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Farm Policy Roundup– September 12, 2014

iStock_000000142578MediumCongress Returns, Readies Continuing Resolution through December 11

As Congress returned this week from August recess, the House of Representatives began the process of approving a continuing resolution (CR) to extend government spending beyond September 30 which marks the end of fiscal year 2014. Government agencies are currently only funded through the end of the fiscal year, so a CR is necessary to avoid a government shutdown. The CR would maintain spending at current levels.

At this point, passage of the CR is expected to be a formality. The House Rules committee was expected to review and approve the CR earlier this week, however that consideration has been postponed until the week of September 15. Approval by the House Rules committee would clear the way for the CR to be considered on the House floor before proceeding to the Senate and finally being signed by the President.
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Taking a Risk on the Farm Proves Economically Rewarding, Environmentally Beneficial

Three years before the Maryland Department of Agriculture revised nutrient management regulations a BMP Challenge crop adviser, Don Moore (AET Agricultural Consulting) took the initiative and partnered with American Farmland Trust and Agflex Inc. to work with seven farmers to inject or incorporate manure into the soil.  Manure injection or incorporation increases fertilizer efficiency, thus reducing potential nutrient loss from the field three ways.  When the manure is below, rather than on top of the soil, nitrogen rich ammonia gas can’t escape to the air making more of it available to the plant by as much as 20%. Secondly, the fertilizer is now located several inches closer to the plant roots. Finally, it is far less susceptible to being washed away in heavy spring rains. The potential is for this practice to allow the farmer to reduce the total amount of total fertilizer inputs mainly the chemical type put on mid-season, thus be, saving money and improving water quality.

Since manure incorporation with vertical tillage equipment such as an Aerway or Turbotill is a relatively new practice, the BMP Challenge comparisons were setup to determine whether incorporation would affect yields. In 2012, participants applied the same number of nitrogen credits across the entire field.  However, they reduced the amount of commercial fertilizer at sidedress on the manure incorporation acres.  The incorporation increased the nitrogen credit to offset the commercial fertilizer reduction. By the third year, the part of the field where manure was applied to the surface at the recommended rate was compared to the rest of the field that used incorporation and a reduced application rate based less ammonia escaping to the air.

Across the three years, incorporation showed an average increase in net returns by $6.00 per acre and a nitrogen reduction of 7 pounds.  Over-all the farmers saved more than 8,400 pounds of nitrogen applications. Five of seven participating farmers in the BMP Challenge demonstrations were interviewed last fall regarding their participation. Three have purchased new equipment. One is seriously considering it and the fifth has expanded use of vertical tillage to all his crop acres. According to Moore, “Throughout the entire BMP Challenge process, farmers demonstrated their willingness and eagerness to learn.  They want to learn about and adopt new technologies if they make good economic sense.  They are not willing to risk yield to experiment.  This is where the yield guarantee was important to them.  In this world of high commodity prices, and inputs that are equally as high, growers are hesitant to entertain additional risk.  No one is interested in over-application of nutrients.

Maryland state law now requires farmers to inject or incorporate manure and other organic nutrient sources into the soil within 48 hours of application.  The past three years of work on the Eastern Shore has provided important information to farmers and agricultural advisors as well. The BMP Challenge will be working with an expanded number of growers this year to transition from surface application to manure incorporation.

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Preserving Clean Water and Viable Farms in the Mid-Atlantic: An Interview with Jim Baird, Mid-Atlantic Director, American Farmland Trust

What brought you to American Farmland Trust (AFT) and has kept you engaged over the past five years?

I don’t have a farm background but I did overseas work for a long time in sustainable agriculture and community-based things was always part of that. Then I began working more in conservation and sustainability. Working in the Chesapeake Bay region at this point in time has been a profound experience. I see it as a challenge of figuring out how we work and play and grow food and live in this area yet still maintain an estuary that actually functions. It is a civilizational problem. It’s all over the world at the mouth of every major river basin. In this region we are at the cutting edge in figuring out how we do this.

