For years, those working in the UK local agricultural industry have been faced with the delicate balancing act of making sure crops have enough nutrients to grow while protecting ground and surface water from being overloaded with nitrogen — a phenomenon scientists have blamed for harmful algae blooms.
Now, Suffolk County sweet corn farmers have a new tool to work with in the ongoing battle to reduce nitrogen loading in local waters. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk Countyannounced this week that they are partnering with the American Farmland Trust and Agflex, Inc., to have participating farmers experiment with an innovative fertilizer technology on their crops called controlled-release nitrogen fertilizer.
The fertilizer is designed to break down over time according to the plant’s need for nutrients, unlike conventional fertilizer that is water-soluble and will dissolve from heavy rain. Suffolk County’s sandy soils, especially during spring rains, are susceptible to leaching of nitrogen from conventional nitrogen fertilizer.
To Joe Gergela, president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, any more efficient way to help farmers maintain their balance act is a good thing. He says about 20 local growers are participating in the experiment.
“Our local industry is responsive to best management practices,” he said. “In order to farm, we need three things — water, sun, and nutrients, and those nutrients come from fertilizer. And as that technology improves — i.e. the slow release fertilizer — many are cooperating with Cornell to study it and see how it works.”
Years ago, Gergela, a former potato farmer, said that farmers would use a lot of fertilizer at once in the spring, but if heavy rains came through, much of the nutrients would wind up being wasted and flow directly into the ground and eventually seep into bay water.
“With this they’ll be able to cut down the amount of fertilizer applied at once, but we need to see how effectively the plant picks up the nutrients,” he said. “And different crops have different balances.”
Participating farmers will apply controlled release nitrogen fertilizer and conventional fertilizer in large field demonstration projects so that a direct side-by-side comparison can be made. Each project will be at least eight planted rows wide running the full length of the field to allow for adequate harvest for yield/quality assessment. If there is a loss in yield and / or quality due to nutrient insufficiency of the controlled-release fertilizer, the farmer will be reimbursed for the difference.
But, according to a statement from Cornell, due to extensive research trials using the new fertilizer in sweet corn production, it is anticipated the farmers will not experience substantial losses due to adoption of the new fertilizer and that cost savings from reduced use of equipment and fuel will offset increased costs.
According to Gergela, local farmers are often cautious about adopting new conservation practices, as they are unsure of what its effect will be on their crop production. Financial risk is a particular concern for Suffolk County farmers producing high value specialty crops such as sweet corn. Farmers risk losing thousands of dollars if crop yield and quality drops due to a change in their management practice.
Farmers participating in this collaborative project will be part of the "BMP Challenge system," which reimburses farmers who experience any reduction in their harvest after utilizing approved conservation practices.
“Farmers invest substantial time, effort and dollars in getting their crops to harvest”, said Dr. Tom Green, President of Agflex. “The BMP challenge protects that investment for farmers so they don’t have to ‘bet the farm’ on new techniques. It’s a win-win for the farmer and for water quality.”
Suffolk County is home to nearly 600 farms that manage more than 34,000 acres of farmland. According to the 2010 U.S. Census of Agriculture, Suffolk County farms sold over $300 million in farm products, more than any other county in New York State.
Suffolk County accounts for approximately 1.3 percent of the Long Island Sound’s total watershed area, contributing harmful nitrogen levels from both point and nonpoint sources into the Sound, according to Cornell. Using the LI Sound Study Nitrogen Influx Reduction model developed by the county, with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, it was estimated that nonpoint sources account for 72 to 82 percent of the total nitrogen from Suffolk County into the Sound. Nonpoint sources of nitrogen include septic systems and fertilizer application from farms and lawns.
“We are thrilled to have this opportunity to work with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County to help Long Island’s sweet corn growers improve local water quality by encouraging conservation practices that have proven successful in other parts of the country and other agricultural sectors," David Haight of American Farmland Trust said in a statement. "This project will help demonstrate that it is possible to reduce the fertilizers while maintaining profitability.”