categorize what actions, corrective and punitive, to take when situations are to be addressed.  The process has been long but is now coming to some very real conclusions at the local, state[v] and federal levels[vi].

That was then.  What about tomorrow?

Tomorrow and its demands are just a day away.  Municipal water quality and WOTUS

Runoff water  bound a local stream

issues have come into the spotlight and will now always be discussed.  They may not take center stage, but they will be issues none the less.  Technology will be our aid in helping us mitigate existing issues and help show us causes and effects so we can develop more sustainable corrective action plans.  Let’s not think that a Des Moines situation won’t happen again.  It can and we need to act as if it will.  In other words, how can we reduce nitrate levels in yet to be determined Point Source areas?  It is a real goal that deserves our attention.  They are measurable, and technology will soon make it easier to monitor the actual Thanks to technology, Nonpoint becomes Point Source quickly.  We must make it a priority to prevent another Des Moines from occurring.

The challenge has been laid down for thoughtful nutrient management decision making.  By utilizing time-proven stewardship wisdom and utilizing technologies that help us better understand our environment so we can plan now to prevent the problems of tomorrow.  Find out where your water comes from by going to this Nature Conservancy site.







Fully Separate but Fully United(hopefully)

When politics steps into the arena of farming and food, things can become tense.  Politics CanadaUSAis built on negotiations.  We are in the season of nationalism on a world level.  Farmers deal in a world that moves with the seasons of nature, not political elections and national sentiment. The natural resources of land, timber, and mineral deposits were formed long before any nation staked a claim to it.  The local and regional soil types and climates allow for a native diversity of animals and crops adapted to the area.

I know I am making what seems to be a complicated issue simple, perhaps too simple. But, I do know this:  farmers and some of those who supply them deal in cycles and systems that are still as old as life itself.  They deal in the planting of trees, crops, sunshine, rain, hailstorms, and floods.  They deal in the birth of calves, pigs, lambs, and a host of other animals. They are fisherman and oysterman, people who work with the tides and streams; waters that were put in motion long ago.  These are systems that will outlive them and their children’s’ children.  Yet, their actions today will have post humus effects for generations to come.

A Hundred Year Management Plan

The same principles apply for those who deal in minerals and forestry.  A potash mine can’t simply up and move when trade policies would make it beneficial to do so.  Farmers around the world need access to potassium sources for increasing and maintaining crop yields.  Foresters deal in management plans that take a century to play out.  These forest assets produce some of the cleanest water are inseparably linked to and fisheries.  When was the last time your company did a 100-year asset management plan?  Supplier consolidation is driven in part because of the economic uncertainty that exists as governments work on agendas that have abbreviated timelines or engage strong diplomacy as we are currently involved in.  Suppliers consolidate and thereby spread their risk across national boundaries, farmers rarely have such an option.   However, in the process of national and international wrangling, long horizon assets like farming, minerals, and forestry can become swept up and forced into difficult positions.  It is in no continents best interests to see such assets distorted as it directly affects the farmers that each nation tries to protect.

The situation at hand is that the fertilizer industry and the farmers of the United States find themselves in the same dilemma.  For the farmers of America, we want to see our biggest export customers remain open to us.  Canadian fertilizer producers surely desire the exact same thing in return as the United States is their largest customer.  In 2013, Canadian manufacturers supplied America with 85% of its potash needs.  It would be a sorry state of affairs for neighbors to disrupt such a delicate system.   Meanwhile, the countries of Brazil and Argentina are seeing to it that they become a competitive supplier of corn and soybeans around the world, including to our neighbor to the south, Mexico.  These world class competitors push already revenue reduced crops into an even more tricky situation.  Without in injection of different crop rotations to spread out revenue risk, farm numbers will continue to decrease at a national level.

The Starvation of Farming

The farmers of the United States are looking for value.  In terms of 2009

farms, farming, USA

While 40% of the world population is involved in farming, less than 1% farm in the USA.

dollars, current estimates on net farm income are on par with incomes of 1939, 1980, and 2000.  Even with strong exports, profit will be thin to non-existent for corn and soybean growers.  Federal program payments in the form of Direct Farm Program Payments are forecasted to make up 19% of net farm income for 2016.  The upcoming potential resetting of the farm economy in the United States will garner a lot of attention from a citizenry that chose to walk away from farming as a way of life long ago.  However, we still expect cheap food.  Hence, a Free Market style of farming has evolved as compared to the Supply Management System for Canadian farming.