I’m always struck by the amount of respect that comes with me into the room when I say that I’m with American Farmland Trust. I think our partners see us coming with good ideas, well thought through. Obviously we have a constituency and we advocate for them, but I think that we’re seen as honest brokers, people who are trying to make good policy, good decisions, make good things happen, not just advance our side of things. It’s really critical because farmland touches all of those interests so our partnerships are hugely important. A farmer we work with recently said that AFT is able to rise above the local politics that often derail good ideas because we have a national focus and a long perspective. We want what is best for farmland and farming over all.

As part of a coalition in Pennsylvania, AFT helped stop cuts for farmland preservation funds proposed by Governor Corbett. Can you expand upon that accomplishment?

It was a real victory. State budgets are tight everywhere and you look around and see other states where cuts were made yet Pennsylvania survived. The reason I think we were successful is because AFT has helped to build and support a very strong, broad coalition of farmers, agricultural groups and environmental people who are concerned about water and woods and the environmental side of things. And we all got together behind a Save the Farm coalition. We were well-organized and just had a good campaign. It resonated with Pennsylvanians who have shown their commitment to the idea and to pay to protect farmland for 30 years. We got them to speak up, write letters and make calls. We had a great response in the press. Ultimately the legislators listened and make a strong showing to the governor to say that this isn’t ok.

What are some big challenges AFT has faced in the Mid-Atlantic region over the past year?

I think we really need to nail down this issue of having farmland be adequately represented in the solution to this big issue of how do we live on the land in a way that is sustainable? And we need a new look at that because while all the reasons we have identified through the years for why farmland is important are all still true, we also have this heightened concern  about water quality.  We need to understand what role farmland and farmers plays in this realm and we articulate to people. They need to understand how much agriculture is part of the solution for this issue, too. And so this last year I’ve been working on making the case that farmland is essential for water quality so we can make it part of the policy solution.

There are so many uses for land and there are so many more near-term uses that seem more important like housing and transportation, stuff that people have to do on a daily basis. It feels to most people that the food, and the open space and the other benefits are just going to be there and there’s enough land. And we don’t realize how thin that is. That great animation we have about the earth being an apple and how thin, how precious and tiny the part that is farmland and the productive soils that we need are in comparison to the whole earth.

What was another great accomplishment of 2012?

One of the best things was getting a big acknowledgement for our work from the head of Penn State Extension [Dr. Doug Beegle], who is a renowned agronomist and soil scientist. He has been promoting sensible practices that help farmers meet their business need to be profitable and have good yields by being more precise and efficient in how they use nutrients, which helps clean the water. The approach that AFT uses, which we call the BMP Challenge, allows farmers to try out new practices risk free. They work with an expert person in the field to set up a comparison of this new practice compared to what they’ve been doing. Then if they lose money on the new practice, we promise to pay them the difference. It’s a guarantee that lets them sleep well at night because they know that they can try this thing, they can learn from it, and it’s not going to be a big loss for them economically. Having the head of extension at Penn State say, “I think this approach of AFT, this BMP challenge, is the perfect thing to use to get farmers to try out this soil testing practice,” that was great.

What do you think is one of the most important things to note about AFT’s work in the Mid-Atlantic region?

The thing that I keep coming back to is that people really need to have a better appreciation for what farmers are really thinking about and what goes into their decisions and how complex and nuanced those are. It’s a technical, complex profession. It’s just wonderful to sit in meetings with these farmers and hear them discuss their decision-making process. They really care about it. Obviously, it’s their livelihood but they’re working with nature every day and it’s complex. One of the things that I try to do is to get farmers in front of non-farmers and have them hear that.

It’s a highly technical and sophisticated knowledge-based career and it’s risky. You have got to be out there making decisions and spending money and going out on a limb for the whole year, and it’s only when you harvest that yield that you get your paycheck. You have so little control over most of what is important, which is rainfall and temperature. Whew, talk about living life on the edge!


Jim BairdAbout the Author: Jim Baird is Mid-Atlantic Director for the American Farmland Trust where he works to help maintain viable farms and clean water through the adoption of nutrient-related conservation practices and ensuring that farmer concerns are reflected in policy and program discussions.

