How do we fix America’s fertilizer problem? Look in this ditch.

I realized that bromides about partnerships were designed to avoid airing petty disputes. In the end, the ability to weather those disputes was the key to success. “Everybody could have gotten too frustrated and left, but they didn’t,” Scott said. “You got to have the people to say: There’s the goal. Forget about the clutter, forget about the squirrels, everything distracting us. That’s how this project got done.”

Those meetings only worked because many farmers had already embraced cover crops. The idea had momentum: The practice had been bubbling up through American agriculture long enough to have gathered steam. In an area where people aren’t always keen on “big government,” it helped that cover crops were not imposed by scientists, regulators, or environmentalists. The NRCS — long seen as a trustworthy advisor of farmers — had been zealously proselytizing the benefits of cover crops for years. The most innovative farmers had had ample time to experiment with cover crops, endure initial failures, and figure out what worked. Foltz and Long were already true believers who could tick off a list of benefits they were seeing: better soil, less erosion, better nutrient availability, fewer weeds and pests.

“It takes several years to get the soil opened up and the earthworms working,” Foltz said, “but now we think cover crops are giving us an extra 10 to 15 bushels of corn an acre, and that adds up real quick.”

Scott took me to one field planted with grasses as well as sunflowers, hemp, fat turnips, and thick-rooted radishes — some 20 species in all. He pushed a digging fork into the ground and leaned on it to expose a head-sized clot of soil. “There is just solid roots to that soil!” he said. “Look at all the earthworms. Look at those worm holes. If it rains 3 inches tonight, this soil isn’t going anywhere. With a plowed field, if we get 3 inches that soil’s movin’.”

All told, nearly 70 percent of the Shatto farmland — roughly equivalent to 600 football fields — were covered with ryegrass (and a few other cover crops) for six winters on end. The effects were dramatic. The water flowing out of the pipes that drained precipitation from the fields fell by about half, and the nitrates flowing out of those pipes fell between 80 and 50 percent, depending on the year.

“The cover crops are grabbing the nutrients,” Tank said. “They are not coming out when the water is flushed out.”

Cover crops hold onto fertilizers and soil while providing habitat for everything from worms to deer. Nathanael Johnson / Grist

The project could have still fallen apart if it didn’t also come with piles of money. Contributions from The Nature Conservancy, the state, and the federal government covered the cost of the two-stage ditch digging and the university scientists making thousands of measurements. Federal dollars paid for a subsidy of $45 for every acre planted with cover crops. “Without incentives, it would have been a tough sell,” said Darci Zolman, a staffer at the county soil and water district.

This year, the $45 cover-crop subsidy ran out, and some of the farmers decided they’d plant them on fewer acres. This suggests that the money is crucial to replicating Shatto’s success and getting the lion’s share of farmers in the United States to use cover crops. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean taxpayers would have to fork over more money; farmers already get more than $11 billion in subsidies every year. The government could simply stipulate that farmers have to take conservation measures to receive federal money.

Long, the farmer with the big personality, said that the government has been giving farmers subsidies without asking them to take care of their downstream neighbors for too long. “Now I voted for Trump, don’t get me wrong, but farmers have gotten kind of socialized under the Trump administration because he keeps giving us money,” he said. “For what? For doing nothing. I firmly feel that if there’s gonna be a government subsidy program it needs to be tied to environmental improvement. That’s it. I’m against subsidies just to keep the poorer managers afloat.”

To start cleaning up the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, you’d need to bring a similar combination of meetings, momentum, and money to every watershed in the Mississippi River Basin — that is, expand what happened in northern Indiana more than 200,000-fold. When I asked people working on the Shatto ditch project how they’d recommend doing that, they quailed at the size of the challenge.

“We kind of laughed about the amount of work it’s taken over the last 14 years, just to get this off the ground,” said Chad Schotter, Kosciusko County district conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service. To do the same thing for the entire Mississippi basin, he continued, “I don’t know. It’s going to take a lot of boots on the ground.”

The Shatto ditch is a triumph, but it may take more than incentives and neighborly persuasion to get 70 percent of fields in the Mississippi basin under cover crops and build floodplains for every drainage ditch. Meetings, momentum, and money alone probably won’t cut it.

A map of the Midwest showing nitrogen from farm fertilizer in kilograms from 2012. High concentrations appear along the Mississippi River.
Clayton Aldern / Grist

Enforcing laws and regulations is the more direct route. Back in 1999, a major study of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone found that the cheapest way to staunch the flow of fertilizer would be to identify the worst culprits and switch those fields from widely-spaced row crops to something more densely planted like wheat. “If I were Tsar and had a Cossack army to back me up, I’d start with the marginal land and buy out the leakiest acres,said Otto Doerring, the Purdue University economist who led that study. But without an armed cavalry, or even much political will in the Corn Belt, politicians have stuck to voluntary measures, rather than imposing unpopular top-down rules.