According to Progressive Dairyman, the United States has lost 33,000 family dairy farms (44.5%) in the past 15 years alone while the average herd size has increased by 181%. Today, United States dairy farmers milk 9.3 million cows.  In 2002, with almost twice as many herds, they milked 9.1 million cows.  Meanwhile, our harvests rely more and more on the efforts of migrant workers with over 1 million of these hard working people being undocumented according to a recently published report from Johns Hopkins University.  Meanwhile, Canada has a larger ag employee base than the United States while having seven times less farm land.  We can cry “unfair” regarding Canada’s policies on milk, eggs, and poultry, but in the process, they do protect their farming heritage so that consolidation perhaps does not progress at such a rapid pace.  It’s a delicate balancing act.  Short term results or long term stability?

Given that food and farming are mostly global, very powerful forces like the currency exchange and weather events can quickly alter the supply and demand for wheat, corn, meat, and dairy products.  These are issues that rise far above the issues between neighbors that are otherwise very good to each other.  Farmers would share with neighboring farmers when disaster hit.  Who knows, one day one country’s excess wheat could help the neighbors next door.  Candidly, the farmers and those who support them have seen such things coming for a while.  We just keep quiet and do our jobs.  We tend to be a quiet, driven bunch of folks.

The Consolidation Response of an Industry

The fertilizer industry and the retailers who supply the farmer have seen consolidation as rapid as the farmers they serve.  Driven largely by the commoditization of a world market and the desire of nations for food stability, the value is often found not in the eye of the buyer but in the increase in volumes by consolidating while driving down costs of production to be more competitive.  In this philosophy, there is not a better way.  We just continue doing what we currently do even better, even cheaper.  This assumes one very crucial thing.  It assumes we know all there is to know about farming and how land, crops, and animals interact.  There is no more truth to be found about this complex system and how we can better manage it.  However, this is far from the truth.  In reality, we still have much to learn in how such a large, powerful and yet delicate living system interacts.  Those discoveries continue to be made every month.

So, What?

You may say, “What does this have to do with trade policy?” It has much to do with trade policy.  There comes a point when old policies cannot continue to be supported in a long-term manner.  Monocropping, soil degradation, loss of organic matter, and increased water pollution are all parts of a business stress that farmers can not economically afford to carry.  Des Moines, Lake Erie, and others are just the initial water quality collision points between potable water for large population centers and farming.  It’s the ecosystem’s way of saying we cannot support this for much longer.  Maybe I will be dead before the full effects are felt.  But like I said, what farmers do today have post humus effects that last long past their children’s children lives.

In today’s world political climate and high tensions, I would think that we who live on this continent should do our best to work together to reduce the demands to and allow those who are feeding us to figure out how to best interact with the land, make a decent living, build diversity and feed us in the process, all during good times and bad. The process is slow, it is thoughtful, it is painful.  Sure, we will always need to compete for exports.  Let’s just not fight ourselves in the process.  While a zero-sum gain for North America, it is a non-zero-sum gain that our stewards of natural resources cannot afford to pay.

Nourishment and Comradery

The fertilizer and lime application season is here and planters will roll soon.  Many larger customers will pull out the first 24-row planter and get going and once the ground gets fit the second one will start rolling.  Your fertilizer bins are full and equipment is in good repair.  Let’s not forget to keep our staff and ourselves in good repair.

Tender Truck Treasure

A warm sandwich and a 30-minute break for the field crew


The key to any team consistently winning is being able to repeat the winning tasks play after play, game after game.  They don’t do it with fatigued team members.  Good sleep and a solid diet go a long way to promoting safety and satisfied customers!

I know we all know that but I also know we in the industry can get slammed with weather events and situations beyond our control and just like winning teams we will learn to try and overcome with our best plans on how to adapt.  Just make sure it includes you and your teammates being able to get the sleep and nourishment needed to be safe and productive.

A small grill with the tender truck?  Sound too extravagant?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  If your tender unit sits for an hour at a time waiting to feed the applicator, maybe it’s not such a far-fetched idea.  If your’s is more of fast drop and go style, what about a grill at

Nourishment and Comradery

Centralize your warm sandwich cooking at the facility

the facility cooking food served on a stiff fiber plate wrapped in heavy tin foil to go out with the next truck?  I know it’s an “all hands on deck” time of year.  As one who has been there, I know it’s important to execute, and I also know it can’t be done week after week without taking care of the business of taking care of our bodies.