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Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl Reminder to Continue Investment in Farmland Conservation

“Out of the long list of nature’s gifts to man, none is perhaps so utterly essential to human life as soil.” – Hugh Hammond Bennett, first chief of the Soil Conservation Service

Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest project, “The Dust Bowl,” premiers on PBS on November 18-19. The film focuses on what PBS calls “the worst man made disaster in American history.”   Although the film centers on stories of generations past, many parallels exist between the circumstances that led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s and today. The U.S. is experiencing its second year of widespread, catastrophic drought with more than 64 percent of the nation in “moderate” or worse drought conditions. At the same time, farmers are being asked to feed a hungry world by maximizing production on every available acre.

While many factors contributed to the Dust Bowl, farmers today have advantages that did not exist back then. Most significant among them is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Established by the Soil Conservation Act in 1935, the NRCS (originally the Soil Conservation Service) is the federal agency whose mission is to help farmers improve, protect and conserve fragile natural resources like soil and water upon which we all depend.

Farmers today work in cooperation with NRCS and local soil and water conservation districts and have made great strides in protecting farmland, improving soil health and caring for the land.

The financial resources for these efforts come from the farm bill, a piece of legislation that Congress writes every five years to establish farm and food policy. Congress has an opportunity this year to extend and fund several key conservation programs through the farm bill.  American Farmland Trust has been actively engaged in this legislative process to craft conservation programs that are efficient and effective in delivering good conservation results on the landscape.

Lack of a farm bill will not only hamper the ability for farmers to make continued improvements but also poses potential setbacks. Farm bill conservation programs are proven farmland-protection programs. They give farmers the vital tools they need to provide multiple environmental benefits including protecting and improving the soil, keeping water clean and creating abundant wildlife habitat.

Maintaining and strengthening the conservation programs being considered in this year’s farm bill will help protect our soil and water for future generations.  We encourage you to watch Mr. Burns’ film, “The Dust Bowl,” and consider the importance of continued investment in federal farm conservation programs.

More information on “The Dust Bowl” including videos, photo galleries, interactive material and information on when you can view it on your local station is available on the PBS website: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/


About the Author: Jeremy Peters is Director of Federal Policy at American Farmland Trust.

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Cultivating Community at Arlington Farmers Market

The Arlington Farmers’ Market is led by a grassroots, volunteer-run organization in the small town in northwestern Washington state. They hand-paint sandwich boards with directions to the market, attend city meetings to cultivate a presence in the community, and they look everywhere–even their own kids’ rooms–for books to read at a story time in the park. It’s fitting, then, that the market was started by farmers looking to expand upon their CSA. Mark and Patricia Lovejoy wanted to bring their fresh, local food to the residents of Arlington, so they simply showcased their produce downtown on Saturdays. Other farmers and crafters joined them. Two years ago the market was turned over to sisters Audrey Houston and Samantha Schuller. The Lovejoy organic produce tent still anchors the market, which has since doubled in size and sales and is recognized as a 2012 winner of the America’s Favorite Farmers Markets™ competition.

Vegetables at Arlington Farmers Market in Washintgon

Vegetables from farmers Mark and Patricia Lovejoy, owners of Garden Treasures. (Photo: Audrey Houston)

The market is focused on locally grown produce. In fact, most produce is grown within about 25 miles of the market, expect for the stone fruits grown on the other side of the mountains in Eastern Washington. Houston, who serves as the market director, said “the most popular items at the market are the tiny ones–berries.” During peak season, shoppers buy flats full of berries for jams, pies, or to eat by the handful.

On any given Saturday during the market, some 800 people will shop at the 13 or so vendors. More vendors join during berry season, but there’s always a variety of goods for the happy shoppers. Residents build relationships with the growers and many parents say they are glad they have the chance to model a healthy lifestyle to their kids by shopping for vegetables, spending time outside, and getting their kids engaged in story time and the free activities, Houston said.

“And maybe most importantly, it’s a community gathering space,” Houston explained. “There aren’t too many places in our culture these days where you can bump into your fellow residents without paying an entrance fee. If you stand in the middle of the market, you’ll hear neighbors greeting each other, friends grabbing some fruit for a picnic at the park, and a lot of laughter.”

