Nitrogen is a win for farmers, but can be a problem for air and water quality conscious companies

Responding to an urgent need for both data and a tool to manage nutrient loads, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has created a tool to help corporations and farmers. As this magazine reported, municipalities are struggling to fund water quality standards at local sanitation districts. The smart solution is to reduce nutrient load at the source.  When announcing their program, EDF noted that nitrogen fertilizer is one of the most important inputs in agriculture, but up to 50 percent of nutrients applied are not absorbed by crops. The remainder leads to air and water pollution, as well as wasted money for farmers, who spend approximately half of their input costs (seed, nutrients, and chemicals) on fertilizer.

Benefits for Corporations

For major food companies, reducing fertilizer runoff, improving air and water quality, and reducing the risk of supply chain disruptions are major components of their sustainable sourcing programs. However,precision agriculture tools, in particular those that improve nutrient management, are needed to help farmers meet the demand and reduce fertilizer losses. Responding to this need, the EDF has launched a NutrientStar Program. The program is an important step for these companies.

  • Food companies improve transparency with customers, more easily navigate the fertilizer management world, and can now directly support farmers in implementing on-farm conservation practices.
  • Agribusinesses ensure they are offering the most competitive, farm-tested products to growers, thereby earning customer loyalty.

NutrientStar Benefits for Corporations

Dan Sonke

Dan Sonke, 
Manager of Agricultural Sustainability Programs, 
Campbell Soup Company

“Campbell is committed to growing and sourcing ingredients as sustainably as possible while supporting farmers in their stewardship efforts. NutrientStar will provide science-based review of fertilizer efficiency tools so that farmers and companies can invest in the best available technologies and products to optimize their crop.”

Amy Braun, 
Senior Sustainability Manager, 
Kellogg Company

"At Kellogg, we strive to make great-tasting food people love. People care about where their food comes from, the people who grow and make it, and that there’s enough for everyone. NutrientStar is a great tool for farmers to ensure the highest quality ingredients for our foods.”

Chip Bowling, 
National Corn Growers Association

"Our corn farmers rely on a growing set of tools to help make better decisions to improve entire farm sustainability. The NutrientStar review system can help us find solutions that are tested and effective – saving time and money while promoting better yields, improved economics and healthier soils.”

Kraig Westerbeek, 
VP of Engineering and Environmental Support Services, 
Smithfield Foods

“We’ve been overwhelmed with the positive response to Smithfield’s MBGro program, which offers free agronomic advice to independent grain growers to help them improve productivity, profitability and sustainability. The program also offers farmers free trials of precision agriculture tools that help to improve fertilizer applications and soil health. NutrientStar is the perfect complement to MBGro because it provides growers certainty that the tools we’re recommending work as advertised.”

Stefani Grant,
Senior Manager, External Affairs and Sustainability,

“At Unilever, our purpose is to help make sustainable living commonplace. Through our sustainable sourcing goals, Unilever is working to find the best ways to support farmers in their sustainability efforts. NutrientStar is a great instrument for growers to utilize to help determine which tools work best for achieving tangible environmental results.”

The NutrientStar program establishes guidelines for field testing nutrient-use efficiency tools, setting standards and providing a geographical framework that can substantially advance the research agenda in ways that will benefit the entire agriculture industry.   

“As food companies’ demand for sustainably produced ingredients continues to skyrocket, they’ll need to support farmers and the entire supply chain in implementing on-farm conservation practices,”  said Karen Chapman, agricultural sustainability project manager at EDF and administrator of the NutrientStar program. “NutrientStar will help food companies navigate the fertilizer management world, and will spark further innovation, research and development for better nutrient management tools.”

Benefits for Farmers

NutrientStar assessments provide numerous benefits for farmers, including:

  • Farmers gain confidence by knowing that the nutrient management tools they purchase will work as advertised to reduce fertilizer losses, improve soil health, lower input costs, and maintain yields. Farmers can also showcase their stewardship to food companies and suppliers by using the NutrientStar review to inform their decisions.
  • Ag retailers and crop advisors earn a competitive advantage by offering field-tested and geographically relevant products to their grower customers.

NutrientStar Benefits for Farmers

Keith Alverson,
Corn & Soybean Farmer & President,
South Dakota Corn Association
“The more information growers have on the tools and technologies available to them, the better choices we can make to save money and protect the land. NutrientStar will help growers keep their strong tradition of stewardship.”
Brent Bible,
Corn & Soybean Farmer,
Farmer of the Soil Health Partnership (Indiana)
“As a corn producer, my highest input cost after land and seed is fertilizer, specifically nitrogen.  A tool that can objectively verify, with confidence, ways to make more efficient use of this input will absolutely help us save money and reduce our environmental footprint. In a time where profit may be measured in single dollars per acre, NutrientStar has can positively impact the economic return for our operation.”
Todd Hesterman,
Farmer and Certified Crop Advisor
“We really don’t know which nutrient management tools work, since there isn’t adequate data to prove their efficacy. I welcome NutrientStar as a way to help me make better decisions on fertilizer efficiency products.”

Bruce Knight,
Consultant and former Chief,
Natural Resources Conservation Service

“The more we can help farmers meet the dual challenges of increased production and greater fertilizer efficiency, the better off we’ll be. Programs like NutrientStar that step into the void by providing third-party, unbiased efficacy information and ratings not served by university or government agencies is a big step forward in helping them meet those challenges.”
Fred Yoder, 
Farmer and Chairman of the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance

“The Paris Climate Accord didn’t include specifications for agriculture, but that won’t stop global momentum for climate-smart agriculture practices. [Farmers] are invested in stewardship because land is their livelihood. Margins are tight these days, so it makes great sense to strive to do better in stabilizing the nutrients in the soil profile. NutrientStar is a proven way to help farmers reduce the environmental impacts of farming, with great potential for reducing input costs."

“NutrientStar is the first-ever review program to provide farmers, their advisors, and agricultural supply chain companies with reliable data on the performance of these popular tools,” added John McGuire, EDF advisor and precision agriculture expert. “Farmers need certainty that the tools they purchase will work as advertised." He went on to add, “NutrientStar also enables farmers to more easily execute the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship, which include applying fertilizer at the right source, the right rate, the right time, and the right place."

Fertilizer management tools reviewed through NutrientStar include enhanced efficiency fertilizer compounds, such as nitrogen stabilizers, and decision support tools, such as optical sensor technologies or models used to aid nutrient applications in the field. Tools and products already assessed or soon to be assessed include:

  • Adapt-N (made by Agronomic Technology Corp.), an online software program that uses a linked crop model and soil model to estimate nitrogen rates for individual fields or areas within fields.
  • Fertilizer management products including N-Serve® (made by Dow AgroSciences); AGROTAIN®,AGROTAIN PLUS®, and SUPER U® (made by Koch Agronomic Services).
  • Reviews being made public this spring include: Nutrisphere N (made by Verdesian); Instinct II, ESN (made by Agrium); DCD; Thiosulfate; and, Slow Release Foliar N products made from methylene urea.
  • Assessments later in 2016 will focus on Fieldview Pro Nitrogen Advisor (made by Climate Corporation) andEncirca (made by DuPont Pioneer).

An independent review panel, composed of leading soil and agronomy scientists from across the country, establishes the criteria for NutrientStar review. The panel assesses tools based upon available data demonstrating their ability to improve nutrient use efficiency, defined as unit of yield over unit of applied nutrient, in the field. NutrientStar review will also show yield impacts from use of a tool and summarize key characteristics important to farmers and advisors such as cost/benefit, ease of use, and required data inputs.