See if you can’t budget the money for some food, supplies, and someone to cook on the grill from 10:30 to 1:30.  Sound like a waste of payroll?  Perhaps it is for your business.  I just know that in my experience, showing your concern and promoting time to eat, (and offering it none the less), can go a long way to helping keep morale high and stomachs full when the long weeks start adding up.

Have a safe spring season!

The Best Investment You Can Make

The rush of the planting season is quickly upon us.  Some of us will ship up to 70% of our fertilizer tons during these 8 to 10 weeks.   Once the planting season is over, the post-spray period and side dress season will soon follow.  Once again, many fields will be serviced and work performed.

How does all get done?

By pick up, ten-wheeler, tractor trailer, nurse wagons, and field machines.  All used one day at a time.  Yesterday’s stellar pre-trip inspection will not make skipping today’s an option.

Make sure to check your equipment before you go over the road.  It will be the best 15

My favorite Dealer's Rep

minutes you will spend all day.  Not only is it a federal law, but in those minutes, you may very well notice the soft tire or the cracked rim.  You may see the dripping coolant leak or spot the faulty left-hand turn signal light.  That one detail could mean the difference between being stranded in a field or alongside a road,  Worse still, failing to catch and correct such things could cause the death of someone who didn’t think you were turning across traffic because they did not see your signal light because it was out.

A solid preventative maintenance program including and a certified mechanic on staff or a very good relationship with a local certified mechanic will go a long way to eliminate these surprises and keep your equipment legal in the eyes of the law before you even get to crunch time.  However, breakdowns in will still occur.  Do your part to prevent a breakdown from turning into an accident.  Being a professional is as much about taking care of things before putting the rig in “drive” as it is while you drive.

Have a safe spring rush!

Making the Right Choice

4R Pillars

Figure 1. The 4R’s Process (Right Source at the Right Rate at the Right Time at the Right Place) helps to protect the climate, air, and water.   Courtesy of Fertilizer Canada and eLearning.

What if I were to tell you that all the vegetables that were ever eaten, all the milk that was ever drunk, all the meat that was ever consumed and all the cereal, pizza, and bread was ever eaten was grown on something that relatively speaking is as thick as the skin of an apple.  Good farm ground will have three or more feet of this alive and active thing most of us call “dirt.”  It is what grows the stuff that comes out of your cereal box and supplies the nutrients for most of the food you eat, organic or not.  The soil is the dinner plate, holding the food that makes plants grow.  After a few years of use, soils begin to run low on nutrients and fertilizer is needed to continue to replenish these precious chemical compounds taken out by multiple years of use.  Before synthetic fertilizer was developed, many subsistence societies solved this problem by frequently moving in search of more fertile ground after intense soil use and nutrient depletion[i]. Additionally, our ancestors noticed that plants grew better near animal manure piles and so began to use manure as a natural fertilizer.  Frankly, this “dirt” has been doing such a good job that very few of us recognize its importance.  That is where our story begins.

A Farmer’s Dilemma – a hungry world’s demands


Our planet is thin skinned.  Photo by writer

The issue of food and environment has drawn much attention in recent years. Furthermore, balancing the needs of farmers, the environment, and society is not simple.  Many of us have never set foot on a farm, and just as many have never met a farmer.  All of us eat and ultimately put our trust in these “strangers” to provide the food sitting on our dining room table.

You and I have seen a lot of changes.   Technology has allowed us to do things at a much faster rate.  Advancements have made our lives easier and more efficient.  We have great flexibility which was non-existent just 30 years ago. While advanced technology has even become a mainstay in the agricultural industry, some basic biological and ecological principles remain unchanged.


Figure 2.  42,000 people directly help farmers in the USA with fertilizer needs.  Courtesy of

A corn plant which produces the kernels that constitute your cornflakes or feeds the cow that produces the milk in your yogurt still basically grows at the same rate that it did when your grandparents were young.   In other words, if the speed of a corn plant’s growth was compared to the speed of our lives today, it would be like watching a turtle race a car.  Consequently, these fundamental principles make farming in today’s circumstances a bit more challenging.

Consumer desires, political changes like Brexit, and falling profits all create added demands.  Farmers earn a relatively small proportion of your food dollar, and they operate businesses that require a lot of equipment and land.  Many work with the idea of selling their farms and equipment in order to pay for retirement.  Few new farmers are entering the market[ii].  Instead, other existing farmers acquire the business and expand.  Indeed, over 50% of American farmland and assets will probably change hands within the next ten years.  The ripple effect is felt all the way through to their suppliers, with less than 96,000 professionals in North America responsible for supplying the fertilizer required for food production[iii],[iv].  This is something our ancestors didn’t have to consider.


