|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 TFI.org
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
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 interaction 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. https://elearning.fertilizercanada.ca/en/4r-nutrient-stewardship-training
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 IPNI.net
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 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 the 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.
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.”
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!