The farmers at the market build the same relationships. These personal relationships drive their businesses and customers love the experience of not just knowing, but liking their farmers, Houston said. “Our farmers are people who’ve chosen lives of honest, hard work, who love experiences more than material goods, and who are willing to give up their summer Saturdays to get downtown and make connections within their community,” she added. The market offers growers a unique opportunity to sell to residents. As most grocery stores in the area only purchase food from large growers, the smaller, local farms can use the market downtown as a chance to expand their customer base and it provides an outlet for sales.

The Arlington Farmers’ Market also shares a healthy relationship with other local markets in the area. None of them are in direction competition. Instead, Houston said they build one another up, “the same way that the farmers at Arlington’s market don’t actually compete.” The markets spread the word to people of the importance of eating real food and they stress the need of growing our own food, Houston said. “The more farmers’ markets there are, the faster that change in public perception can happen.”

That grassroots efforts of organizing the market has paid off with the award of best small farmers market. Houston said it’s helped create a buzz in Arlington and the surrounding communities. Organizers plan to build on this success and add new vendors next year, including meat, dairy, prepared foods, and even more farmers.

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Fayetteville Farmers Market, Crown Jewel of the Community

The Fayetteville Farmers Market was founded nearly 40 years ago by a group of active farmers and gardeners looking for an opportunity to sell their goods to the community in the third largest city in Arkansas. The group worked with the community and formed a partnership with the city to host a farmers market on the downtown city square. Now with four markets a week and more than 100 vendors, the Fayetteville market draws over 250,000 visitors eager to purchase local food. The market serves as a regular community event and a gathering location for residents. It’s the place to be on a Saturday morning and the vendors make regular donations back into the community. For these reasons and more, the Fayetteville Farmers Market is one of the winners of this year’s America’s Favorite Farmers Market competition in the large category.

The market started in 1974 and is now open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday mornings around the historic Downtown Square. There is also a smaller Sunday market held at the Botanical Garden right along the Lake Fayetteville pedestrian trail. The Saturday market is known as the “Crown Jewel of Fayetteville,” and comes to life with street performers on every corner, local musicians, and community organizations and politicians promoting their projects and positions.

“It’s a family outing as well as a place to meet up with friends,” said Lori Boatright, the market’s Public & Media Coordinator. “It’s not just a place to buy the freshest food available, it’s a party every weekend.”

The entertainment and community vibe is not the only thing that draws people to the market, it’s also the locally grown and produced food. There are several produce vendors, while meat vendors sell beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and eggs. You’ll also find a variety of trees, plants, and shrubs, including some native species. The northwest of Arkansas offer a long and diverse growing seasons; farmers grow a variety of berries, apples, pears, and peaches, and more than 20 varieties of tomatoes. Eggplant and bok choy are regularly available and the market is proud to offer one of the only Animal Welfare Approved farms in the state.

“What began as a place for people to access local food has become the place to be on Saturday morning,” Boatright said. “The community has a very special place in their heart for the market. The market is also proud of our community partnerships with the city and with other area businesses and non-profits.”

Market organizers work hard to raise awareness of food insecurity in the community while vendors have donated more than 20,000 pounds of produce this season to local food pantries and kitchens. The market also plays an important role in the economic development of the community with monies spent in the community staying in the community. For the vendors, the market offers a place to sell their goods, but it’s also a place for educational opportunities and food safety information.

“We are so proud to be America’s Favorite Farmers’ Market,” Boatright said. “We hope that this title assists us in bringing even more awareness to small scale agriculture and its place in our communities.” Market organizers are also looking to expand opportunities to offer customers in other parts of town access to locally grown food.

Also, be sure to check out The Food Network show, The Great Food Truck Race, and their visit to the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market.