The cycles of crop life are still the same as centuries ago.  Photo by the writer.

With fewer farmers managing larger farms, the attention has become more focused on managing a business rather than conserving the most basic element of farming, the soil.  In other words, our methods were becoming a little out of synch with our principles.  A change was needed.  We needed to get back to some basics.

By all appearances, the nature and main purpose of the entire universe is to support life, especially human life, on this tiny speck of a planet”.  Celebrating the Wonder of Soil, Discovery Series of RBC Ministries[v]


The 4R’s of fertilizer and multi-vitamins 



Multi vitamin

Figure 3. Just like vitamins, not all fertilizers are the same

As farm sizes grew substantially larger and farm labor shrunk, decisions on how to use fertilizer were made with limited information for the stewardly use of fields, fertilizer, and the environment[vi].   However, over the past few years, technologies have allowed us to break down the decision-making process and not have a “one size fits all approach” to making good decisions.  Think of it this way:  If you are someone who is looking for a general dietary supplement, you may consider taking a multi-vitamin.  We know that some specific problems can’t be corrected by general supplementation, because you may need a more specific vitamin or mineral.  The same is true about fields.  Fields are made up of unique soils, and what works in one field may not work in another.  Furthermore, what works in one corner of a field may not work in the other corner.  Farmers needed a way to precisely determine what nutrients were lacking in very specific parts of their fields, and the result was a process called site-specific soil sampling.   Now, how many samples are taken on farm fields?  Take a guess…….Remember how I mentioned the whole technology thing?  In 2001 just over 2 million soil samples were taken from farmers’ fields in North America.  Today, we have in excess of 7.5 MILLION soil samples taken each year for farmers of the United States and Canada[vii].  This is only possible because of technological advances too numerous to explain.  A result is a tool which the farmer and the agricultural professional can use to make fertilizer decisions for every single acre they farm if such accuracy is desired.  However, fertilizer is just one part of a much more complicated decision-making process.  To help organize that process the agricultural community developed The 4R Concept of the Right Source at the Right Rate for the Right Time at the Right Place [viii].


The interactiPEI 4R Trainingon between farmer, crops, and soil is very delicate, and we have started to see what happens when it gets out of whack[ix],[x].  Food production has been pushed to its limits because consumers want more food as cheaply as possible.  Something has to pay for our pushiness, and in the process, the soil becomes eroded and pollutes our aquatic resources[xi].  In order to prevent these issues, the agricultural community has adapted its decision-making process and called it the 4Rs for Nutrient Stewardship.  The Province of Prince Edward Island was the first province to subscribe to the 4R Principles in 2012[xii].  It seems only fitting that “The Island of Food” for Canada was first to recognize the importance of 4R[xiii].  Having taken this course, I can say it is very well written and does an excellent job in explaining the 4R Principles.

The Right Rate of the Right Fertilizer applied at the Right Time at the Right Place on the field.

When decisions are made in this context, we begin to see opportunities for changes in how we farm.  A more holistic approach is considered and in the process, we bring back into focus the more long term issues that are important to be able to sustain life[xiv]. There are advantages to this decision-making tool for all of us.


Figure 5.  The 4R Nutrient Stewardship concept defines the Right Source, Rate, Time and Place for fertilizer applications as those producing the economic, environmental, and social outcomes desired by the stakeholders of the planet’s ecosystem.  Courtesy of

First, the process is very ADAPTABLE.  We recognize that the right ways vary from farm to farm, and field to field.  Think of fields like people: we can categorize the soils into some basic types, but every field has certain unique qualities.  Consequently, the 4R principles can be successfully applied to farms all around the world.  Perhaps more importantly, the process will adapt to the needs of today as well as tomorrow.

Secondly, it is NONDISCRIMINATORY.  It allows all methods of farming to benefit from its use.  It draws no assumptions as to what type of farm or how resources are used.  When considering the 4R methods, one word comes into focus: “transparency”.  All farmers regardless of size or type of farming need to be stewardly.  Size doesn’t matter to effectively use the 4R concept[xv].

size doesn't matter

Size of farm doesn’t matter in the use of the 4R’s

Thirdly, it is BALANCED.  It is a tool to aid in increasing environmental quality while improving food production and reducing expenses by applying current knowledge and practices.  Additionally, farmers with either advanced or limited resources can both benefit from the use of 4R Practices.  Beet and tomato farmer Mark Richards of Dresden, Ontario, looks forward to competing with his fellow farmers in a friendly competition using the 4R’s by having higher yields AND better fruit quality.  In the process, he is making good environmental decisions on his farm.

