By TIM ALEXANDER
PEORIA, Ill. — Nitrates remaining on drought-ravaged crop fields – and what to do about them – was the main topic at the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Assoc. (IFCA) Conference and Trade Show Jan. 20-23 at the Peoria Civic Center.
Hundreds of fertilizer retailers, farmers, agronomists and others gathered on the trade show’s first day to hear the preliminary results from some 300 soil samples gathered in Illinois as part of a new nutrient council’s “N Watch” campaign.
“We really needed those samples as an industry, to assess how much N was out there,” said Jean Payne, IFCA president.
She explained the samples were collected by Dan Schafer, leader of Illinois’ Keep it in the Crop nitrate stewardship program, and interpreted with the help of crop scientist Dr. Emerson Nafziger of University of Illinois extension.
“Where there were really low corn yields, a lot of nitrate was left in the soil,” Payne said. “We’re working with our dealers and their farmer-customers to understand where we are so adjustments can be made to fertility practices.”
Large amounts of precipitation in the form of snow or rain, neither of which are rare events in late winter and early spring in Illinois, could leech many of the residual nitrates from the soil, causing field runoff of farm chemicals and triggering additional backlash from environmentalists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“We know that high nitrates (in fields) this time of year are susceptible to loss. But we have to understand it and tell people about it, and that’s what the N Watch was all about,” said Payne. “As an industry we’ve got to do a better job of understanding what is out there, even though this is not a story we’re happy about.
“We shared with our fertilizer dealers that we have to manage these high levels going into this year. (N) may still be available (on fields), and we can dial back our rates while we continue to track levels. We’ve never really tested for soil nitrates in Illinois before, but now we are looking at things a little differently.”
Among other topics of importance at the conference: farmers are now paying 75 cents more per ton for fertilizer to support the new Nutrient Research and Education Council (NREC) – and few seem to mind the extra charge, according to Payne.
“I think farmers understand why we’re doing that. It’s going to take money to fund the nutrient research and education that’s got to happen, so we’re basically self-assessing to pay for it,” she said. “But now we have ownership of it (rather than the state) and a long-term funding strategy. All ag groups supported it, and our dealers did an outstanding job of explaining it to their customers.”
The impetus behind the new fertilizer tonnage fee, NREC and N Watch lies with increasing threats of regulatory pressure emanating from the EPA and other government agencies answering the drumbeat of environmental lobbyists.
At the heart of the issue is the Hypoxia Zone located near the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, where marine and plant life may be adversely affected as a result of past poor nutrient stewardship by Midwest farmers and others along the waterways of the Mississippi.
“Midwest agriculture is under a lot of regulatory pressure. I don’t believe any of us think it’s going to get easier, so we have got to continue to demonstrate that we are using nutrients in the right way,” Payne said.
The conference also included a walk-through of amendments to the Fertilizer Act put in place for the first time since 1961, affecting licensing, inspections, penalties and more.
It also served as the public debut of IFCA’s new director of government and industry relations, Kevin Johnson. Johnson had previously served for many years as an aide to recently retired U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson (no relation) of Illinois before joining IFCA in 2013.
“I’ve worked with ‘KJ’ ever since he started with Congressman Johnson in 2000,” said Payne. “At a time when we are taking on these new responsibilities with nutrient stewardship, it became obvious to me that we needed help to manage all of the issues. KJ brings a lot of strength, especially on the federal side.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of regulatory pressure from the federal government, and now we have a guy at IFCA who understands the process and knows who to talk to. I’m really glad he wanted to come work with us.”