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Sulphur Spring Farmers Market Pairs Live Music with Local Food from Local Farms

The Sulphur Springs Farmers Market offers a unique shopping experience in the revitalized downtown area in eastern Texas. Not only can you purchase local produce straight from growers, but you can also do so while listening to live music on a Saturday night. Fresh strawberries, watermelons, pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peaches are ripe in season and area farmers are quick to show off their favorite picks of the week. The market, as it’s known to locals, serves as a gathering point for the community. With strong support from their regular customers, the Sulphur Springs Farmers Market won the American Farmland Trust’s 2012 America’s Favorite Farmers Market contest in the midsize category.

“We are all very excited about the award,” said Shane Shepard, Community Development Director, City of Sulphur Springs. “We felt we would be a winning contender.” But the award verified their hard work and dedication.

Sulphur Springs, Texas Farmers Market video

Watch a video about the Sulphur Springs Farmers Market

Located about an hour east of Dallas, the rural area is peppered with markets. Local farmers often have to pick where to sell their fruits, vegetables, and meats. Organizers at Sulphur Springs saw the opportunity of hosting a market Saturdays from 6 to 10 p.m. as a way to allow vendors to sell at two markets in one day. With live music playing during the warm Texas evenings, it’s not uncommon for the hours to extend into midnight.

“We have communities within 20 to 30 miles–who were also in the competition–but everyone was doing their markets on Saturday morning,” Shephard said. “So we decided to do an evening market instead. Then we encouraged vendors to go ahead and do the other markets. Hopefully it helps the citizens of other towns and also the vendors because they have two chances to sell.”

About four years ago the city started a revitalization project in the downtown district. It was modeled on new urbanism, with narrower streets, and more walking areas. Part of the project was to create shopping neighborhoods full of foot traffic. A downtown farmers market fit perfectly into the new design.

In the first three years, the market was growers only and served as a way to bring fresh food to community members. There are several big agriculture producers in the area, but not as many small farmers. This led the market to shift away from a strict growers-only focus, though this move has indirectly helped the farmers who sell their produce because customers that came for prepared food or artwork also purchase fruits and vegetables.

The market offers one of the only venues in the area that allows residents to buy food straight from growers, so they know what’s in season and what to expect in the coming weeks. Given the rural proximity, residents have to travel quite a distance for healthy food. “This is our way of getting healthy food to consumers,” Shepard said. The Saturday evening market is more than just an opportunity for farmers to sell healthy foods directly to the consumers, it also serves as a promotional tool. One farmer grows delicious strawberries. Shepard said people couldn’t get enough. “People liked it and didn’t want to wait so they found where he was located and they visited him often.”

With an award under their belts, organizers are hoping to build on their momentum and be an even more defining part of the community. Shepard said he’s hoping to partner with the other local markets to create a coalition. “There’s a little competition from the different markets,” he said. “We’re hoping the surrounding towns try to beat us considering how good we did this year.”

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Year-round Local Food Finds at One of America’s Favorite: Winter Garden Farmers Market

The city of Winter Garden, Florida, is so supportive of its local agriculture that it bought and set aside land close to the downtown area specifically for farming and community gardens.  So it makes sense that residents are enthusiastic about the Winter Garden Farmers Market. Set in the charming city center, along brick roads and the pavilion, the market offers residents a chance to interact with local farmers and learn about their food. Patrons are extremely enthusiastic that their votes helped secure the Winter Garden Farmers Market a top spot in the American Farmland Trust’s 2012 America’s Favorite Farmers Market competition.

You can find just about anything at the Winter Garden Farmers Market, from fresh produce, organic meats and eggs, and goods made from locally grown foods. Winter Garden is located just outside Orlando and the climate allows for year-round growing. Florida is renowned for its citrus, so you don’t have to look far at the market to find your favorite variety of oranges, lemons, or tangerines. Fall is one of the best growing seasons for the area, so residents will have an opportunity to enjoy delicious herbs, beets, and even strawberries into the holiday season and beyond.

The market is about four years old. It has moved around to different locations but now has a perfect spot near the pavilion and bike paths, said Shannon Heron, project manager. “The downtown merchants association worked hard to make the old downtown very active and vibrant,” she said. “It has the real great old town feel and it pulls people into the downtown. It’s really an incredible location.”