Finally, it is HOLISTIC.  The decision process of 4R will consider all aspects of food and farming.  This holistic approach allows stakeholders from all areas of the food chain….farmer, supplier, food processor, and grocery store to get involved.  It identifies Garth Whytethe best management practices across the entire farm operation.  As Garth Whyte, President & CEO of Fertilizer Canada said, “the 4R’s bridge the environment, the world, and farmers legacy”[xvi].  Perhaps Lynn Warriner of Blenheim, Ontario, described it best when she said that 4R allows her to be a “profitable business that maintains and improves assets of soil and environment around their farm”. Thirdly, it is BALANCED.  It is a tool to aid in increasing environmental quality while improving food production and reducing expenses by applying current knowledge and practices.  Additionally, farmers with either advanced or limited resources can both benefit from the use of 4R Practices.  Beet and tomato farmer Mark Richards of Dresden, Ontario, looks forward to competing with his fellow farmers in a friendly competition using the 4R’s by having higher yields AND better fruit quality.  In the process, he is making good environmental decisions on his farm.


Lynn Warriner

Figure 7.  Lynn Warriner says that 4R enables their farm to be “profitable business that maintains and improves assets of soil and environment around our farm”  (Courtesy of Fertilizer Canada)

Food knows no borders.  National boundaries may influence trade, but they do not change the interaction of farmers and the land.  It reminds me what a gentleman from an equipment dealership in Lethbridge, Alberta, once told me.  He said, “You know the only thing that separates the plains of Montana from Alberta is a line in the sand.”  That speaks volumes to how “international” farming really is.  Who is behind all of this?  There are many, too many to list.  With the help of organizations, farmers, farm suppliers, universities, government agencies, private foundations, and food manufacturers, a network of sustainable agricultural professionals is growing.  It sounds to me like that old saying, “Many hands make light work.”


Washington Quote

Figure 8.  Slide is taken from Prof. David R. Montgomery presentation on societies and soil erosion.




Writers note:  I want to say “thank you” to all those whom I have cited in this article.  Unfortunately, much more can be considered and there are many more resources that could be explored if you want to delve deeper.  I am truly thankful to be able to write about the subject of food, farming, and environmental security.  Thank you!


















Nothing Cures Low Prices Like…..Crop Rotations??

It is certainly not glamorous and it surely isn’t very sexy, but it just may be what could be the safest and permanent cure to low crop prices and help to spread out the environmental risks associated with heavy dependency on just a few crops for farm revenue and a subsidy program that by design concentrates farming businesses.

For those readers who are intimately aware of farming issues, I realize that stretching out crop rotations to four or more years can be difficult for certain types of farms.  Dairy, poultry, and hog operations come to mind.  Farms with higher animal populations tend to have capital budgeted toward animals, equipment, and buildings and they cannot afford to have the land base that allows longer cropping rotations.   Furthermore, transportation of manure can become another issue when transport can be upwards of 20 miles one way.

What about grain farms?

The grain farmer tends to not have as many revenue options.  Some farms have been a corn only type of business.  Others will be a corn and soybean program with maybe wheat or some other grain in between.   Just two generations ago, it was not uncommon for a typical farm[1] to have a four-year rotation that consisted of corn, oats, and some sort of hay crop.  Soybeans came into the mix as our markets became more global and soybean breeding improved.  What was a four or even five-year crop rotation became three years.  Today, that has shrunk to two years or no crop rotation.  Every year or every other year the grain farmer relies on the price of one item to make or break an entire farming operation that possibly affects up to several thousand acres.  We don’t even have a basket to put all of our eggs in when we rely on one crop to survive.

Farming is Messy.

Farming is a messy business.  It deals with so many variables that we can’t begin to predict how it will end this year let alone next year.  Because of that farmers do need some sort of protection from the rest of us.  Sure, farm programs cost money…. a lot of it.  However, relatively speaking, it is not that much when you consider what we get in return.  Have you looked at your food bill lately[2]?  It’s cheap when compared to every other nation on the planet[3].  However, that does not mean we can afford to keep doing it the way we have been doing it for the past 60 years.  Like I said, farming is messy.

