14, 2006: Good news! I just passed a service station
this morning and I see fuel prices actually dropped a few
more cents per gallon for unleaded gas. But diesel prices
still remain high.
This situation prompts several questions in my mind:
Here’s question number one. I know nothing about the
refinery business, so my question to you may seem a bit naïve:
If diesel fuel is a less-refined product than gasoline, why
does it cost more? I especially wonder this given the fact
that most of the customers for diesel use it in a commercial
Whether you run a conventional farm or are certified organic,
higher fuel costs will affect your bottom line in more ways
than one. As we look toward next year’s field season,
this may have an impact on how you manage your resources.
So, here’s question number two. Why does the price
of nitrogen fertilizer go up when energy and fuel prices go
up? The answer to this question is easier than the answer
to question number one because it’s based on science—not
politics and economics. Nitrogen is a gas that makes up about
78 percent of the atmosphere we breathe.
The problem is most plants can’t use it in this form,
so we’ve figured out a long time ago how to mix air
(containing nitrogen) with natural gas (an energy source),
put it under pressure of between 300 and 1,000 atmospheres
and heat it to about 900°F and “wa-la” (the
way we say voilà around here)—you have anhydrous
ammonia or a nitrogen source that plants can use.
Now, many of you might not use anhydrous ammonia, but most
other forms of nitrogen fertilizer start with anhydrous ammonia
as their base. Urea, for example, is created through a reaction
of anhydrous ammonia and carbon dioxide under additional heat
and pressure, so the cost of production is directly linked
to the cost of natural gas.
Now we come to question number three. What can we, as farmers,
do about all of this?
There isn’t much we can do about the cost of energy
or fuel, but we can do a lot to minimize the impact these
costs have on our operations.
Here are several things to get you started:
First, start by getting overwintering cover crops into your
rotation to lock up soil nutrients. Even if you aren’t
certified organic, cover crops should be one of the tools
you have in your tool box. Say, for example, you purchased
nitrogen fertilizer, or used animal manure and applied it
last spring on your fields. Some of that nutrient mix didn’t
get taken up by this year’s crop. Unless you trap it
this fall with a green and growing cover crop, it will leach
out of your soil and end up in the ground water where you’ll
never get to reclaim it. So, plant that cover crop and sponge
up the extra nitrogen you’ve already bought.
Next, think about how you can “grow your own”
nitrogen with legume cover crops. You know that 78 percent
of the atmosphere is nitrogen and that legumes have the ability
to “fix” or take nitrogen out of the air and,
through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the root
zone, turn it into a form other plants (your crops) can use.
So why not use legumes to supply most, if not all, of your
You should see if you can cut input costs by taking a closer
look at your overall fertilizer needs. You may find out that
by setting more realistic yield goals and not over-fertilizing
your fields you can save more than enough dollars to buy the
And here’s the last question that really gets us back
to my first comments. Why are we making so many trips across
our fields in the first place, burning up that valuable diesel
Of course we need to get our crops in the field and get them
back out at harvest time. But do we, as organic (or non-organic)
row-crop farmers, really need to make 8, 9, or even 10 trips
across the field to do our primary tillage and secondary tillage
passes, planting, then the weed management through several
cultivations, and then harvest the crop when we should be
looking more closely at organic no-till?
If you haven’t read about our organic no-till into
cover crop work, you should. This fascinating system takes
advantage of those cover crops—which already shield
us from high energy costs—by putting them to work managing
our weeds and mulching the soil. Visit our No-Till
Plus Page to read more about it.
As the true cost of energy from oil begins to play a larger
roll in each of our operations, we’ll all need to keep
asking ourselves these and other questions that grow out of
a life when fossil fuel costs were less important, relatively
I believe more and more farmers—conventional and organic—will
be taking a much closer look at cover crops and no-till opportunities
to manage their energy needs. Many of the farmers who checked
out cover crops to cut costs in the ‘70s and ’80
found they could save money, but they also realized how much
more rewarding, and promising, it was to farm with nature
rather than to use energy to try to fight it. And they never
Right now, I’m running out of energy. It’s time
From One Farm to Another