Catching the “Slippery Fish” on the Farm and Doing Good for Water

Jim Baird

About Jim Baird

Jim Baird is the Mid Atlantic Director at American Farmland Trust

When it comes to balancing a farmer’s need to grow healthy crops and preserve water quality, nitrogen—an important component of fertilizer—can be quite a “slippery fish.” Many factors influence how fertilizer cycles in and out of soil, water, plants and the air. The Nutrient BMP Challenge®, a risk management tool that American Farmland Trust is implementing across the nation to encourage on-farm conservation and reduce the amount of fertilizer flowing from farm fields into our waterways, helps address some of that risky behavior. We recently visited a Virginia farmer and BMP Challenge participant who pitted his wits against a special soil test to predict how much, or how little, fertilizer his corn would actually need.

Farmers use a range of techniques to determine the right amount of fertilizer to apply to their crop; some use high-tech tools, others apply a rule of thumb. The risk protection of the BMP Challenge offers farmers peace of mind when trying something new. The program reaches out to farmers who are interested in adopting conservation practices to reduce the amount of fertilizer used and help preserve water quality but who may be nervous about the risk to their crop yield. A number of these practices provide farmers with techniques to get a better handle on that slippery fish and to use fertilizer as efficiently as possible.

“Now is the Time to Protect the Land”

A BMP Challenge visit to Craun Farm in Virginia. (L to R: Jim Baird, American Farmland Trust; Matt Heldreth, Virginia Tech; Kevin Craun, Craun Farm; Jeff Cline, Virginia Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

Our visit to Kevin Craun on his farm in the Harrisonburg area of the Shenandoah Valley helps demonstrate this process. We met him in the corn field that he enrolled in the BMP Challenge this year. Craun has been an active participant in various soil conservation practices and farmland protection for some time now. As we stood in his cornfield above the creek, he pointed out fencing he had installed along the stream to keep out his cattle.  A buffer of grass and trees varying from 50 to 100 feet in width protects the banks and can absorb nutrients that might runoff his filed in a storm. He is also participating in the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) on 40 acres of his property and has a conservation easement on additional sections of the property, which means that they can never be converted to development. He noted the assistance of American Farmland Trust when he and other community members were developing a farmland protection program for the county. “Now is the time to protect the land when the land prices are low,” remarked Craun.

Doing Good for the Water

Farm Advisor Heldreth prepares the soil sample to be combined with a solution that allows the available nitrogen level to be measured.

The purpose of our visit was to take a soil sample to determine how much nitrogen was in the field before Craun made the final application of fertilizer. This information would allow him to apply an amount closer to what the corn actually needed rather than following a fixed formula. Being more accurate in this way would not only benefit the environment, but would help his profits by not paying for more fertilizer than the crop could use. Matt Heldreth, who took the soil samples and testing along with Jeffery Cline, Nutrient Management Specialist with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, is a senior at Virginia Tech and a farmer himself and noted that “techniques such as the PSNT (Pre-Sidedress Nitrogen Test) help farmers match their management to the needs of their individual fields, crop selections and whole farm operation, allowing them to do well economically while they do good for the water.”

As we left, Heldreth asked Craun how much nitrogen he thought his corn would need. “Well,” said Craun, squinting thoughtfully at the knee high plants nestled in the rolling hills. “Maybe 80 pounds?” Wouldn’t you know, the PSNT test agreed! The test and his experience came up with the same estimate for the amount of fertilizer to add to his soil.

As our work with farmers across the country using the BMP Challenge increases, we hope to continue to expand on-farm conservation practices and, in turn, work to preserve water quality in more and more critical locations. Conservation has both public and private benefits, which are being generated by the farmers themselves. And now, as our Virginia farmer put it, we need to “get the story out there of what farmers are doing.”


About the Authors:

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.

Delancey Nelson is a Marketing Intern with American Farmland Trust. She has worked on numerous farms and vineyards abroad and holds a degree in Historic Preservation and Community Planning from the College of Charleston. She is also the market manager of the Lauraville Farmers Market in Baltimore, Maryland.

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