Farming deals in living systems.

Farmers and those who supply them are a lot like doctors in that they deal with living organisms.  Calves are born, sows give birth, and a grain farmer earnestly studies the weather, soil, and forecasts to determine the optimum planting time for that living organism we call a seed to be put into that hostile environment called “soil”.  They hope that it can sprout and grow a crop that can provide feed or income for another year.  Do you work in a profession that makes its living from the successful interaction with living creatures every day?  Sadly, we have lost touch with that special bond that occurs when you help deliver a calf or reach down into the soil, dig it up and smell it to see how healthy it is.  Farming and those who supply them, cannot afford to work in a business environment that is constantly changing.  Consistency is key for slow, thoughtful change.  However, as we have seen, our living systems are not doing so well at adjusting to our current methods of farming.  Nutrient runoff, soil erosion, and certain species shifts in pests as well as beneficial species on land and water, are showing signs of prolonged stress and inability to adapt.

It’s time to rotate.

Candidly, farming as it is currently structured in the United States today, is juxtaposed to what other parts of our economy need.  We have a farming economy built around a small basket of products.  The United States and Brazil account for 80% of all soybean exports in the world and our second largest product we sell to China.[4],[5]  Is it time to rotate away from some of that?  Rotations spread out risk.  They spread out risk to environment and risk to adverse economic environments.  We must find ways to incentivize longer rotations with suitable alternative crops and the investments that will be needed.    Crop rotations are a slow process, that builds stability for the farm economy and for the soil[6].   The investments will be substantial and take several years to begin to see results.  The farming community is caught in an economic pinch with 2017 being a key year to see if we are indeed headed into a farm recession[7],[8],[9].  Perhaps we can forgo any new programs and simply emphasize ones that are already in place.  In fact, I know we can for there have been programs in place to encourage alternative crops for years.  Furthermore, monies not used due to less commodity subsidization can be diverted to help support longer field rotation programs.  With the 4R initiative and the renaissance that is emerging about soil health, maybe it’s time to begin to structure some of our short rotation corn and soybean acres to include regionally focused crop rotation partners that will spur local and regional based markets.

Rotations help to bring vitality back into a local farming community.

Indeed, many of these communities are in a negative growth situation.  While tax revenues increase in other areas, the smaller, rural towns are experiencing a trend of negative tax revenues[10].  Who will pay to keep the lights on in city hall?  It is a way of investing money into new equipment and new methods with the local shops and homes of farm laborers.  It also can be a great support to the local banks that according to the University of Nebraska, are evaporating away[11].  Meanwhile, it helps to insulate farmers and farm income from frequent and strong year over year currency swings which they have absolutely no control over and their crop income becomes collateral damage in some greater currency imbalance.

Perhaps the most troubling challenge of all is the derivative effect that currency valuations have on crop prices.  Candidly, this leaves many farmers, and our nations’ food security, in a precarious situation.  Currency markets have a strong impact on the export market.  Work out of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City shows that land values increased by as much as 30% due to strong export and ethanol markets that simultaneously impacted the grain markets and therefore caused the land to become more valuable[12].  Such rapid variances are very hard to manage.   Dean Heffta of Water Street Solutions, in his BASF Grow Smart University webinar entitled, “Monetary Policy and Currency Impact on Agriculture”, the Federal Reserve is basically charged with two primary tasks.  First, manage inflation at a level of around 2% and, secondly, to promote job creation.[13]  This means that we will need to perhaps our currency at a value like what we see today to keep money flowing into our economy from other nations.  For point of reference, the currency values we see today are like what we had back in the early 2000’s, those were times when ag exports suffered from a strong dollar[14].  Divergent monetary policies spark currency reactions from other nations and those currency reactions also strongly affect the fertilizer markets and less so pesticides and seed.

Where is agriculture going to be in the years to come?  Look around and you will see, mergers and acquisitions point to a desire to be prepared in a defensive posture for uncertainty and instability that more likely than not is going to come.  The traditional subsidy programs we are used to are mostly geared toward a stable currency environment when the U.S. dollar was more prominent.  Those days have changed and those subsidies many not be as appropriate considering current events and the biological impact that short rotations have[15].  A farmer can begin to spread out risk and stabilize farm income by having multiple crops to take to market.  The sort cropping rotations, consumer demands, world currency markets, and a nation in flux all point to a need for farming to place safeguards into place that are intrinsically based on the crops produced.  Now is the time to spread out rotations.