“Find a problem anywhere of this size that has been solved through individual action — there’s no precedent,” said Chris Jones, a research engineer at the University of Iowa who works on fertilizer pollution. When I first met Jones in 2014, he thought all the voluntary measures farmers were trying would make a dent in the problem. But as pollution only got worse in Iowa, he changed his mind.

If cover crops don’t become the norm, the problem is sure to get worse. The most severe nutrient leaching happens during drenching storms, and those are happening more frequently.

“If you have a couple significant storm events over the course of a year it can really mask the effect of all the conservation practices,” said Royer, the Indiana University scientist. “That’s really concerning, because we are moving into a climate that’s probably going to have more of those intense storms. The challenge is only going to grow.”

The beautiful idea behind voluntary conservation practices like cover crops is that they might align the self-interest of farmers with the national interest in cleaning up fertilizer pollution. Getting farmers to see it as a necessary part of keeping their businesses running “would be even better than a magic bullet,” Tank said. Demonstrate that these practices work for both the farmers and their downstream neighbors, and they’d spread on their own.

Graduate students Matt Trentman and Shannon Speir and their lab leader Jennifer Tank (right) taking measurements in the Shatto ditch. Nathanael Johnson / Grist

That’s already happening. Neighboring landowners who have seen Long’s success have asked him to farm their fields, and acquaintances approach him at church to ask for advice. As Scott was giving me a tour in his red pickup, there was a check made out to him for his cover-cropping services sitting on the armrest between us. He has a business helping farmers manage 100,000 acres of cover crops throughout the region.

There are market forces behind cover crops now. Crop-duster airplane pilots are making extra money dropping seed into corn and soy fields in autumn, so that cover crops can get a head start before harvest. Seed companies and consultants profit by helping cover crops spread.

And maybe the very act of adopting conservation practices will open the door to other policies. The farmers I talked to in Indiana were genuinely concerned with cleaning up their mess. Experimenting with cover crops can open your eyes to the role of a farm as part of a larger system, Scott said.

When I asked him to elaborate, he told me about a friend of his who farms land downstream, where two rivers meet. “He’s sitting right there between between the White and the Wabash, and I mean, he floods all the time,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “His dad flooded maybe 1 out of 10 years, but now he’s to the point where they’re flooding 8 out of 10 years. And I told him one day, ‘Man, I’m sorry.’

“He’s like, ‘There’s nothing you can do about it.’

“I said, ‘There is something I can do about it. I feel like we are part of your problem.’”

It’s clear that leaving land bare and muddy, with hard soil from years of plowing, increases flooding during storms. Allowing fertilizer to escape in runoff hurts people downstream: the shrimpers in Louisiana, the lakeside residents and vacationers whose waterways turn slimy green. The state of Iowa alone sends tons of nitrogen fertilizer into the Mississippi River each year: Enough to fill 4,800 railroad tanker cars, about 13 per day on average, Jones calculated. The factories that make all that fertilizer emit tons of greenhouse gases, and the fertilizer-fueled algae blooms emit tons more.

Shut off this firehose of waste, and we’d be improving habitats, health, and the makeup of the atmosphere. It might also save farmers trainloads of money. No one is saying the kind of improvement seen in the Shatto ditch is easy, but maybe it’s worth the struggle.

Print Share Comment Cite Upload Translate Updates

Leave a Reply

Nathanael Johnson | Radio Free (2021-06-15T05:55:12+00:00) » How do we fix America’s fertilizer problem? Look in this ditch.. Retrieved from
" » How do we fix America’s fertilizer problem? Look in this ditch.." Nathanael Johnson | Radio Free - Thursday January 30, 2020,
Nathanael Johnson | Radio Free Thursday January 30, 2020 » How do we fix America’s fertilizer problem? Look in this ditch.., viewed 2021-06-15T05:55:12+00:00,<>
Nathanael Johnson | Radio Free - » How do we fix America’s fertilizer problem? Look in this ditch.. [Internet]. [Accessed 2021-06-15T05:55:12+00:00]. Available from:
" » How do we fix America’s fertilizer problem? Look in this ditch.." Nathanael Johnson | Radio Free - Accessed 2021-06-15T05:55:12+00:00.
" » How do we fix America’s fertilizer problem? Look in this ditch.." Nathanael Johnson | Radio Free [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 2021-06-15T05:55:12+00:00]
» How do we fix America’s fertilizer problem? Look in this ditch. | Nathanael Johnson | Radio Free | | 2021-06-15T05:55:12+00:00
To access this feature you must login or create an account.