On any given Saturday at the market you’ll find kids playing in the newly installed splash pad to stay cool, dog owners shopping for pet treats, and families enjoying freshly squeezed juice from local citrus. Patrons are completely loyal to their market and many come early in the morning to get the freshest produce. Musicians frequent the market to entertain shoppers and play games with kids. “It’s a really friendly, open sort of vibe,” Heron said.

The vendors also have a tight community. They help each other out if they are short on staff and they work closely with the downtown merchants. “Our produce guys are so busy,” Heron said. “They all watch out for each other.”

The market is home to a third-generation farmer. Through a partnership with the city, he farms about 10 acres of land owned by the city of Winter Garden. Dana Brown, market manager, said the city plans to set aside another 40 acres for others to farm, as well. The city recently bought about 100 acres, which will be set aside for parks and farmland. Brown said the city planner is a visionary with preserving local farmland and the community is in full support. There is even a community garden for residents to grow on their own plots of land.

“This is a new thing for the community, but they are just going with it,” Brown said. “There isn’t a lot of red tape. The city just said let’s do it right and do it big. They are very progressive.”

One of the local farmers plans to host a corn harvest festival to help celebrate the award from AFT. It will give residents a chance to see where their food is produced but they will also celebrate the fall harvest with tractor rides and a corn maze.

The organizers will continue to come up with interesting ways to promote their local growers and merchants and encourage the community to come out and enjoy the wide assortment of goods and food offered at the market. The goal is to build off the success from winning the America’s Favorite Farmers Market award and continue to encourage residents to support the local farmers.

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Hot Fun in the Summer Time: Ear Leaf Tissue Testing

It was July, almost August. And was HOT. I was burrowing my way through six foot tall corn in 100 degree temperatures! Last month I told you about testing the soil to get a read on how much nitrogen (think plant food) there is next to the corn plants to help them grow. We did that BEFORE the farmer gave the corn any additional fertilizer which made it a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Tests (PSNT).

As a crop advisor for the BMP Challenge, I revisited the fields at the end of July to take Ear Leaf Tissue Samples. The plant’s silk coming from the top of the ears is still yellow but just about to turn brown meaning it’s our last chance to check up on the health of the plants prior to harvest. Walking the length of the field (about two football fields with 6-foot corn means I hadn’t seen daylight for 30 minutes!) and I periodically pulled off a leaf, the one that grows at the base of the ear of corn, to collect samples for testing.  Being in the field also gave me a chance to examine the crop for signs of stress, such as withered leaves from drought, yellowed leaves due to low nitrogen and insects.

These samples taken in BMP Challenge enrolled fields come from two areas: first from the “check strip,” where the farmer had applied nitrogen at a rate of his or her own choosing, and then from the remainder of the field where the nitrogen rate was determined by the PSNT results.  The samples of ear leaves help backup the PSNT results, showing that the portion of the field that had received a reduced amount of fertilizer would still have adequate nitrogen to make it through harvest.  But maybe even more important, the ear leaf test provides another data point, another topic to discuss when we sit down as a group with the participating farmers after the harvest. As a crop advisor, I work to provide BMP Challenge enrolled farmers with all the information to ponder, discussing their observations and the test results against their yields to evaluate the use of best management practices on their field.

The PSNT and Ear Leaf tests just provide a snapshot of the nutrients available to the plants on the day the samples are taken. They give the farmer one more piece of the complex puzzle that is nitrogen fertilizer management.  Much research has been done over the last several decades to determine the amount of each nutrient that is necessary to support growth. Mother Nature is unpredictable and soil types differ from farm to farm, so each farmer must have their management strategies. At the same time, it is impossible for any single test or guideline to consistently provide the “right” answer about how much fertilizer a farmer should apply.  The main reason I was out in the summer heat, melting and collecting the ear leaf samples was to give each farmer one more measurement of their crop’s progress in order to evaluate the recommendations that we made to them after the PSNT.

When people my age leave Virginia Tech with an ag degree and look at today’s economy, they know they will have to be innovative in order to remain profitable if they want to farm  The “slippery fish” of nitrogen that I work with as a crop advisor requires extra attention; it’s risky and being wrong is expensive. AFT’s BMP Challenge program is providing access to tools and knowledge to help farmers better manage their fertilizer usage. By offering insurance, AFT is encouraging producers to try new practices on their fields—like the one I walked through that hot July day—and not lose sleep at night worrying about yield loss. Using fertilizer more efficiently meets the double bottom line that farmers want: to improve the water in the stream while getting the most corn at the least cost.



About the Author: Dana Gochenour is a farmer and freelance writer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She can be reached at dgochen@vt.edu.

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What is the BMP Challenge?

The BMP Challenge™ is a program that American Farmland Trust is running in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, in other Mid-Atlantic states, in New York, California and across the Midwest as a tool to help farmers implement BMPs, or Best Management Practices to achieve conservation goals, on their farmland. For farmers with fields in corn, nitrogen is one of the primary nutrients to help it grow, and farmers apply commercial forms of nitrogen fertilizer to provide the crop with added nutrients. The amount of nitrogen applied to the field is based on the farmer’s yield goal, or how many bushels of corn the farmer expects to grow per acre—one pound of nitrogen for one bushel of corn on average. But nitrogen’s availability to the plant is tricky, affected by temperature and the moisture in the soil. To ensure that the corn gets enough a farmer may apply extra nitrogen as insurance for reaching their yield goals.

Barn and corn field in Virginia's Shenandoah ValleyWhen more nitrogen (or any other nutrient) is applied than what the plant can utilize for growth, the excess can leave the field as runoff and contaminate waterways. Farmers have no interest in wasting expensive fertilizer or sending nutrients into nearby waterways, but their harvest is their pay check for the whole year. The risk of being wrong is great. The role that the BMP Challenge plays is to allow the farmer to compare a new practice, designed to be more nitrogen efficient, to their standard practice with a guaranteed payment if they lose yield.

When a farmer agrees to participate in the BMP Challenge a crop advisor, like me, works with them to collect a detailed history on the enrolled field, outlining the history of corn grown  and how much and what types of fertilizers have been applied to the ground. This allows us to establish how much nitrogen is already present in the soil and available for use by the newly planted crop. The crop advisor then asks what the farmer’s current yield goal is, so we can determine how much total nitrogen the corn will need by the end of the growing season.

Typically, farmers in the Shenandoah Valley apply fertilizer to corn twice; once at planting and again when they “sidedress” the balance when the corn is about knee high. This way fertilizer is available to the plant at every stage during the growing season. My job as a crop advisor is to help the farmer pinpoint exactly how much sidedress nitrogen is needed by using a Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test, or PSNT.

The farmer and crop advisor collect soil samples 12 inches deep to measure the amount of nitrogen available to the plant just prior to the time when the young plants need the most fertilizer. The extra depth allows a more complete and accurate picture of how much nitrogen is available and helps guard against over fertilization. (Check out this video from the University of Wisconsin Extension for a look at PSNT in action.)

For the BMP Challenge™, We take soil samples from two different parts of the field.  One is a strip through the middle of the field, or check strip, where the farmer was encouraged to sidedress the crop at whatever rate they would typically use based on their soil type and yield goal.  In the remainder of the field the farmer agreed to only apply the amount of nitrogen recommended from the PSNT result.  It is possible that the PSNT could be the same as what the farmer had already planned or it could even call for more nitrogen, but often, the PSNT indicates that the nitrogen sidedress can be reduced or even eliminated without causing a loss in yield.

At a time when commercial fertilizer can be a third of corn’s total cost of production, any savings a farmer can find will make a huge difference for their bottom line.  Using a soil test to adjust nitrogen rates to the actual need can save money and improve water quality.  But what if it’s wrong?

By using a side-by-side comparison within the same field it is possible for the farmer to prove to him or her self that the PSNT can be trusted. And by performing the test under the umbrella of the BMP Challenge™, the risk of trying this new practice is eliminated.

Next up… Half-way to Harvest – What’s the Score? -Ear Leaf Tissue Testing in the BMP fields



About the Author: Dana Gochenour is a farmer and freelance writer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She can be reached at dgochen@vt.edu.

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